Throughout this blog, my emphasis has been on possible responses to the impacts of climate change. I divided the responses into three categories: mitigation, adaptation and doing nothing. ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, recommends doing nothing, reasoning that if something bad happens, Exxon can and will fix it (June 4 blog). I, among many others, have recommended that ongoing efforts include a combination of mitigation and adaptation. This is taking place, but at a pace that many of us find wanting. The doing nothing now approach does not involve spending any money upfront – but the rebuilding necessary after a furious storm like Sandy (whose scope is at least partially a result of climate change) does. Two weeks ago (May 21 blog), I introduced the concept of “adaptive rebuilding”– by using financial incentives to encourage people to move to less vulnerable areas, we can minimize future impact, preventing unnecessary suffering and death. Financially, this involves a choice between spending money for prevention now, or potentially (probably) spending much larger sums rebuilding later. As I have mentioned previously, predicting the latter amount is very uncertain and many people hate to spend money on uncertainties.
In Tokyo they have decided to spend the money now. A Bloomberg News article describes it in the following way:
Tokyo Prepares for a Once-in-200-Year Flood to Top Sandy
Tokyo, the world’s most populated metropolis, is building defenses for the possibility of a flood in the next 200 years that could dwarf the damage superstorm Sandy wrought on the U.S. East Coast. Japan’s capital, flanked by rivers to the east and west, as well as running through it, faces 33 trillion yen ($322 billion) in damages should the banks break on the Arakawa River that bisects Tokyo, according to government estimates. That’s more than five times the $60.2 billion aid package for Sandy that slammed into the U.S. northeast last October. “Japan hasn’t prepared enough,” said Toru Sueoka, president of the Japanese Geotechnical Society, an organization of engineers, consultants and researchers. “Weather patterns have changed and we are getting unusual conditions. We need upgrades or else our cities won’t be able to cope with floods.”
After Sandy, there were some thoughts in New York City to respond in a similar way, but the city and the country were not in a mood at that time to spend large sums of money on uncertain predictions of future events. Even before Sandy, NYC decided that with the future uncertain, the smart plan was to adopt a strategy of “flexible adaptation.” This term comes from a 2010 report issued by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) – a group assembled by Mayor Bloomberg (see “Climate Change Adaptation in New York City: Building a Risk Management Response.”
The Executive Summary of this report recommends the following actions:
Recommendations arising from the NPCC work include a broad range of policy-relevant suggestions, some focused on critical infrastructure and some focused on broader-scale actions, many of which the city and the Task Force are already doing. In addition, the NPCC identified several key areas for further study that are needed to help the city develop a comprehensive, risk- andscience-based adaptation program.
- Adopt a risk-based approach to develop Flexible Adaptation Pathways, which includes regular reviews of the city’s adaptation program.
- Create a mandate for an ongoing body of experts that provides advice and prepares tools related to climate change adaptation for the City of New York. Areas that could be addressed by this body include regular updates to climate change projections, improved mapping and geographic data, and periodic assessments of climate change impacts and adaptation for New York City to inform a broad spectrum of climate change adaptation policies and programs.
- Establish a climate change monitoring program to track and analyze key climate change factors, impacts, and adaptation indicators in New York City, as well as to study relevant advances in research on related topics. This involves creating a network of monitoring systems and organizations and a region-wide indicator database for analysis.
- Include multiple layers of government and awide range of public and private stakeholder experts to build buy-in and crucial partnerships for coordinated adaptation strategies. Include the private sector in these interactions.
- Conduct a review of standards and codes to evaluate their revision to meet climate challenges, or the development of new codes and regulations that increase the city’s resilience toclimate change. Develop design standards, specifications, and regulations that take climate change into account, and hence are prospective in nature rather than retrospective. New York City should work with FEMA and NOAA to update the FIRMs and SLOSH maps to include climate change projections.
- Work with the insurance industry to facilitate the use of risk-sharing mechanisms to address climate change impacts.
- Focus on strategies for responding to near- and mid-term incremental changes (e.g., temperature and precipitation changes) as well as long-term low-probability, high-impact events (e.g., catastrophic storm surges exacerbated by sea level rise).
- Pay particular attention to early win–win adaptation strategies, such as those that have near-term benefits or meet multiple goals (greenhouse gas mitigation, emergency planning, etc.).
For the fall 2012 semester, which started at the end of August, I decided to base my course curriculum on investigating the City’s response to the report. In October, when Sandy hit, the course’s focus shifted instead to an analysis of Sandy’s impact, with some references to the report. Students published their results on the class webpage.
The essence of the flexible response, as defined in the report, was to create a mechanism to continuously reevaluate the likelihood of various future impacts and adjust adaptation policy accordingly. It seemed a rational answer in the face of an uncertain future. In reality, however, as class work showed, not much was done to build the infrastructure to actually implement such a plan. For a short time, our experience of Sandy’s drastic effects has shifted our collective attention to this debate, leading us to question the wisdom of after-the fact worse-case scenario adaptation. We find ourselves facing a similar quandary to the one that now takes place in Tokyo. The potential for equally disastrous future weather events is certainly there. The question is: how will we respond?