The Terrain Part 3: Mayor Bloomberg’s Maginot.

My two previous blogs in this series (June 4 and June 11) focused on where and when to spend money so as to best combat climate change. Part 1 (June 4) delved into ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson’s widely publicized quote, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” and its follow-up: “As a species that’s why we’re all still here: we have spent our entire existence adapting. So we will adapt to this. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.” Such statements can be interpreted as saying – don’t bother mitigating the consequences of climate change while burning our fossil fuels; if something bad happens, Exxon will fix it.

Part 2 in this series (June 11) looked into the major spending necessary for adapting to the consequences of climate change. Here again, the choice balanced between two options. One involved implementing adaptations now, to prepare for a “worst case” scenario, (a measure that isolates only those that can afford it from the consequences). The other lay in closely monitoring impacts, so as to design a flexible adaptation plan that could be constantly updated and adjusted based on newer/ better data. The two examples that I have used are Tokyo, with its new massive adaptation plan that is focused on preventing a future Black Swan and New York City, whose report, “Climate Change Adaptation in New York City,” was anchored in flexible adaptation.

My original plan was to finish this series with this blog—weighing the issues involved in choosing between spending the money on adaptation or mitigation; advocating a balance between the two efforts. As often happens in this business, however, events in the real world “interfere” with our best plans: Mayor Bloomberg has just announced a comprehensive strategy to fight the impact of Sandy. The panel that the mayor convened in December 2012 (two months after Sandy) just issued a report titled, “A Stronger, More Resilient, New York,” which is posted on the PlaNYC2030 site. It is a very detailed report (445 pages) with precise descriptions of Sandy’s impact, as well as specific steps that the city needs to take to limit future damage from storms such as Sandy. To quote the report itself, the goal is, “producing a truly sustainable 21st century New York.”

The foreword from the Mayor includes a summary of the recommendations:

It is impossible to know what the future holds for New York. But if this plan is brought to life in the years and decades ahead, a major storm that hits New York will find a much stronger, better protected city.

In our vision of a stronger, more resilient city, many vulnerable neighborhoods will sit behind an array of coastal defenses. Waves rushing toward the coastline will, in some places, be weakened by off shore breakwaters or wetlands, while waves that do reach the shore will find more nourished beaches and dunes that will shield inland communities. In other areas, permanent and temporary flood walls will hold back rising waters, and storm surge will meet raised and reinforced bulkheads, tide gates, and other coastal protections.

…Of course, if this plan is implemented, New York City will not be “climate-change proof”—an impossible goal—but it will be far safer and more resilient than it is today. While no one can say with certainty exactly how much safer, the climate analysis in Chapter 2 shows that the investments recommended in this plan certainly will be worthwhile. Lives will be saved and many catastrophic losses avoided. For example, while Sandy caused about $19 billion in losses for our city, rising sea levels and ocean temperatures mean that by the 2050s, a storm like Sandy could cause an estimated $90 billion in losses (in current dollars)—almost five times as much.

The first question that sprang to mind as I read was the extent of the connection (if any) between this report and the previous adaptation report. I realize that both were issued by panels convened by the mayor, but while the first panel had a dominant level of academic participation, the credentials of the more recent panel were not listed in the report. I scanned the report for “flexible adaptation” and found nothing; likewise when I searched for background references.

The steps that were recommended with great geographical detail include almost all of the methods currently being used globally to protect against impacts. Yes, the price seems high, but it is not nearly as expensive when directly compared to the after-the-fact cost of damages caused by a single major storm such as Sandy or Katrina. Among the recommendations are changes to the building codes, the funding for which the Mayor said is secured. Other than that, much is uncertain; the next New York City Hall elections are scheduled to take place in November 2013. Since Mayor Bloomberg is not going to run for another term (his fourth), the process of implementation is left to the next administration.

Each of the proposed measures is directly based on the lessons New York learned from its experience of Sandy’s impact. In military terminology, this kind of strategy is known as “fighting the last war,” and is often used to describe a losing proposition based on out-of-date information. Probably the “best” example of this strategy, and its pitfalls, is the Maginot Line, the French structure of concrete fortifications built along the French-German border in the 1930s. The line, which was constructed based on the French experience from World War I, was designed to block a future German Invasion from that front. On May 1940, however, the Germans didn’t challenge the line but went instead through Belgium, quickly defeating the French army and conquering France.

Conditions and impacts change and we must therefore change our adaptation strategies as well. I find it unsurprising that there was a mute, polite, response to the Mayor’s proposal. The consensus seems to be that it will pan out in a manner not much different from the adaptation report from 2010. Maybe that parallel will expand, and some guy like me will use some class time two years from now to investigate what has been implemented, and/or accomplished. Hopefully it will not take a repeat of last years’ occurrence– another massive storm with different characteristics than Sandy’s– to show us how much we failed to learn from the experience.

The recent report explores the old routine of constructing adaptation mechanisms based on past events. The track records of such strategies are not promising, especially since in this case, they omitted fundamental issues such as the uncertainty involved in predicting the weather conditions for a somewhat distance future. Such uncertainties need to be matched against the time required to build the infrastructure for the chosen adaptation strategies. To optimize the timing, one needs to put into place an updated network of sensors and constantly compare the local results with the computer-simulated global model predictions. Strategies like this were discussed in the in the 2010 report but not in the more recent one.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs (April 30 and May 21), local adaptation against sea level rise and extreme storms has the unfortunate side effect of shifting the impact to surrounding communities. This is one reason that local adaptation cannot stay completely local (another reason is the need to find sources of funding, an endeavor where coordination contributes to the adaptation policies). Also suspiciously missing from the report, was any mention of the mechanism that we have named “adaptive rebuilding”—which was intended to discourage people from rebuilding in vulnerable zones, as proposed by the Governor of the State of New York.

In my opinion, it probably would have been much more effective to reassemble the team that prepared the 2010 report and ask them to update it in the wake of Sandy.  They would have been able to then incorporate not only the new information they have, but might also have a longer perspective on how to spend the $20 billion now available to better prepare the City for future storms. The 2012 report, as it stands, contains some very useful proposals, such as its emphasis on updating the building codes and securing services such as gas supply, power delivery, transportation and other services following such storms. While these measures that will hopefully make a major contribution to further discussion, they are just that: a start. We can do better. 

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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2 Responses to The Terrain Part 3: Mayor Bloomberg’s Maginot.

  1. chriskoz says:

    I disagree.
    Adaptation alone, individual or societal, without reverting the societal choice of burning FF, will result with bigger damage to the global society due to increased effects of climate change, rather than adaptation and mitigation through cease of FF burning, according to many studies.
    I as an individual have a choice of minimising FF burning: e.g. I don’t have A/C, I drive small car rather than SUV if on-road, or I don’t drive all all (e.g. cycle) when possible. But I see thaqt my efforts are useless when I see thousands of people around me who don’t care: they have A/C, drive SUV, etc. I want my individual efforts to preserve the climate I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime, for my descendants, not to be wasted. I realise that I cannot do it alone. We must do it as society. That’s your definitions “individual as well as a societal choice” are inevitably linked together. That’s why Exxon’s CEO decision to burn or not to burn FF is important and has implications on both. There is no “stereotypical bias” in such attitude.

  2. Professor,
    Burning fossil fuels is an individual as well as a societal choice, so your statement:
    “Such statements can be interpreted as saying – don’t bother mitigating the consequences of climate change while burning our fossil fuels; if something bad happens, Exxon will fix it.” – is at best unreasonable and illustrates a stereotypical bias.
    No energy company will alone build walls for New York or pay for structural upgrading to meet changed building codes for any city. That is a job for the residents as they adapt to changing conditions.
    You might consider The Netherlands, who have adapted and reclaimed low-lying land turning it to productive use, and built significant storm barriers to protect their investment. Contrast that activity with the plight of New Orleans and its below sea level (-12 foot elevation) condition. That citycontinues to sink because of the nature of its location on a deltaic pile of dewatering sand and clay.
    It might be best for both New York and New Orleans to retreat from the sea and create proper buffer zones. The residents of both will make that choice and pay the resulting taxes, or do nothing until the next weather event forces the issue forward once more.
    Adapt, Nature will take its course. Adaption takes many forms and can include lifestyle changes to use less energy or different energy forms that have a lower impact.

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