How to Fight Climate Change and Rebuild a Stricken City

Despite the fact that New Yorkers live on several different islands, straddling the mouth of a great tidal river, on the edge of a storm-tossed ocean, city transit workers rightly pride themselves on their ability to effectively and safely transport New York’s seven million inhabitants, 75% of whom do not own a car, day in, day out, 24/7.

However, personally, I’ve always maintained that the single best way to get around my adopted city is by bike.  While my two-wheeled personal chariot isn’t for everyone – and, as winter draws near, often not for me, it nevertheless offers one of the quickest, if not necessarily the safest, ways to navigate the concrete and steel canyons of New York City.

When some of those canyons are newly formed waterways, obstructed by the occasional upturned house, subway stations are cavernous underground swimming pools and transit tunnels connecting the outer boroughs and Long Island to Manhattan have been converted into mile-long gigantic electro-chemical cells made from millions of gallons of sea water and ample amounts of corroding metals, getting around by bike suddenly becomes the only viable way of efficiently plotting a route through this tortured city, ripped asunder by Frankenstorm Sandy.

The dislocation of this intricate web of interconnected arteries of communication and travel, along with hundreds of thousands of people still without power and thousands no longer with homes, has brought the city to its knees.  Normally crackling with energy and throbbing with life, biking through a desolate, darkened and almost deserted Downtown, where huge slices of lower Manhattan are still without power, is eerily reminiscent of the days after 9/11.

The inadequacy of the city’s preparedness for the kind of extreme weather events that are becoming all too common as a result of climate change-enhanced impacts can be seen from space – with satellite photos showing a large swath of lower Manhattan and other areas of the eastern seaboard still shrouded in darkness. If this is the ‘best-prepared city in America’ to deal with climate change, as Mayor Bloomberg has claimed as a result of his environmental initiatives, then God help everyone else.

It may have taken a gargantuan storm of epic proportions, and the wiping out of large parts of the Atlantic coast of the United States, to get politicians talking about the reality of climate change, but NY Governor Cuomo did finally manage to stare reality in the face and muster enough political courage, post-storm, to say that it illustrated there “is the recognition that climate change is a reality; extreme weather is a reality; it is a reality that we are vulnerable”; while going on to admit, “Protecting this state from coastal flooding is a massive, massive undertaking. But it’s a conversation I think is overdue.”  Millions of New Yorkers would no doubt strongly agree.

In a study carried out in 2009 by Stony Brook University’s Storm Surge Research Group, the cost of installing flood defenses for the city was put at $10 billion.  However, as one of the authors of the report, oceanography professor Malcolm Bowman commented after Sandy, “At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be surprised if fixing the city up from this catastrophe costs more than that easily,” before adding, “And it could happen again in the next year.”

Just two months ago engineer Douglas Hill, part of the same group at Stony Brook warned, “They lack a sense of urgency about this,” as the New York Times reported,

“Instead of “planning to be flooded,” as [Hill] put it, city, state and federal agencies should be investing in protection like sea gates that could close during a storm and block a surge from Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean into the East River and New York Harbor.”

While it is still too early to say with any assurance, rough early estimates of the cost of getting New York back on its feet are $25 billion – which doesn’t even account for putting in place new flood defense mechanisms, nor the ongoing oceans of human suffering that is a result of this year’s storm.

Mayor Bloomberg, despite not a whisper of the phrase during the presidential campaign, has just endorsed President Obama on the basis that he will do something more substantial about climate change than a President Romney.

On the face of it, that seems hard to argue with; however, it’s also a pretty low bar, one which you’d have to be rather feeble not to be able to rise to.  When you’ve got a life-threatening fever, the difference between someone ignoring you completely, versus stopping to briefly offer some kindly words of encouragement, isn’t going to noticeably improve your chances of survival, even if you temporarily feel a bit better with the second approach.  A much more pertinent question with regard to climate change is: would Obama do enough?

We can begin our examination of this question by asking it of our billionaire mayor.  Self-evidently, whatever Bloomberg thought he was prepared for, forward planning by the city to cope with a weather event like Sandy was, to put it mildly, inadequate. 

The fact is an event like Sandy was all too predictable – and indeed predicted. Three years ago, the panel of experts that Mayor Bloomberg had convened to investigate the likely impact of climate change on New York, aptly named the New York City Panel on Climate Change, gave its initial report.  It stated that average temperatures in New York City had already increased by 2.50F over the last 100 years, while sea levels had risen by a foot in the same time period.

These facts have already caused increased health impacts and costs from heat stress as the number of days over 90 degrees has increased, along with the vulnerability of low lying coastal areas – New York has 520 miles of coastline to protect and 200,000 people live no more than four feet above high tide.  The panel predicted another 1.5-30F average increase by 2020, along with another 2-5 inches of sea-level rise.  The fuel for hurricanes is warm surface ocean temperature and increased humidity and air temperature – all outcomes of global warming.  Under the sub-section titled “Sea level rise-related impacts may include”, the three year old report outlined as areas for particular concern:

*  Inundation of low-lying areas & wetlands

* Increased structural damage & impaired operations

At the release of the report, in what is now a particularly damning quote, Bloomberg had this to say: “Planning for climate change today is less expensive than rebuilding an entire network after the catastrophe…We cannot wait until after our infrastructure has been compromised to begin to plan for the effects of climate change now”.  In the same year, an MTA report on sustainability and resilience warned that global warming posed, “a new and potentially dire challenge for which the M.T.A. system is largely unprepared.”

No one can say the city and the people we elect to act as our guardians weren’t given a taste of what was possible.  Almost a year to the day, we received fair warning from Hurricane Irene, which forced the evacuation of 350,000 people from the flood prone areas of New York, now designated the dreaded “Zone A”.  Having occurred once and had a lucky escape, how could we imagine it might not happen again and be potentially worse?

In fact, as outlined above, Bloomberg’s own report indicated how at risk the city was.  More recently, in September, a shocking article in light of the storm this week, the New York Times, in a piece titled, “New York Is Lagging as Seas and Risks Rise, Critics Warn”, cited Klaus H. Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, that Irene’s flood waters had come within six inches of inundating the subway system, other low-lying areas of NYC and paralyzing the city for weeks or months, exactly as has now come to pass with Sandy.

As an author of the state study, Jacob had this to say: “We’ve been extremely lucky…I’m disappointed that the political process hasn’t recognized that we’re playing Russian roulette.”

If the empty chamber was Irene, we bought the bullet with Sandy. Furthermore, many of the flooded areas that are not being talked about in the media, which is concentrating on lower Manhattan, areas around the coastline of Brooklyn and Queens that are the industrial hub of New York, where many working class and lower income people live, contain toxic sites and chemical storage areas,.  If one lays a map of the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory sites over a map of Zone A, one finds a strong correlation.  These all need to be assessed, checked for safety and their flood defenses hugely enhanced as quickly as possible.

Except of course, due to the dictates of capital locally, the electoral priorities of politicians, and the geostrategic interests of the US state federally, along with the power of the fossil fuel corporations and the inherent short-termism built into the structure of capitalism, there was no money for the kind of infrastructural changes that were so clearly urgently required.

New York City is not preventing the conversion of more ocean-front property located on top of flood plains into ill-conceived, short-term money-spinners for realtors and land speculators, either through buying the land or implementing tougher development criteria, as some other US cities have done.  Nor did Con Edison spend the $250 million in investment the company deemed necessary to install submersible switches and move high-voltage transformers above ground level, things that may have prevented the explosion that wiped out electricity in lower Manhattan – even though the company made $1 billion in profit last year.

$10 billion for flood defense is less than half of Mayor Bloomberg’s estimated wealth, at $25 billion.  If the mayor really wanted to go down in the history books and have generations of future New Yorkers think of him as a human being rather than an uber-rich financial parasite who managed to buy himself a third term, he could give $10 billion to the city for flood defense and still be a multi-billionaire!

Now that politicians have suddenly realized that New York is, in fact, a coastal city, and extreme weather events are an outcome of another very real phenomenon, climate change, we need to spend billions to make the necessary changes to city infrastructure and preparedness and replicate those changes across the country.  Sea-level in New York has already risen a foot over the last 100 years, and it’s accelerating.  As sea level continues to rise if we continue not to act on the burning of fossil fuels, even relatively minor storms will begin to cause problems, let alone a repeat of something like Irene or Sandy.

Yet, according to an MIT report, perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States ranks among the regions of the world with the least number of cities that are making preparations for climate change, even though, as it’s also the richest, it would be the most capable of adapting and strengthening the resilience of its urban areas.  The report states:

“Among 468 cities worldwide that participated in the survey, 79 percent have seen changes in temperature, rainfall, sea level or other phenomena attributable to climate change; 68 percent are pursuing plans for adapting to climate change”

As a result, a full 95% of cities in Latin America are taking action, yet the figure for the US is just 59%, most of them focused not on building resilience to rising sea-levels or stronger storms per se, but more on reducing carbon footprints.

But rather than build massive sea gates like some mediaeval fortress, let’s build a city worthy of the 21st century. While those sorts of technological solutions may well be necessary in the short term, let’s rebuild natural flood defenses such as the vast oyster beds which used to surround New York harbor until the water became too polluted for them to survive.

Instead of ripping up and paving over marshland and other wetlands with impermeable concrete to build roads, parking lots and marginal beach front developments, let’s employ people to reclaim the land for natural flood defenses and water purification activities that will not only make New Yorkers much safer, give people meaningful and socially useful employment, but also hugely enhance the stability and variety of local wildlife.

Let’s start with that and then see what else needs doing over the shorter term, which will likely include extra sea defenses, as well as lots of things that can be done to enhance the safety and security from flooding with subway tunnels, electricity sub-stations and so on.

New York’s antiquated and totally inadequate sewage treatment system needs a complete overhaul as almost any heavy rainstorm means that untreated sewage goes straight into the rivers and ocean as the system becomes overloaded with run-off. According to the city, only 41% of city bridges are in good repair.  The city only recycles 15% of its vast solid waste output, the rest going to landfill.  While a comprehensive set of solutions is well beyond the scope of this article, it’s obvious even from these few suggestions, that what’s preventing us from enacting these changes isn’t a technological deficiency, but a social and political one.

Looking further ahead, we clearly need a more robust public transit system, which would include taking the vast majority of cars out of Manhattan and replacing many of the roads with trams and bike lanes. These are just some of things that could be done while employing tens of thousands of people.  If money is required, let’s tax the rich, remove subsidies from the fossil fuel and nuclear corporations and make sure that the 2/3’s of US corporations who currently pay no income tax have their loopholes closed so they can’t offshore their profits just like they do their workers.  If we need more, let’s radically reduce the budget to the US military, which is the world’s single largest producer of greenhouse gases – not to mention violence and death.

Looking at this, it’s clear however, that whatever we force Bloomberg to do, and whichever representative of the 1% follows him as mayor of New York, it won’t make any difference if we can’t force change on the federal level.  A microcosm of Obama’s inadequacies on dealing with climate change, Bloomberg’s PlaNYC is patently not nearly enough to do the job for NYC in much the same way that Obama’s plans haven’t “slowed the rise of the oceans”.

President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C., Joshua Schank commented on the role of the federal government under Obama in hampering progress:

“The federal government has been, for the most part, denying the existence of climate change, and that has unfortunately extended to transportation funding and transportation planning processes, which do not account for adaptation to climate change…And that is part of why we saw the devastation that we saw today, because we haven’t been acknowledging it and, therefore, we haven’t planned to adapt to it or made changes to reduce emissions.”

But Obama’s role in retarding progress on climate action is much worse than this. In a stunning revelation in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, it’s reported that, in an off-the-record meeting with environmental activists and administration officials, the Obama Whitehouse took a decision in 2009 – when the Democrats had super-majorities in both Houses of Congress and large amounts of political capital – to abandon the phrase “climate change” and back down on the fight.  This u-turn coming a bare 12 months after being elected in large part on promises to put taking action on climate change at the forefront of an Obama Administration.

Even worse, at the meeting where this was communicated, were the leaders of some of the largest and most influential environmental organizations who all went along with what the Administration was asking them – to ditch the word climate change, along with their political principles.

At the meeting were leaders of Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and the student-oriented “protest” organization Power Shift, as well as Van Jones.  The Guardian quotes Jessy Tolkan, at that time a leader of Power Shift: “My most vivid memory of that meeting is this idea that you can’t talk about climate change.”

Even the more radical Bill McKibben of 350.org agreed to shift his emphasis in order not to embarrass the administration and secretly acquiesce to the demand.   Presumably, in the hopelessly forlorn and deeply misguided belief that Obama, in defiance of all logic, would somehow be better able to act if he never mentioned the reason behind the necessity of making any changes in energy, transportation, housing or infrastructure spending to make it more sustainable and less carbon and energy intensive.

In fact, after that sell-out, the Democrats couldn’t even pass the weakest and most ineffectual of climate bills because they were hamstrung by their decision not to talk about climate change – the whole point of the failed bipartisan Waxman-Markey Energy Bill.   A decision which has since of course opened the door to climate change being denied entirely by the ever-rightward tracking, anti-science wing of the  Republican Party, and allowed climate deniers to gain the upper hand.

Therefore, those environmental leaders at that meeting with the Obama administration, must shoulder some of the blame for the fact that there was no mention of climate change in the presidential debates and that nothing meaningful on the scale required has been done to tackle it.  To the extent that hundreds of thousands of people along the east coast are now trying to live without electricity or running water because there was insufficient political pressure on politicians to act in our interests, rather than those of their corporate paymasters.

Rather than sitting in plush congressional offices lobbying Democrats, if those highly influential environmental organizations had spent their time and not insignificant wealth launching a people’s campaign of uncompromising resistance to mainstream politicians and the corporations whose bidding they carry out, under the slogan popularized at the Copenhagen climate protests in 2009, “System Change not Climate Change”, where might the movement have been by now?  What could we have achieved?   As I survey a broken city, surely more than we have?

Because, despite this silence from the large environmental organizations and Democrats, and following a rapid decline in news about climate change in the US media from 2009 to 2011, in another sign of how dislocated politicians are from reality, according to the latest polls 70% of the American public believes that climate change is a real phenomenon that requires action.

As I argued in a previous piece, real answers will only come from the people – when we manage to organize and fight for the things we need through a radical change in social power – from them to us.  Because, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. from his speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”, as he tried to assess where the civil rights movement should go in 1967, having achieved legal political equality, he reasoned that we have to begin to ask more fundamental questions about ownership and economic rights that go to the heart of the system:

“We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.  There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?”  And when you ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.  When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy…And you see my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?”  You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?”  You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two third’s water?”

Those are exactly the kind of questions a new movement for social and ecological justice must ask.

Chris Williams is a professor in the Dept of Chemistry & Physical Science, Pace University and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010)

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