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03.04.2009
Editorial: That Sinking Feeling

For nearly two decades now, America has responded to the nightmare of global warming with numbing predictability: A report emanates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change charting an ever-wetter future for the world’s coastal cities. Dire predictions are made, color-coded maps brandished, appalled scientists quoted, and polar bears invoked. Then, Al Gore’s flip charts notwithstanding, the whole matter is roundly ignored for another few years.

And so, on February 17, there stood Mayor Bloomberg at a Rockaway water treatment plant, delivering the grim news once again. The data set this time was a newly released report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change that details a familiar litany of heat waves, rainstorms, sundry coastal inundations, and the onslaught of a 100-year flood as often as every 15 years. Sobering stuff, indeed. But the Climate Risk Information Workbook mostly confirms what we already know, that New York should be bracing for summer blackouts, sewer backups, worsening water quality, and snorkelers bobbing in the surf on Water Street. We’ve waded here before.

Granted, the mayor gets credit for making good on a key PlaNYC promise to actually do something about climate change. Funded by a $350,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant, the city’s panel includes respected researchers like Cynthia Rosenzweig of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University’s outspoken geophysicist Klaus Jacob. Its findings will now be taken up by yet another task force of three dozen government agencies, public authorities, and private companies that run the city’s infrastructure and must now figure out how to floodproof New York City.

The report does put a fresh set of numbers to this threat, and the upshot is alarming. By the end of this century, the city’s mean annual temperature will rise as much as 7.5 degrees. Precipitation will increase up to 10 percent. And sea levels will rise by 12 to 23 inches. (If Greenland and Antarctica continue to heat up, the “rapid ice-melt” scenario could mean a jump of more than four feet. Toss in a storm surge, and you’ve got large chunks of Red Hook, Mill Basin, and the city’s two major airports under water.)

What’s to be done? To date, we’ve seen only modest efforts like those at the plant where Bloomberg’s announcement was staged. Mere feet from the ocean, the facility is girding for wave and salt-water damage by hoisting pump motors, circuit breakers, and controls to higher elevations. Elsewhere, the Department of Environmental Protection is reinforcing tide gates and battening down floodwalls to protect low-lying infrastructure. These are laudable efforts. But they’ll be cold comfort to the Rockaway Peninsula’s fantastically vulnerable Arverne residents, who’re going to need a dinghy just to make it to the A train.

If New York is getting wetter, architecture ought to be part of the solution, not the problem. Other cities have turned climate change into design opportunities. Holland’s floating houses, flexibly tethered to the mainland, are the stuff of eco-shelter porn. Hamburg’s HafenCity sensibly raises buildings some 24 feet above sea level, turning waterside quays into public promenades. And London’s Thames Barrier—first used defensively more than a quarter-century ago—remains a symbol of that city’s bracing forward thinking.

Whether it’s renaturalizing portions of the Brooklyn waterfront or designing apartment towers that can sustain a routine soaking, New York needs its own proactive response to the coming deluge. As Mayor Bloomberg pointed out, our failure to act just kicks the burden down the line. “Even in—in fact, especially in—these hard economic times, we’ve got a compelling responsibility to address all of the ramifications of climate change,” he said. “We simply can’t walk away from our duty to future generations.”

It is sadly telling that this report—billed as the most advanced climate-risk study for any world city—puts New York far ahead of its American counterparts. One could well ask why the Rockefeller Foundation is footing the bill for this desperately overdue assessment rather than the federal government, which seems determined to wait for the next Katrina-scale tragedy before owning up to the future.

Jeff Byles