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Is Sandy a ‘Cassandra’? How Cities Should Prepare for Future Natural Disasters

October 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Extreme storms of recent history have made local governments take notice both of their preparedness and the likelihood that climate change is making such disastrous events more and more common. Joseph Romm of Center for American Progress and American Enterprise Institute's Kenneth Green share their perspectives with Ray Suarez.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we take up a question that is being discussed in the wake of the hurricane. Should cities and states start making bigger changes to prepare for the consequences of natural disasters and severe weather?

Ray Suarez has the story as part of our ongoing series on Coping With Climate Change.

RAY SUAREZ: A hurricane in the final days of October fed by warm ocean water slams the Eastern Seaboard. It’s a reminder of how often extreme weather events have been in the news.

Superstorm Sandy battered the coastline, and a record 14-foot storm surge brought New York City to a standstill, leaving the city with potentially staggering repair costs.

All this came just months after the summer heat wave caused harsh droughts throughout the Midwest, and wildfires engulfed entire swathes of Colorado.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the last year, from June of 2011 to July of 2012, was the nation’s warmest year since record-keeping began in 1895. And it’s just over a year ago that Hurricane Irene caused record flooding in the Northeast.

But with Sandy came new records and, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, more pressure for governments to act.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, D-N.Y.: I joke, every two years, we have a 100-year flood. The frequency is way up. It is not prudent to sit here, I believe, at this point and say, well, it’s not going to happen again. Well, once you have that recognition, then what are you doing about it, and what design changes, what construction changes are you making to deal with it?

RAY SUAREZ: As New York struggles to recover from Sandy, Cuomo looked to the long-term, calling for a fundamental rethinking of our built environment.

One key issue, how to protect the New York City subway system, which experienced the worst damage in its 108-year history. Many stations remain submerged under several feet of water, even as limited operations are expected to resume tomorrow.

But infrastructure renovations are not always a clear fix. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has taken a number of steps to make New York a greener city, has not yet proposed a major infrastructure change that might deal with rising water levels. But he warned again today that citizens and policy-makers need to take climate change predictions seriously.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York: It’s not the sort of thing that you can ever say for sure, but the consequences of making a mistake in one direction are pretty severe, and I think what we have to do is learn from this and protect our infrastructure to the extent possible.

The bottom line is, we have lost some people. We have to make sure we help their families and pray for them. We at the same time have to make sure that we go forward here and keep this city going.

RAY SUAREZ: Part of the growing problem, New York’s coastal waters are expected to rise as much as two feet by the middle of the century.

In 2010, outgoing Gov. David Paterson issued a report on the state’s rising sea levels. He recommended building structural barriers and moving population centers away from the coasts.

Some experts say the cost of protecting New York City against floods could run as high as $10 billion.

For a look at the costs and choices U.S. communities are facing, we turn to Joseph Romm, editor of the blog Climate Progress and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group. He’s also the author of “Hell and High Water.” And Kenneth Green, a resident scholar on energy and the environment at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

And, gentlemen, we have heard Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo sort of wrestling out loud with making some of these choices. Knowing what we know, does Philadelphia, does Boston, does New York have to use a changed municipal math to run its daily affairs because of threats of these kinds of things?

Joe Romm?

JOSEPH ROMM, Center for American Progress: Well, I think as Governor Cuomo said, it’s a new normal, but we have old infrastructure.

I think if you listen to client scientists — if we had listened to climate scientists, who had warned that New York City could flood like this, that storm surges were going to increase as the sea levels rose because of global warming and because of more intense storms, we might have prevented it.

Now, I think we need to listen to climate scientists who are warning that sea levels could rise two feet, as you heard, by the middle of the century, but three, four, five and six feet by the end of the century.

So our choices are twofold. We should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so that we’re on the low end of future warming estimates. And, secondly, we have got to start preparing for the storms that we are stuck with, like Hurricane Sandy.

RAY SUAREZ: Gov. Cuomo, Ken Green, used the word prudence. What is prudent at this point?

KENNETH GREEN, American Enterprise Institute: Well, that’s the question. And I agree that we have a lot of infrastructure problems in the country.

Many of our infrastructure problems are actually caused by bad policy, building infrastructure in places without market signals to say how valuable they are and without insurance regimes in place to make sure that they’re maintained and that they’re built to a proper level of safety.

And, as Gov. Cuomo said, the question is, OK, we agree something needs to be done, but what do you do about it?

This is where I will differ with Joe, which is he wants to focus on greenhouse gas emission reductions and spending our money in that direction. I want to focus on ways we build resilience in our cities.

I want to find ways where we have — use markets and use market-like structures to make sure that people aren’t putting themselves in harm’s way because they know they get a free rebuild, that they’re not overbuilding infrastructure in dangerous or sensitive areas because it serves a rich community that actually has connections to city hall.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me stop you there, because whenever you say build more resiliency, obviously, there’s a laundry list of choices there. You can make it absolutely impermeable and bulletproof or just a little safer than it is today, and the cost is going to vary a great deal.

KENNETH GREEN: Oh, that’s right. We will never have a risk-free world. And, in fact, you wouldn’t want one, because with risk comes learning.

But you’re not going to build, for instance, your wastewater treatment plant for a 100-year storm surge. Most of the rest of the time, it would be operating at horrible levels of inefficiency if you overbuilt something that way.

So when I say resilience, it doesn’t mean that we avoid all harm. Resilience means you bounce back efficiently and effectively. And that’s where we need to focus on our efforts, is on building resilience, not resistance.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Joseph Romm, you began the conversation by saying, had we listened to earlier projections, we would be in better shape.

If municipal leaders had gone to the people of that region and said, we have got to get ready, a storm is coming someday. It’s going to cost X-number of dollars to build in protections to the New York City subway system, would you have been able to raise that money? Are people ready to hear that kind of argument?

Or is it now going to be crisis financing, as you try to clean up a very badly damaged system?

JOSEPH ROMM: Well, I think you’re absolutely right, Ray.

I mean, look, people warned at Katrina that New Orleans needed to be able to withstand a Category 5. They didn’t design the levees to withstand it and we see what happened.

Now we see the same thing with Sandy. I think the hope has to be that Sandy isn’t short for Cassandra and that it’s another warning that we ignore.

Absolutely. People now have seen that you can in fact have the worst-case scenario, which was a flooding of the — Lower Manhattan.

And I think any city along the Eastern Seaboard has to ask themselves, what would happen if Hurricane Sandy hit us?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how do we price risk then into the decisions we make both publicly and privately?

Should there be places in New Jersey, in New York where insurance companies say, we don’t want — we don’t want to pay for you to rebuild right there, where the cost of doing so becomes higher and maybe prohibitive for some people?

KENNETH GREEN: There probably should be, yes, because the alternative is, we keep enticing people to place more and more of their value, more and more of their wealth in fragile ecosystems or fragile areas of the environment if we don’t give them the proper price signal on risk.

So, somehow, we have to find a way to get the state out of being the insurer of last resort and get some sort of a more functioning or imitation of a functioning insurance market that prices risk appropriately.

RAY SUAREZ: So who has to be the bad guy then? Is it private business solely, or does government have a hand in saying to people, creating common wisdom on this kind of thing; we just can’t live in the way that we have always lived because the environment’s going to be different?

JOSEPH ROMM: Well, I think there’s no question it’s going to have to be both. It’s ultimately the private sector does most of the construction and rebuilding.

But the government has to be able to come in and tell people, you know, you can’t live in a once-in-a-100-year floodplain because it’s no longer once-in-100-year. Now it’s once in every 10 years.

And, by the way, I think that’s a very good argument for why we have to reduce carbon pollution, because I can’t tell you where the next superstorm will hit.

I just know that you’re going to get another 100-year flood somewhere, and the more that we pollute, the more heat-trapping gases we put in the atmosphere, the more places are going to experience this disaster.

And I agree with Ken completely. You can’t design every single city and every single system for the once-in-1,000-year storm. So let’s not wait by doing nothing on greenhouse gas pollution, so that every place experiences that 1,000-year storm sooner or later.

We need to minimize the number of extreme weather events while we’re designing resilience into the systems we have today.

RAY SUAREZ: Politicians hate to approach people with a can’t-do proposition. Is that why we haven’t heard that much about climate change and the consequences and the need for choices in this latest presidential campaign?

KENNETH GREEN: I don’t think so. I think you’re seeing a poll-driven result. That is, if you look at the polls, a public opinion survey, where people are asked what is of most concern to them, the environment has never ranked particularly highly compared to the economy and opportunities in education and defense and crime and things like that. But that’s been declining over time.

And, in fact, if you unpack the environment section of what people care about, climate tends to rank virtually dead last. People are more concerned with their local environment, air pollution, water pollution, and things like that, which is why we have seen these new poll-tested terms like carbon pollution.

CO2 is the thing I’m exhaling at you right now, right? We breathe out carbon dioxide.

So this is why we’re seeing new these terms, green energy, instead of talking about climate change, is because polls show the people are skeptical and dubious of those kind of motivations. They believe it’s been overblown, and it turns people off.

RAY SUAREZ: Joseph Romm, why haven’t we heard more about this topic during the national campaign?

JOSEPH ROMM: Well, of course, Mitt Romney gets a lot of money from fossil fuel interests. So, that’s one reason he even opposes a clean energy tax credit for wind.

Obama, I think, is just misreading the polls entirely. The latest polling shows that I think Ken is right.

It’s when global warming becomes local that the public becomes concerned about it. And that’s why the polls in the last two years have shown the public is increasingly concerned, and this is particularly true of independent voters also. They are very concerned about their local pollution, but also the extreme weather that they have been seeing.

Who could miss 14 billion-dollar extreme weather disasters in this country last year and over seven this year? It’s just — you know, everyone sees the weather is going crazy, and it’s affecting them.

It’s not going to be affecting a distant people in a distant land a distant time from now. It’s happening here now.

RAY SUAREZ: Joseph Romm, Kenneth Green, gentlemen, thank you both.

KENNETH GREEN: Thank you.

JOSEPH ROMM: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: We have rounded up all of our reporting on these issues. That’s on our Coping With Climate Change page on our website. Take a look.