Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Weather Extremes and Public Policy

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The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a story yesterday about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s choices while the NJ coast is rebuilt post-Sandy.  As a scientist, I agree with other experts that planners need to incorporate climate change projections in their work.  As a scientist transitioning to public policy, I agree with Gov. Christie that the causal link between climate change and Sandy doesn’t matter to victims of the storm in the immediate aftermath.  What does matter?  Today’s infrastructure is clearly not capable of withstanding today’s weather extremes, as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy demonstrated.  Both disasters showed it doesn’t matter whether sub-standard infrastructure protects a location (New Orleans) or whether standard or better infrastructure (NY & NJ) does.  The first issue is our standards, not the weather.  The second issue is mitigation and adaptation to a changing climate.

Of course politics are involved.  Gov. Christie’s reelection is this upcoming November.  If victims think their needs are unmet or the NJ coast is not open for tourism this summer, his reelection chances will take a hit.  This political reality will butt up against physical reality.  Sandy occurred in today’s climate.  She wasn’t particularly strong at landfall as hurricanes go in the Atlantic basin (nowhere near Hurricane Katrina or other historic storms).  A unique set of weather events combined to amplify Sandy’s effects.

The mid-20th century buildup of human infrastructure along the coast with minimal consideration of severe weather effects drove Sandy’s costs.  Without buildings abutting the ocean, the storm surge would not have damaged anything but wilderness (which we evidently don’t value).  It is foolish to rebuild buildings  without consideration of today’s severe weather.  It is more foolish to not plan for tomorrow’s climate, but it is Gov. Christie’s prerogative to choose his own vision.  What should planners include?

Proper preparation could mean “hardening” infrastructure (moving power lines underground, for example), forbidding construction in flood zones, modifying building codes, and lifting homes off the ground onto pilings. It could mean relocating people to denser developments that are less flood prone or building sea walls on the coast.

If people want to build in flood zones, the rest of us should not bail them out post-disaster.  Risky behavior requires appropriate responsibility for engaging in that behavior.  Some areas might not be safely inhabitable.  It is the government’s responsibility to determine those areas’ locations and issue building permits and assign zones accordingly.  In addition to sea walls, planners should include natural barriers to storm surge.

If sea level rises an additional four feet off the NJ coast, what are the implications for NJ infrastructure (i.e., risk and cost)?  We build infrastructure to last 100 years, so we should require robust planning and construction.  How many citizens are put at risk with each foot of sea level rise?  Do New Jersey residents want to invest in the near-term to reduce long-term risk or do they want to confront that long-term risk at some undetermined point in the future?  What about the rest of Americans?  Our elected officials decided to spend $60 billion on post-Sandy work.  Is that the best use of that money?  Do we want to spend some of that $60 billion on adaptation measures, and if so how much?

The article includes this (emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, Christie faces pushback from a significant interest group, environmentalists, who want a public planning process to determine the future of the Shore. They want decisions made based on science, not politics.

This is a classic environmentalist complaint.  Every decision includes politics.  Climate science is largely federally funded.  Decision makers are largely politicians.  Zoning is political.  There is no pure aspect of science that can issue a non-political decision.  The appeal to scientific purity is a trait of mainstream environmentalism, but it is just as biased as skeptics’ call for no climate science input into decision-making.  Science describes and politics prescribes.  The two are naturally different and intertwined in our technically advanced society.


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