Will Politicians Actually Heed the Lessons of Sandy?

By Clark A. Miller

This article also appears on Slate.  Arizona State University is a partner in Future Tense with Slate and the New America Foundation.

All storms tell stories. Some are inevitably about destruction. Others are about heroism and resilience in the face of disaster. Still others are inflection points in the larger narratives through which societies confront the major issues of their times.

Among the many stories forming in the wake of Sandy’s devastation of the East Coast, one in particular has begun to seep into the national consciousness. After the storm’s landfall, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg each made separate arguments for new infrastructure to protect New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan from extreme storm surges. Such a project could ultimately cost the city $10 billion or more. In making their cases, both highlighted questions about climate change and its potential to significantly alter the frequency and intensity of future storms. Gone was any notion that Sandy was an exceptional—perhaps one in every 500 years—event. Twice in less than a decade, a powerful hurricane had pummeled an iconic American city and a center of American culture and vibrancy: New Orleans and, now, New York.

On Thursday, Bloomberg took the argument significantly further, unexpectedly endorsing Barack Obama for president with the statement that he is the most likely of the two candidates to seriously address the climate threat confronting the nation. Suddenly, the profound silence about climate change that lingered throughout the campaign ended. Media commentators reiterated their earlier observations about the absence of even a mention of climate change in the presidential debates. The liberal blogosphere exploded with excitement: Would Sandy alter the political dynamics of climate change among the U.S. public? Outside groups (campaign-speak for groups that run ads independently from the two campaigns) launched ads in battleground states Ohio and Virginia replaying footage of Romney joking about climate change during his speech to the Republican National Convention.

Whatever the impact of new attention to climate change on the presidential campaign, however—and I can’t think it will be very significant at this late stage—Cuomo and Bloomberg’s new narrative is likely to profoundly shape the politics of climate change for decades to come. Sandy’s timing is especially poignant in the annals of New York. Until recently, Cuomo has been a balanced but active proponent for drilling for natural gas in New York. This position makes extraordinary economic sense. Cuomo desperately wants to reduce the state’s dependence on aging coal and nuclear power plants while also reducing New York’s need to purchase fuel resources to fire those plants from out of state. In the midst of an unemployment crisis, new jobs from drilling would add a valuable new source of economic vitality for the state. Yet, last month, Cuomo pulled his unequivocal support for new state rules to allow drilling and asked state agencies to revisit the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing. In turn, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has reset its regulatory rule-making process. Cuomo’s final decision will now come in Sandy’s powerful wake.

Opponents of fracking now have a potent new arrow in their quiver in their efforts to persuade Cuomo not to approve drilling. Whatever the short-term merits of natural gas as an energy source, the bottom line is that natural gas is not “clean energy.” Natural gas remains a potent source of carbon. Locking in further dependence on a natural gas infrastructure will not only lock in carbon emissions into the atmosphere for the foreseeable future, further accelerating climate change, but will also create powerful new interests in favor of natural gas drilling and consumption in New York politics for decades to come. How will state agencies come down on the environmental and health costs of natural gas in the wake of Sandy’s crippling blow to the state and its tenuous but highly suggestive link to climate change? Will Cuomo ultimately choose not to endorse drilling for gas? These questions now loom large in New York politics—and their ramifications for broader U.S. politics, already significant, will only grow. Cuomo is a likely candidate for president in 2016, no matter who wins next week. Sandy gives him nearly unquestionable legitimacy to raise climate change as a central security threat to the United States and a profound challenge for the nation. Will he do so? We will have to wait and see.

No less transformative is Bloomberg’s endorsement of Obama. Bloomberg is a far more powerful icon of Wall Street than Romney could ever hope to be, controls a major media empire, and represents for many in the country the kind of moderate, centrist voice for economic policy so absent in the recent political shenanigans in Washington. His endorsement of Obama harms Romney’s claim to represent the historical power of wealthy white plutocrats to successfully run the economy. It also pulls no punches on climate change: “Our climate is changing … [T]his week’s devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action. … We need leadership from the White House. … One [candidate] sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not.”

One of Sandy’s subtle tragedies—and the unspoken backdrop for Bloomberg’s endorsement—is that New York City is far ahead of most other cities in the country in planning for the risks of climate change. Bloomberg observed in his endorsement that New York City has a plan in place to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Far more immediately relevant, in 2008, New York City established a climate adaptation task force designed to explore and assess the vulnerabilities of the city to future climatic shifts. Beginning in 2009, that task force began to release reports detailing the significant challenges facing the city. In late August 2012, the city announced that the task force would expand its focus and become a regular part of the city’s planning efforts. Legislation passed this year authorized the New York Panel on Climate Change, modeled on its international cousin, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to conduct studies every three years of the risks posed to the city by changing climatic conditions. In the wake of Sandy, their work will take on a new and far more profound level of urgency.

Sandy’s story goes even deeper, however. As important as the work of New York and its leaders will be, New York’s problems are a drop in the bucket compared with those facing the United States as a whole. The truth is that engineered infrastructures of all sorts are profoundly vulnerable to changing climatic conditions. Sandy showed some of that vulnerability: rising sea levels and a more intense hurricane combined to create record storm surges that overwhelmed inadequate barriers. (One could argue that that was also the case with Katrina.) Put simply, the barriers had been designed for static climatic parameters that no longer reflect the real climatic conditions confronting engineered systems. Such problems are now cropping up routinely. High temperatures this summer melted airport runways and caused sagging in electricity transmission lines. Flooding along the Mississippi River in 2011 led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to blow up levees and open gates, flooding rural areas to protect urban communities. Floods, tornadoes, and droughts have all, in recent years, threatened the operation of U.S. nuclear power plants.

These problems are ubiquitous. Every building, bridge, levee, road, electricity grid, and power plant in this country has been designed and constructed to a set of engineering standards. Those standards embed static assumptions about the climatic conditions those structures will face. Few of those assumptions remain valid as the climate rapidly shifts away from the normal patterns experienced over the last 100 years. The further climate shifts, year after year, the less accurate those assumptions will be, and the more likely the country will be to face dramatic new systems failures. At one level, it doesn’t matter what the cause of these climate shifts is. The observational record is clear. The climate is changing. At another level, however, adaptation is, at best, a short-term solution. Despite what Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, might want us to think, adaptation to a continuously changing climate cannot prevent the kinds of risks illustrated by Sandy, magnified across all of America’s critical infrastructures.

Unfortunately, the engineering and policy communities are only just beginning to wake up to this challenge. Cities in this country have now had two warning shots, neither, unfortunately, over the bow. Mayors should be lining up to demand that Congress appropriate resources to enable them to assess the vulnerability of their infrastructures to climate change and to make appropriate adaptations. Every city and state should partner with its public universities to create their own climate change adaptation panels. The National Academy of Engineering should be commissioned to conduct a study of the vulnerability of U.S. infrastructure to further climate catastrophes and to recommend measures to address those vulnerabilities, including new educational standards for schools of engineering and public administration in the teaching of climate change.

Engineers and city managers must lead these efforts. At the end of the day, however, this is only partly an engineering and management problem. Upgrading city infrastructures to confront the realities of changing climates will require hard choices by the public. Communities will have to make difficult trade-offs between building protective infrastructures, forcing property owners to leave flood-prone areas, and preventing development in wetlands and other areas that provide natural protection from storm surges. Careful attention will need to be paid to issues of injustice embedded in how infrastructure projects distribute costs and benefits across diverse groups in society. Cities will have to confront the powerful necessity of provoking hard public dialogue and deliberation as they make these and other choices. After all, infrastructure is not merely concrete and steel—it is the backbone of urban life.

Since Katrina, the US has suffered a series of weather-related disasters that suggest changing climatic patterns: flooding along the Mississippi in 2011, freak tornadoes in the Southeast earlier this year, the summer of drought and extreme temperatures in the Midwest, and now Sandy. Only time will tell whether these events were a portent of things to come or the signal that finally motivated action to curb climate risks. Cuomo and Bloomberg have the opportunity to lead America into the stark new world of climate mitigation and climate adaptation. But as the old saying from my home state of Wyoming goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Are the rest of us ready to go along? We’ll see.

Clark A. Miller is associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and chair of the program in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology at Arizona State University. An engineer by training, he writes on science and democracy and the politics of energy transformation.