The reports of flooding, downed trees and power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy can happen again because of global climate change making the area more vulnerable, New Castle town residents who have environmental background argue.
The discussion, with a particular focus on rising sea levels, was held Wednesday night at the Chappaqua Library and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of New Castle. The panelists were, Columbia University professor and environmental attorney Michael Gerrard, and Robi Schlaff, who served as legal counsel to the commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation and co-chaired a steering committee for the state's Sea Level Rise Task Force.
The panelists gave a sense of urgency in tackling the issue. With a litany of slides and data, Gerrard stated that climate change is occurring due to global greenhouse gas emissions, notably carbon dioxide. He explained that emissions have led to warmer global temperatures, melting arctic ice, more natural disasters and more extreme dry and wet weather for areas that, respectively, are already dry and wet.
With respect to the ties to Sandy, Schlaf and Gerrard noted that rising sea levels played a role in the storm. Gerrard stated that the higher sea levels were tied in to a higher storm surge, and that warmer sea water brought about are linked to there being more energy in the atmosphere.
The higher sea level and warmer sea water, Gerrard said “are unquestionable” and did “make the storm worse.”
The data Gerrard showed indicated historic records for various trend lines. For example, he noted that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the lower 48 states, with several individual states seeing their own records. In almost every part of the country, he noted, there has been “an upward trend of temperatures over the past century.”
The increase in warm temperatures could be more dire in the long run, Gerrard explained. Citing a new draft report by the United States Global Change Research Program, he stated that there could as much as a 15-degree average temperature increase by the end of the century if emissions trends continue similar to how they are now.
History also points to a new issue with greenhouse emissions, according to data presented. Gerrard noted that the presence of carbon dioxide has taken a significant upswing since the Industrial Revolution, and that the levels of it in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years.
Gerrard also touched upon the politics of climate change, which has been a highly contentious issue. He argued that alternate theories for it, such as solar or volcanic activities, do not align well for data as opposed to emissions of greenhouse gases. There is also a scientific consensus for it, he explained. However, Gerrard argued that environmental issues have become increasingly partisan in recent years. For example, he noted that the passage of the Clean Air Act roughly four decades ago had overwhelming support, and amendments for it in 1977 and 1990 passed Congress with strong bipartisan votes. Over the past two decades, however, Gerrard says there has not been any major environmental legislation. In fact, he argued the trend has been going in the opposite direction, citing the proposed (but failed) EPA Regulatory Relief Act, which passed a Republican-controlled House in 2011, as an example.
“It might have been called the EPA Disempowerment Act,” he said.
Talking to reporters after the discussion, Gerrard attributed the controversy in the United States over the human impact of climate change to resistance from industry that could be affected by regulatory change, and by those who for ideological reasons are opposed to a greater government role on the issue. During the talk, Gerrard felt that the odds for new legislation in the next two years being successful after unlikely, and felt it could change if there is Democratic control of both Houses of Congress after the 2014 midterm elections, or if the issue is no longer aligned with party lines.
On a global level, Gerrard felt that there is not enough action being taken, noting that there will not be a major discussion of a successor agreement for the now-expired Kyoto Protocal – it was a 1997 environmental agreement to tackle climate change that the United States never ratified – until 2015, with a 2020 implementation timeline.
“We are kicking the can down the road.”
Meanwhile, Gerrard noted that China has been overtaking the United States in producing emissions, but that it is supporting more efficient coal plants and alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.
Sandy's Scenario Was Not Unforeseen
Schlaff and Gerrard both noted past data that pointed to New York City being vulnerable to rising sea levels as examples of predictions for what was experienced last fall.
Schlaff, in her presentation, focused on her time with the sea level task force. She also noted that New York Harbor has seen higher sea levels over the years, with tide gauges showing a rise of about 4-6 inches since 1960. The rise can affect the Hudson Valley because the Hudson River is a tidal river.
Going forward over about the next seven decades, according to data Schlaff presented, the lower Hudson Valley and Long Island could face sea level rises from 2 to 10 inches by the 2020s – they depend on various scenarios tied to rates of ice melting in the Arctic Ocean and Greenland – to 12 to 55 inches by the 2080s
Schlaff did acknowledge, however, that despite being aware of the issue, she was surprised that something like Sandy happened as soon as it did. She also went over details from the task force's 2010 findings, which include New York State being “highly vulnerable” to a power storm on the coast, and the vulnerability increasing in its magnitude and area over time. Other problems found include too much development along coastal areas and outdated maps; Schlaff and Gerrard are highly critical of the flood maps used by FEMA, and terms such as 100-year floods were described as being out of date.
What Can Be Done?
The remedies for the problem are both global, state and local.
Gerrard noted that, citing data, improving energy efficiency would be among the most effective ways in reducing greenhouse gases. Talking to reporters after the event, he said that there is no “silver bullet,” but felt that policy similar to a comprehensive approach would be to put a price on carbon, with a cap and trade system or a tax cited as examples.
Schlaff noted that development restrictions, such as zoning laws and building codes can be used, along with supporting natural forces that mitigate storms, such as wetlands and sand dunes. Engineering solutions may not necessarily be the best, she cautioned, noting high costs and effectiveness. As an example, she cited the Long Island community of Long Beach, which has a bayside with a bulkhead that flooded “much worse” than a nearby beach.
Schlaff, who has also served on New Castle's Sustainability Advisory Board, praised the town on its efforts, noting that it is already incorporating climate change into emergency planning.
Former New Castle Supervisor Barbara Gerrard, who is Michael Gerrard's wife, moderated the discussion. She noted that New Castle was the first in New York State to become a Climate Smart Community, which is a state program meant to tackle climate change and has several municipalities signed up.
“Here in New Castle we take climate change very seriously,” she said.
The panelists also took several questions from the audience. Which ranged from whether or not the controversial hydraulic fracturing method for extracting natural gas leads to methane escaping into the atmosphere - Gerrard said it is a “subject of tremendous scientific dispute right now” - to whether there are man-made technologies for combatting climate changes; Gerrard detailed possible methods such as coal emissions capturing and adding new substances into the atmosphere, but he cautioned about their possible drawbacks.
Supervisor Susan Carpenter, who also serves as legal counsel for the Westchester Land Trust conservation group, asked about the state modeling the effects of losing the reflective capacity of snow cover for carbon dioxide, along with thawing of permafrost. Gerrard responded that the change is a source of concern, noting that while ice caps can reflect sun light back into the the atmosphere, melted water that is darker can absorb it, thereby contributing to the warming.