Living with Sandy: New York and Our Very Real Climate Change Future

L-R: Heidi Cullen, Klaus Jacob, Dale Jamieson, Eric Klinenberg, Chelsea Clinton

Superstorm Sandy and its continuing messy aftermath have provoked many serious conversations about New York City’s future. These range from private concerns about flood insurance and temporary housing to more public anxieties about the city as a coastal metropolis. But one aspect common to almost all post-Sandy discussions is the urgent sense that we must seize the momentum to engage proactively with these pressing challenges.

On December 5th, at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, a multidisciplinary panel of scientists and social scientists convened to tackle these concerns. Chelsea Clinton was on hand to moderate, interjecting concrete political realities into a discussion that was otherwise focused on understanding exactly what type of conversation we need to have, what questions we need to ask. While the panel did not propose any ideas we have not heard before, it finally framed them within the kind of political reality that presents the only practical way to effect change. Clinton was not there to add color or celebrity, her questions and political evaluations steered the conversation towards identifying concrete solutions and actionable next steps for addressing climate change.

Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU (and the director of the Institute for Public Knowledge) has spent years studying the convergence of extreme weather and structural inequalities in cities. He opened the evening by emphasizing a crucial question: is Sandy a turning point? Does it make plain that New York, and American cities generally, are not equipped for the realities of climate change?

By virtue of its size and influence in the world, much of what happens in New York is as public as it is personal. Dr. Heidi Cullen, Chief Climatologist for Climate Central and the Weather Channel’s first on-air climate expert, is originally from Staten Island, and noted how that duality played out in “the intense media scrutiny” on New York and its response to the storm. Sandy was, Cullen asserted, the worst storm to hit the city since it was founded, measuring 943 miles wide at landfall, and approaching with a strength equivalent to “five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.” And though the storm was exceptionally well-forecast — scientists predicted the landfall point four days out — she acknowledged that the next challenge is to make weather modeling even better, more precise, to downscale the information and deliver more specific forecasts to each citizen.

Climatologists only reluctantly make direct connections between climate change and any individual event. But Cullen did not hesitate to state that our reaction to this storm and to climate change is very much an issue of values and how we value the future of our city. She brought up the Netherlands’ reaction to the 1953 North Sea flood, after which the Dutch decided to protect their coasts with a view to the far future. Within 20 days of the flood they created the Delta Works plan, a strategy to build sea-level protections that would hold up to a one-in-10,000-year storm. Here, in stark contrast, we decided to rebuild after Katrina with only a one-in-100-year storm in mind.

Cullen noted major changes that New York already plans to implement in order to mitigate both climate change and its effects: reducing emissions by 30% by 2030; restoring wetlands and marshes, creating oyster beds, making buildings more energy efficient and generating clean power. But there is more to be done. She would like to see a greater emphasis on decentralizing infrastructure, so the impact of storms is not as devastating as it can be now.


Clockwise from top left: Heidi Cullen, Klaus Jacob, Eric Klinenberg, and Dale Jamieson present at the Public Forum on Climate Change, Sandy, and the Future of New York City

While mitigating climate change is a priority, adapting to the “new normal” that climate change has brought is also vital. Dale Jamieson, Director of Environmental Studies at NYU, noted that, “The more we mitigate our emissions, the less we have to adapt… But we’re going to have to be adapting to climate change for at least the next 1000 years, no matter what we do with respect to mitigation.” He prescribes both hard and soft approaches to adaptation – trying to make structures less vulnerable and building barriers, but also placing a priority on retreating from high-risk coastal areas.

Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist and seismologist at Columbia, decried the idea that hard solutions will save us. According to Jacob, “The term ‘natural disaster’ is a misnomer. … The disaster part is us. We put ourselves in harm’s way and we have disconnected our societies from natural processes.” He continued, “When we put fixed infrastructure at fixed heights… we produce the hazard, and we amplify the hazard, and we are vulnerable.” Like Jamieson, Jacob believes in a managed retreat from flood zones, and that barriers are not the answer, especially since they have a finite functionality. And like many experts, he believes in the harsh reality that rebuilding is not what we should be aiming for.

Jacob’s professional expertise has received new attention since the storm. As part of a 2011 New York State report on adapting to climate change, Jacob led a research study on the potential impact of a 100-year storm on New York City’s transportation infrastructure. He and his team essentially predicted all that occurred to the tunnels and subway systems after Sandy. But New York City, he says, continues to be shortsighted. When asked by Clinton which cities he thinks have done significant work to adapt and mitigate Jacob pointed to San Francisco and, to some degree, Seattle, and then added sardonically that New York, meanwhile, is doing many studies.

Three of the scientists focused on questions of environment, technology, and infrastructure. And so it fell to Klinenberg, the lone social scientist on the panel, to bring the conversation back to the human cost of disaster. In his award-winning book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Klinenberg shows how extreme weather does not affect a place or population uniformly. Existing social conditions – and political decisions before and during a natural disaster – play a significant role in the fate of different demographics. One need only look at the decision not to evacuate the nursing homes in the Rockaways to see governmental neglect of an extremely vulnerable population.

When Clinton asked the panel what can be done now, Klinenberg pointed to these very basic approaches to political accountability – compiling data about who lives where and which populations are most vulnerable, and then developing systems for reaching out to those who need specialized assistance – as a way to dramatically reduce predictable harm while we figure out the larger, more complex, problems.

However, Klinenberg also suggested some strategies for the larger problems. Since natural disasters arguably cause as much of a security risk as terrorism, he thinks we should view and address them in a similar way. 9/11 led to billions of dollars of investment in preventative measures, including new architecture and engineering. Investment in mitigation and adaptation to climate change, however, has been comparatively paltry. He offered that one way to make natural disaster responses an official part of effective policy would be to make them the purview of Homeland Security, an idea that is gaining traction in official quarters and seems like one of the most promising and sensible ways forward.

Advancing from this type of conversation into concrete action faces several obstacles. Clinton made sure to bring the discussion back to political reality, pointing out that climate change only came up in the presidential debates when Republican candidates were asked whether they believed it even existed. She also noted that climate change never reaches the top three issues people care about or vote on. However, Cullen brightly pointed out that climate change is no longer the toxic and taboo “c-word” in Washington that it used to be, and has reappeared as a proper subject of discussion. It is hard not to remain skeptical that the conversation will once again recede once the benefit concerts end, new political issues like the fiscal cliff distract us, and the media attention fades. However, it helps that this did happen in New York, and many for whom this is very personal, like Cullen and countless others in politics or the media (including this writer, whose parents continue to be displaced after damage to their house in Rockaway, and whose childhood neighborhood has an uncertain fate), will undoubtedly feel more invested in continuing to bring the conversation back to the fore. New York may just have the kind of political capital necessary to finally make climate change a permanent part of talking about our non-theoretical future.

Klinenberg brought up one of the main challenges to making climate change a regular part of political conversation. “When people hear a story about climate change in which doom is forecast as a near certainty, they get overwhelmed… they’d rather give up,” he said, adding that, “We don’t want to be naïve, we don’t want to issue false hope … but [rather] how can we look at the places that have done exemplary work to mitigate and adapt, and try to model them.”

Finding concrete ways to address New York’s future and climate change is hopefully what this panel has helped begin, especially since what New York does, the world notices. “Many people believe that the future that is sustainable is an urban future,” as Klinenberg reminded us, “so we need to build cities that are bigger and thicker and denser — but we also have to make sure they are resilient.”

All images via IPK’s video of the event. The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Yael Friedman writes about art and culture, and often about sports. She lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Tel Aviv and Rockaway (Bauhaus heaven and unapologetically homey beach town, respectively). You can check out more of her stuff at Ida Post.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.