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Healing a Stricken City & Greening the Planet

Chris Williams Nov 19, 2012

The Maldives are a country in peril. The collection of 1200 islands and atolls, the highest point of which is a mere five feet above sea-level, were put on the map of world consciousness by the first democratically elected president, Mohammed Nasheed. Until overthrown in a military coup by a regime unwilling to countenance democracy, Nasheed became famous when he held a Cabinet meeting under water to highlight the plight of his country. He was the subject of the documentary for his efforts to raise awareness of climate change and the resulting sea-level rise that will likely make his nation the first to disappear beneath the waves.The Maldives, better known for its exclusive resorts than the fact that 320,000 people currently call the islands home, is in danger of being overwhelmed by the Indian Ocean this century. But what if, instead of the remote island paradise, it’s a major city that goes first?

Of course we could and should have been engaged with this question after Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans in 2005. Two weeks after Frankenstorm Sandy, with dozens dead, many thousands of New Yorkers still struggling without power, running water or heat and 40,000 people made homeless, now is another good time to be looking for answers.

How should New York, brought to its knees by Sandy, rebuild to make it a beacon to other coastal cities around the world, the inhabitants of which are watching the suffering of our city with horror and, after a quick glance at climate change data for their region, a deepening sense of foreboding?

There has been much debate about the extent to which Hurricane Sandy may have been made larger and stronger and, in an unusual deviation for this time of year, pushed onto land to devastate the Northeast coast rather than moving back out to sea. As associate editor of Scientific American David Biello argued:

“Global warming didn’t spawn Sandy but it certainly contributed to the impact, with a couple of features definitely worsening it. … Higher sea surface temperatures have made the storm surge stronger. … Normally hurricanes come up to the coast and turn right back into the ocean, but as a consequence of the major meltdown of Arctic sea ice this summer, there was a weather pattern preventing Sandy from taking that course, and [it] steered it back into land.”

In August, the director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, who testified to Congress in 1988 about the reality of human-induced climate change, wrote in the Washington Post:

“Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

Reviewing some of the extreme weather events around the world over the last few years, Hansen went on to say:

“These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.”

Ultimately however, we are asking the wrong question. The issue of whether this or that extreme weather event, such as Sandy or the massive U.S. drought this year, was exacerbated by climate change is overshadowed by the knowledge that we only have a single planet.

We know for a fact that carbon dioxide, a compound linked through many scientific studies to global warming, is being pumped in vast quantities into the atmosphere. In confirmation of this, witness the tragic irony of people in the Northeast waiting for hours to fill up their gas tanks with the stuff that is largely responsible for increasing the concentrations of that compound and thereby altering the heat balance of the planet. It makes no sense to think that humans can extract and burn 80 million barrels of oil every day and it will have no impact on the composition of the air we breathe and that increasing the concentration of a climate-regulating gas such as carbon dioxide will not have global implications for climate.

We also know for a fact that New York has seen a 12-inch increase in sea level over the last century, alongside an average temperature increase of 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit. We also know that a 600-mile stretch of the East Coast of the United States is a regional “hot spot” for sea-level rise, which is getting higher 3-4 times faster than the global average. Thus, with two hurricanes in the Northeast in two years, what we are looking at is more of the same. No doubt this is why 95 percent of cities in Latin America are making contingency plans for climate change and its impact on their locations.

Therefore, just on the basis of the Precautionary Principle and knowing that there is no Planet B, we need to systematically and rapidly move to reduce our dependence, not on foreign oil, but on all oil, gas, coal and uranium. Furthermore, instead of continuing on our current path toward greater oil consumption, which will cause global warming to spin out of control, we urgently need to investigate ways of living more in tune with our natural surroundings before we lose control of our destiny. On current projections, oil consumption is predicted to rise to 110 million barrels by 2020 while carbon dioxide emissions rose by 2.5 percent last year.

What would our city look like if it were built to withstand and accommodate the kind of monster storms that are becoming more prevalent due to climate change? What would our city look like if it were made for people, not cars?

There are two quite different sets of answers to those questions. On the one hand, like some mediaeval fortress, we could spend approximately $10-17 billion building sea fortifications. On the other hand, rather than adopting a siege mentality, shielding ourselves from the blows raining down from an enraged Mother Nature by encasing New York in ring of iron and steel revetments, we could build a city that is a genuine testament to forward-thinking, long-term-planning worthy of the 21st century.

Building sea-walls and oceanic sea gates that would open and close as needed isn’t unprecedented; several cities have built large and small versions, including Holland, which is a country that is largely below sea level to begin with. But there are some unique and complex challenges to building such gates on the scale required to protect a city of eight million located on a series of low-lying islands off the coast of the North Atlantic.

First, such a scheme, from planning to implementation, would take decades to be operational; clearly, New York City does not have decades. Second, if one is going to build sea-walls, the water still has to go somewhere. Hence, planning to save some areas of New York may end up simply shifting the water elsewhere and inundating, for example, New Jersey. There is also the fact that all of the pollution run-off and raw sewage from overwhelmed sanitation systems would then be trapped on the city-side of the gates. Third, while the Netherlands recently completed a storm surge barrier that takes into account such an unlikely possibility as a once-in-ten-thousand-years weather event, the United States, with its short-term planning predicated on cutting state and federal budgets on infrastructure and elevating short-term corporate profits is unlikely to come up with the resources to pull off a project like this. It is highly likely therefore, that whatever is planned and built today will skimp on costs and be inadequate for storm surges of the future. As things currently stand, a not unrealistic foot and a half of sea-level rise by 2050 combined with a storm surge would require New York to evacuate three million people. Lastly, there’s the enormous economic cost for such a technological fix, which may not effectively address the long-term issues we face and come with unexpected and undesirable outcomes.

Given the self-evident inadequacy of New York and New Jersey’s storm preparedness in light of Sandy, despite years of scientific reports documenting the possibility of a major storm causing havoc in the area, it seems clear that only one force has enough power to thwart the self-serving and derisory solutions promulgated by politicians in thrall to corporate interests: the power of the people to organize in our own interests. Only by demanding and fighting for substantive change will we be able to live in safety and security in our own city, breathing clean air and drinking pure water.

Our public high school students have some excellent ideas about where to start:

“New York City could build high walls all around to keep out the water, turning us into prisoners in our own city and preventing use of our greatest natural resource. Instead of confining New Yorkers we can find suitable solutions through creating a soft shoreline with native organisms that were heavily populated in this area.

“As aquaculturists at the New York harbor school we grow oysters for environmental restoration. Oysters are a keystone species which means they have a disproportionate positive effect on their ecosystem. Oyster reefs provide habitat for small marine life and filter water of nitrogen and phosphorous by consuming algae that contain these nutrients.

“Oyster reefs act as wave attenuators and benthic stabilizers.”

In other words, we can use natural flood defenses, such as the restoration of salt marches and coastal wetlands, along with a well-funded and general campaign to return oysters to New York’s estuary, to build natural resilience into New York’s ability to cope with large storms and help filter and clean the water. Half of the coastal wetlands of the United States have been lost over the last 50 years.

There are of course smaller things that need doing, such as moving vulnerable electrical equipment above storm surge levels and retrofitting subway stations and tunnels to be more resilient and protected from flooding. Con Edison could have spent the $250 million in investment the company deemed necessary to install submersible switches and move high-voltage transformers above ground level but instead preferred to use the $1 billion in profit it made last year for other purposes.

While the New York Times recently reported on some more natural possibilities for increasing the climate resilience of the city, melding ecology with infrastructure was in fact the thesis of an exhibit at MoMA in 2010. Five architectural teams gave their vision to create “soft edges” to New York in order to absorb, rather than repel, storm water. Not only would this create a visually stunning, highly resilient city, but create environments conducive to a more variegated and enriched environment for animal, plant and human life.

In contrast to the reductive and limited thinking that is illustrated by simply saying let’s build more walls, the approach taken by the architects and landscape designers represents a much more holistic philosophical approach that is far more likely to be successful in term of allowing New York to weather the next storm, not to mention a much more aesthetically pleasing place to live.

Apart from re-greening coastal areas, the city and region needs much more planning with regard to coastal development to prevent the kind of helter-skelter regulated development of areas that are known flood plains. As an investigative report published in the Huffington Post documented about a local manifestation of the wild-west nature of contemporary capitalism:

“Authorities in New York and New Jersey simply allowed heavy development of at-risk coastal areas to continue largely unabated in recent decades, even as the potential for a massive storm surge in the region became increasingly clear.

“In the end, a pell-mell, decades-long rush to throw up housing and businesses along fragile and vulnerable coastlines trumped commonsense concerns about the wisdom of placing hundreds of thousands of closely huddled people in the path of potential cataclysms.”

The report places blame for this type of development, which took place in some of the worst hit areas, such as the Jersey Shore and the Rockaways, to the power of capital to sway politicians who knew of the risks, even as they approved of the building frenzy:

“Developers built up parts of the Jersey Shore and the Rockaways, a low-lying peninsula in Queens, N.Y., in similar fashion in recent years, with little effort by local or state officials to mitigate the risk posed by hurricanes, experts said. Real estate developers represent a powerful force in state politics, particularly in New Jersey and New York, where executives and political action committees have been major donors to governors and local officeholders.

“This coastal growth took place even as public and private sector leaders in both New York and New Jersey began expressing growing concern over the potential for climate change to intensify storms and accelerate already rising sea levels. New York City officials in particular were well aware of the ways in which climate change would make the potentially destructive effects of a major hurricane worse, scientists said.”

Therefore, a radical re-evaluation is needed of where buildings are placed. Simply rebuilding what existed before, perhaps jacking up the foundations a bit or requiring extra flood insurance, cannot be the answer. Much stricter regulations on building location and building requirements themselves, such as the location of boilers, flood-proofing basements, etc. are needed.

Buildings themselves are a major source of carbon emissions from heating and cooling. Rather than constructing buildings to require air-conditioning, how could we instead create buildings with building materials and layouts that maximize natural heating and cooling effects, including the expanded use of geothermal heat pumps?

We need to vastly increase car-free zones and bring trams back to New York. Many streets in Manhattan should be made into pedestrian-only areas and planted with trees. Whenever sidewalks are replaced, they need to be made from a water-permeable material, as cities such as Chicago have already begun to do.

With many fewer cars in city centers, the concomitant huge expansion of public transit and the creation of a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city, the vast oceans of impermeable concrete that contribute to storm run-off, otherwise known as parking lots, can similarly be transformed into tree-lined water parks.

On average, any given car is only in use around 5 percent of the time, often with a single occupant. On top of that, an internal combustion engine is only about 25 percent efficient. We couldn’t have designed a more inefficient use of resources and a better pollution emitter if we had started with that as our actual objective. There are enough non-residential parking spaces in the United States for 800 million cars; in some cities one-third of the total surface area is taken up by parking lots.

As temperatures rise due to global warming, life — and death — in cities that experience a greater number of 90-plus- degree days is a critical issue to address. Air conditioning, car engines and concrete all contribute to the urban heat island effect and rising temperatures worsen air quality.

Therefore, taking these measures on buildings, transportation and other aspects of urban infrastructure, all of which will cost less than building sea-walls while simultaneously positively contributing to city dwellers’ quality of life and the long-term resilience of cities, are a no-brainer. In even more good news, doing this on a fast timetable will get tens of thousands of people back to meaningful and fulfilling employment that is socially useful and eminently necessary.

However, these things will only occur if we fight against the entrenched economic and political interests and form organizations capable of effectively putting them forward and demanding their implementation.

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.