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New York City plans to fortify itself against climate change

By Yair Oded

Oct 18, 2019

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You probably haven’t heard, since it hasn’t made it to the headlines, but Kent Island, Maryland is sinking, along with the entire Eastern shore of the state. The Island, which is regionally famous for its seafood, is drawing locals from across the area who are desperate to enjoy one last crab before this shellfish heaven drifts into the ocean.

The climate is warming, people. Storms and wildfires are intensifying, vast ice-sheets are melting on both poles, and sea levels are rising at a freakishly fast pace. As our dams of denial slowly erode, more of us wake up to the evidence laid out right before our eyes: in the coming decades, life on this planet will change drastically, and the time to prepare for the inevitable is now. Yet, all over the world, governments, companies and communities still refuse to acknowledge the palpable truth about climate change and the rising seas, including in coastal cities destined to havoc. In Florida, for instance, which by most accounts is pretty much a goner, developers are still erecting condos in flood-prone areas, and people, numbed by indifference and denial, purchase them.

The same cannot be said about New York City, where the municipality announced a bombastic $20 billion plan to fortify itself against the rising seas and hurricanes. In a post in New York Magazine earlier this year, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio wrote, “We don’t debate global warming in New York City. Not anymore… The only question is where to build the barriers to protect us from rising seas and the inevitable next storm, and how fast we can build them.”

New York City has a 520-mile shoreline, which is more than the equivalent of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Miami combined. According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could potentially rise 11 to 21 inches by the 2050s; by 2100, the panel predicts, waters could rise up to 6 feet. In such a scenario, as much as 37 per cent of lower Manhattan, including the Financial District and South Street Seaport, could be at risk for storm surges, as well as areas across Staten Island and The Bronx, and whole swaths of Brooklyn and, primarily, Queens. This would mean that millions of people will be residing in areas prone to flooding, water treatment plants will be vulnerable to contamination and several airports, railways, subway lines and power plants in the New York City and New Jersey’s meadowlands (a 20,000 acre area just outside of NYC) will sustain significant water damage and cease to function.

Among the various facets of de Blasio’s climate crisis plan, is a $10 billion project that would, among other things, extend lower Manhattan two blocks into the sea in order to protect the area from flooding. “The new land will be higher than the current coast, protecting the neighborhoods from future storms and the higher tides that will threaten its survival in the decades to come,” the mayor wrote. Additional initiatives include connecting flood-walls, barriers, and parks from East 57th Street, down to Battery Park and up West 42nd Street, the construction of a 5-mile seawall around Staten Island and mounting massive sand dunes around the Rockaways.

Rising sea levels and tropical storms aren’t New York City’s only problem, however. The New York City Panel on Climate Change estimates that temperatures in the city could rise on average by about 2 to 3 °C by 2050. By the same year, the number of days above 32.2 °C are expected to triple. Already, heatwaves in the city have come to be regarded as ‘silent killers’, disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities in neighbourhoods like Harlem. In order to tackle the mounting heat, the city intends to plant more street trees, increase reflective surfaces and paint building rooftops in white (which will reduce the amount of heat it absorbs) in heat-prone neighbourhoods.

Many worry, however, that proclamations and reconfiguration plans will not secure the necessary funding to make them a reality. This was the case with the $27 billion post-hurricane Sandy investment plans to reconstruct the battered city, which never saw the light of day.

Aside from access to funding, it is important to ensure that such fortification and preparation plans take into account the particular challenges of vulnerable communities throughout the city, which suffer the brunt of climate change and too often do not have the means to make their voices heard and interests fought for. Such people are frequently ignored by developers and city officials.

ISeeChange, a global online community encouraging people to post about the changes in their environment, is working to tackle and rectify precisely this problem. The organisation, created by Julia Kumari Drapkin, empowers local communities to document the changes noticed in their environment over time as a result of climate change through their platform and mobile tools. The data is then synced with weather and climate data in order to create a big picture that reflects the actual struggles of people on the ground, help communities adapt as best as they can to changing climate trends, and ensure that their voices are considered in the crafting of climate policies and infrastructure planning.

In New York City, ISeeChange documented urban heat in Harlem. “We synced the [ISeeChange] platform to sensors and put them in people’s apartments. This changed our understanding of how indoor urban heat behaves, and we were able to publish this data and even change cooling center policies in NYC,” Drapkin told Screen Shot.

“We may spend a lot of public money on infrastructure that’s actually not well located or targeted for the problems they were designed to solve,” Drapkin further stated, adding that, “If you combine community stories and data to actually document these events in real time in real life, it’s actually proven to be more accurate than the model data, and have suggested changes that need to be made.”

De Blasio’s crusade to protect the Big Apple from the impending destruction of the climate crisis is important, and his resolve should inspire city, state, and government leaders across the US (and elsewhere) to follow suit. That said, it is our responsibility to pressure our authorities to take actions that are practical, timely, just, and equitable.