By Jena Ardell
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"Five-tenths of an inch," the deputy mayor with the city's grandiose sustainability plan in his portfolio said, brushing aside a reporter's question as if it were a speck on his dark designer suit. Then he repeated it two or three more times over the course of 15 cocktail-party minutes. It was Dan Doctoroff's personal measure of the climate-change threat to the city, a calculation of the expected sea-level rise over the next 25 years. At 49 brisk and still budding years, the Harvard and University of Chicago Law School grad might have asked himself why he was insisting on such a peculiar number, never transposing it to the more familiar half an inch. Instead, he confidently attributed it to the Columbia climatologists advising the city on its agenda for 2030, the much ballyhooed PlaNYC that Doctoroff is steering for the mayor. The dollar-a-year deputy, whose stadium and Olympics follies bizarrely catapulted him to even greater second-term Bloomberg glory, made this sea-level forecast in the middle of equity king Steven Rattner's huge Fifth Avenue living room at the end of January. He and a couple hundred of Chuck Schumer's invited guests were there, celebrating the publication of the senator's book, Positively American. With Schumer's wife a Bloomberg commissioner, Doctoroff and other administration brass were unsurprisingly among the book boosters.
In fact, just a few minutes before Doctoroff's sea-level proclamation, Schumer briefly addressed the crowd, explaining that he was stretching his remarks out because the mayor himself was on the way. Doctoroff and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly were together at the front of the room as Schumer spoke, and the senator looked straight into the taller Doctoroff's eyes and thanked the better-known Kelly, and only Kelly, for standing in for his boss. The public smile that never leaves Doctoroff's lips did not desert him then either, though he and Kelly are widely regarded as the two Bloomberg appointees most likely to try to succeed him in 2009.
Bloomberg has done his best to position Doctoroff for such a run, adding the departments of environmental protection, transportation, buildings, telecommunications, finance, taxis, and operations to his first-term command of economic development, housing, and city planning. Bloomberg did finally arrive and salute Schumer, but it is Doctoroff who appears more engaged now in shaping PlaNYC, the administration's agenda for the future, than the once hands-on but currently been-there-done-that mayor.
This signature sustainability initiative debuted in one splashy Queens Museum of Art show in December, as well as at an earlier Silicon Valley press conference with Bloomberg's "soul mate" Arnold Schwarzenegger. Doctoroff is orchestrating another grandstand presentation of PlaNYC's "10 Goals for 2030" in April. The details, however, are so guarded that Voice interviews with city officials and a citizen advisory panel produced only vague whispers of what's coming, as if the city's next two and a half decades are before a sequestered grand jury.
In theory, the plan is Bloomberg's response to climate change's mounting challengessea level and othersto an especially vulnerable New York, but with Doctoroff in charge, it is predictably more about growth than threat, more upbeat than upsetting. It promises every New Yorker a park within 10 minutes of their homes, recreational uses on 90 percent of our waterways, a million affordable apartments, "the cleanest air of any big city in America," and the reclamation of every contaminated acre. Revealed at the end of the hottest year in American history, it has yet to suggest how we will adapt to extreme and deadly heat, or to the specter of storm surges and hurricanes, or to the siege on our compromised infrastructure that has alarmed climatologists for years.
Illustration by Steve Brodner
The line between optimism and ignorance, or blind trust and a stiff upper lip, is always shifting when weather predictions extend past weeks to decades. But the recent proclamations of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leave no doubt that warming "is unequivocal" and will "continue even if greenhouse concentrations were to be stabilized," making it both a current reality and a future certitudeeven if Al Gore suddenly occupied the White House. Bloomberg acknowledged that reality in his Queens speech, observing that the city's summers "seem to be getting hotter and longer," joking, however, that he wouldn't complain about "50 degree weather in December," the temperature that day. Warming, he added briefly, "may be contributing to rising sea levels," which could lead to flooding "worse than anything we've seen." But he saved that warning for the end of his otherwise rosy speech and, like PlaNYC, offered no specifics about how the city was moving to protect itself from climate change.
Then again, why should the mayor have a solution for a problem his sustainability deputy can't accurately describe?
When the Voice contacted the city's topColumbia consultant, Cynthia Rosenzweig, she said her Goddard Institute's current sea-level-rise estimate, already supplied to the city, was actually five inches, suggesting that multimillionaire Doctoroff confuses his fives, at least when dollar signs aren't involved, and has a penchant for downsizing difficulties. In fact, Rosenzweig's five inches is a minimal projection, since it does not take into account the possible demise of the Greenland and Antarctica glaciers, which many scientists now anticipate. It is also roughly half of what she and other scientists projected in a comprehensive 2001 study.