NYC’s Climate Research Resources Are Melting Faster Than the Ice Caps


On February 17, Senate Republicans (and two Democrats) confirmed climate change denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, an agency he’s vowed to dismantle. The specifics of how Pruitt’s distaste for environmental protection will impact New York City, which stands to suffer greatly from the effects of climate change in the coming years, aren’t clear yet. But local environmental agencies have already been set reeling by President Trump’s January blanket freeze on all EPA grants and contracts, even those that had already been awarded.

“I think the press and the general public don’t quite understand how dramatic putting things on hold is. It actually has major consequences,” said Timon McPhearson, an associate professor of urban ecology at the New School who collaborates with the mayor’s office on resiliency projects. He’s been shocked by the speed at which Trump has managed to imperil the work that he and his fellow researchers have been doing. “Work we’ve been working on for a year and a half is now completely jeopardized,” he said, including a study on how heat waves affect vulnerable populations in New York.

“You can’t make up those relationships,” between climate change and public health, McPhearson notes. “They require scientific study, which requires support,” he said, then recalled a meeting with city officials earlier this month in which he’d had to explain that the results of a particular study would not be delivered as previously promised. The news came as a disappointment to the officials, who McPhearson said were “concerned and saddened” by the risk the delay posed to the populations the research was intended to help.

As for climate change itself, it’s hard to overstate the peril faced by New York City as the planet continues to heat.

Studies from the mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency predict that while devastating storms like Sandy are likely to become more common, New York City is also increasingly vulnerable to heat waves, heavy downpours, and severe droughts. By some estimations, the surrounding sea level may rise as many as 30 inches, and the number of people living in the 100-year floodplain is expected to balloon to around 800,000 by the 2050s. Studies also predict a 90 percent probability that the number of “heavy downpours” will increase, and by mid-century, New York will likely see a preponderance of 90-degree days, with triple the possibility of heat waves. The city’s climate change strategy, McPhearson pointed out, is built on the backbone of good science like this.

But science requires money, and the EPA has in the past been an important source of funding. Financing comes from other places too, of course, like NASA and the National Science Foundation, through those streams are also in peril: Trump has previously declared that he plans to strip NASA of its entire Earth science division in favor of “deep space” exploration. He’s also promised “between two and five” new executive orders aimed at the EPA, to be revealed once his full cabinet is confirmed.

Pruitt, for his part, has vowed to weaken EPA regulations, having gleefully declared his intention to withdraw Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule, which was used to clarify the EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act. Such regulatory handicapping would seriously undermine New York’s hard-won climate change progress. Pollution into our already filthy waterways could increase, and managing the overflow of storm water in the city’s antiquated sewage system — a longstanding and serious problem — would become even more difficult. “When you weaken the regulations, it sort of cuts the bottom out of a lot of that effort,” McPhearson said.

Defenders of Pruitt maintain that states should be allowed to regulate their own environmental practices. If you put aside the fact that pollution cares nothing for state lines, this could be a thin silver lining for New York.

John Rhodes, the president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, told the Voice that his department’s functions — namely, Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision, or REV — will not be affected by anything that happens on the federal level under Trump’s administration.

“We are in control of our energy agenda,” he said. “What we’re doing is not reliant on the federal government to make things happen.”

The state’s other agencies were more reluctant to speculate. A joint statement issued by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health said only that “New York is closely monitoring all actions by the new administration and impacts on funding for vital New York programs. We will continue to work with the federal government and our partners on every level to ensure that our environment and public health are protected.”

Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the city intends to gird itself against the new administration.

“Whatever happens at the federal level, we’ll still do all we can to mitigate the effects of climate change at the municipal level,” he wrote in an email. “That means expanding solar and our electric vehicle fleet as well as retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and curb their greenhouse gas emissions. Now more than ever do cities need to do their part to fight climate change.”

Contreras said that the city doesn’t receive any EPA funds that would impact its climate change agenda, though it has been allocated $4.2 billion for Sandy recovery from Housing and Urban Development, as well as a $176 million grant for resiliency projects. Asked whether he’s concerned that the reimbursement process will grind to a standstill under Trump, Contreras responded only that it was too soon to tell.

McPhearson, the New School professor, phrased his fears more bluntly.

“I think we can say, in a combined way, that the lack of funding for research and decreased regulation are certainly going to cost lives,” he said.