In September 2021, New York City experienced historic and catastrophic flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida. Streets turned to rivers, cars flooded and were left abandoned, people drowned in their own basements. This writer dodged waterfalls in the subway before arriving home to find a room slowly filling with water gurgling up through the toilet. Never designed to handle such a large volume of rainfall in such a short time, Ida challenged the city’s 100-year-old sewer system.
Ida’s devastation made the consequences of global climate change all the more apparent. An overall increase in temperatures across the planet has created a spectrum of dramatic environmental change. A record lack of snow in New York City this past winter, catastrophic snowstorms upstate, a devastating drought followed by flooding rains in California — these are all examples of the aberrant weather systems long predicted by climate scientists. And although wildfires are not directly caused by climate change, “Many environmental impacts associated with climate change can affect the severity and timing of the wildfire season,” according to the EPA, exposing populations to hazardous air quality conditions such as those experienced this past month, caused by out-of-control Canadian wildfires.
Current climate models point to rising temperatures intensifying the water cycle and increasing evaporation, resulting in more frequent storms and severe droughts. Since 2020, New York City has seen almost as many hurricanes and tropical storms as it did from 2010 to 2019; three were in the top 10 recorded “max hourly precipitation” events: Elsa (the first of the 2021 hurricane season) came in at No. 9, and Henri (third in 2021) broke the previous record from the remnants of Hurricane Frances, only to have that record broken less than two weeks later by Ida.
The correlation is obvious to Joseph Heathcott, associate professor of Urban Studies and Design at the New School, who told the Voice in an email, “The overarching driver of increased storm strength and activity is climate change.” Without addressing climate change by massively reducing greenhouse gas production, he explains, “there not only could be worse flooding, there will be. If ocean and atmospheric temperatures continue to rise and water levels increase, there will be more storms that bring amplified destruction.” Bhawani Venkataraman, associate professor of chemistry at the New School, who also teaches climate science, agrees, responding to the Voice via email: “With the amount of GHGs [greenhouse gasses] already in the atmosphere, the planet will warm, and that will drive further climate change, even if we were to stop emissions of GHGs soon.”
This is not “new” news. In the 1860s, John Tyndall, an Irish physicist, discovered the “greenhouse effect.” In 1896, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, predicted that changes in CO2 levels in the atmosphere would affect the earth’s surface temperature through Tyndall’s greenhouse effect, causing global warming. In 1938, inventor Guy Callendar formally observed Arrhenius’s prediction in weather station data. In 1956, scientist Gilbert Plass published The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change. Since global climate change was not addressed when scientists and researchers first became aware of it and began issuing warnings, as they have through the decades to the present day, we now have to fight two battles: one against the rising rate of carbon pollution and one against the already materializing effects of that pollution.
New York City is beginning to take action on these two battlefronts. But bureaucracy and controversy are not far behind.
The city was sluggish in its response to climate change after Hurricane Sandy, which hit in 2012, but the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act), which was passed in 2019 and considered the most progressive climate law in the country, set a goal of achieving 100% zero-emissions electricity by 2040. Also in 2019, the City Council released Let’s Go: A Case for Municipal Control and a Comprehensive Transportation Vision for the Five Boroughs, a plan to reduce emissions and build climate resilience, and in 2020 put out Securing Our Future: Strategies for New York City in the Fight Against Climate Change. However, Ida’s depredations in 2021 made clear that this would not be enough. In the days after Ida, the Voice spoke with Council Member James Gennaro, who acknowledged that the city’s infrastructure is outdated. Although, he also asserted, “No sewer system in the world is capable of absorbing the type of historic rainfall we saw with Ida.”
Unfortunately, Securing Our Future was released days before the Covid-19 lockdown began, greatly slowing progress on that front as the city dealt with, and continues to deal with, issues surrounding the global pandemic. And some of the strategies put forward would require help from outside the city. Let’s Go had proposed redesigning streets that cater to cars to better accommodate bikes and buses, and much progress has been made in widening access and making room for bicycle traffic. But further advancements met delays, because the MTA is controlled by the governor and the New York State Legislature but the city is responsible for streets and sidewalks. (The report urged the state to relinquish control of the MTA.) Securing Our Future requires cooperation with Con Edison to invest in grid infrastructure to optimize it for clean energy, and cooperation from the state to increase oversight of Con Edison.
In December 2022, the state released its climate action Scoping Plan, coming out of the Climate Act, which will work as a framework for transitioning to a clean energy economy, one not dependent on fossil fuel. The Plan was submitted to the governor and the state legislature in January; enforceable regulations must be drafted and circulated by the Department of Environmental Conservation by January 1, 2024. The 430-page document also focuses on ways to ensure that the transition to renewable energy is equitable and won’t leave workers jobless. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) describes the plan as providing “the foundation for strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, drive critical building and transportation electrification, secure climate justice, and advance the State’s commitment to economywide carbon neutrality by 2050,” and recommends electric-grid infrastructure investments to meet the Climate Act’s aggressive mandate of net-zero emissions statewide by 2050, as well as the implementation of a public-awareness campaign in order to increase citizen support for the initiatives.
Meanwhile, Mayor Adams has been addressing the situation in his own way. In January 2022, he appointed a Climate Leadership Team, chosen from multiple city environmental agencies; in April, he announced a campaign to promote green buildings, “Building Action NYC,” as part of a goal to reach carbon neutrality. In July, Adams declared the completion of the first of four phases of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project; when completed, the project is supposed to offer coastal protection of New York City’s waterfront neighborhoods from storm surge and tidal flooding. Then, on September 1, the first anniversary of Ida’s flooding, the city announced a suite of stormwater infrastructure initiatives. The main focus of that announcement was green infrastructure (GI), which uses vegetation to mitigate excess water instead of attempting to redirect that water with concrete (“gray” infrastructure). The EPA has known about the benefits of GI since the early 2000s: Research has shown that it can reduce heat and noise while purifying the air in urban environments. GI isn’t necessarily always “green,” however — one strategy involves using porous pavement to allow water to pass freely to the soil beneath. Mayor Adams also boasted of the completion of 2,300 “rain gardens,” added to the 11,000 already in operation, with more on the way. Essentially gutters that feed into sidewalk planters, these rain gardens can take approximately 2,500 gallons of rainwater off the streets and out of the concrete sewer system. In addition, Adams announced the installation of at least 30 flood sensors at strategic positions, with 500 more to be installed over the next five years. These sensors will help inform officials about the need for evacuations, travel bans, and road closures, but they’ll also collect data to be analyzed later. Also during the 2022 climate announcement, Adams’s chief climate officer, Rohit Aggarwala, explained the city’s new Bluebelt and Cloudburst Management programs. “All told,” he concluded, “we are confident that the combination of gray and green infrastructure can handle storms like Ida. It will not be easy or immediate. We have a lot of work to do.…”
In March 2023, Adams initiated a program called City of Yes, intended to help reach carbon neutrality goals by restructuring zoning regulations. Most of the zoning updates handle reducing emissions by allowing more space for solar panels and by upgrading grid infrastructure. One proposal would permit buildings converting to electric to store heat pumps and boilers on the roof instead of in the basement, allowing the system to avoid flood risk; another adds flexibility to a current requirement regarding street trees, making it easier for building owners and homeowners to install connected tree beds or rain gardens. (The New York League of Conservation Voters keeps a “Bill Tracker,” an updated scorecard of high-priority bills and their status in passing the Senate and Assembly.)
The past several years also saw the release of new reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). In a 2018 Special Report on Global Warming, from the IPCC, researchers targeted limiting global temperature rise to 1.5º C above pre-industrial levels, which “would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being,” because permafrost begins to thaw rapidly above that temperature. Aside from holding the land together in crucial areas, permafrost contains carbon and methane from dead plants and animals, which it has stored for hundreds of thousands of years — releasing these GHGs could create a runaway effect. This target could be reached by decreasing emissions globally by 50% before 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 (after which we would have to begin removing the present carbon). For the past six years, the average global surface temperature has ranged from 0.82º to 0.99º above pre-industrial levels.
According to the IPCC’s 2022 Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), even the most forgiving forecasts calculate that earth’s net temperature will exceed that 1.5º C target by 2030, meaning that even if we cut carbon pollution by enough, we might just dip our toes into that 1.5º region before returning to a safe temperature. Four out of five experimental scenarios do not show the global mean surface temperature returning to 1.5º by 2100 — at least two of the projections appear to show that it will rise perpetually. Extreme sea-level rise would cause permanent inundation in multiple neighborhoods across New York City; more moderate projections still predict monthly tidal flooding. The report prompted some climate scientists to go on strike, “to stage a mass walkout, to stop their research until nations take action on global warming,” as The New York Times reported. Many researchers balked at that idea, but several contributors to the AR6 decided that they could better spend their time elsewhere if governments continued to ignore their warnings.
In April 2022, the UNDRR’s “Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction” (GAR) offered recommendations for reducing risk in anticipation of what they referred to as “Global Collapse.” The GAR defines Global Collapse as a situation in which planetary boundaries have been extensively crossed, so a high risk of this collapse is present. A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences) opinion piece offers more insight, describing scenarios present in Global Collapse: a situation involving the abandonment of urban areas, nation-states ceasing to exist, and populations significantly declining. It also delineates Local System Collapse, which occurs when climate conditions such as drought become an exacerbating factor leading to civil unrest or war, and Urban- or National-Level Collapse, where some cities and governments still exist but experience persistent afflictions like food or water scarcity.
Global Collapse could occur if we blow past that 1.5º limit (which the authors of the report seem to believe is likely). And after assessing society’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, UNDRR researchers warned that human existence as we know it could become unstable much earlier than was initially thought. Because of the interconnectedness of our modern world, the pandemic had systemic cascading effects outside the direct loss of life from the virus, such as food and supply chain issues, loss of education, increased economic strain, and widening of gender and economic inequalities. The virus also spread non-linearly, affecting countries in unexpected waves and making consequences difficult to predict. Existing societal vulnerabilities were amplified. Ecuador, for example, was already facing protests over government austerity measures; the pandemic effectively caused its healthcare system to collapse. Similarly, NYC’s hospital system, and those of other U.S. cities, faced years of budget cuts leading up to the pandemic. The same spiral would surely hold true for climate change.
According to the GAR, three major pitfalls in economic and governing systems prevent the necessary “resilience building” crucial to fighting climate change. In the private sector, most risk assessments do not focus beyond a year, and do not account for ecosystem health. This was illustrated when hospitals ran out of resources during the pandemic, unprepared for an event of this magnitude. Second, governments and corporations don’t include health, clean air, and future generations’ safety as assets in their cost-benefit analyses. Because of this, there aren’t incentives for investing in reducing the impacts of exploiting natural resources. The third pitfall is myopia related to political and geopolitical constraints: Governmental and economic systems can only function in their ordained jurisdictions, while natural disasters know no such boundaries.
The Voice reached out to environmental organizations to find out what they thought of the current administration’s new plans and progress on previously established programs. Cortney Koenig Worrall, CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, pointed out that New York was leading most cities globally but must do much more, which the city council and the Adams administration have admitted on several occasions. Still, Worrall commended the administration for setting priorities and moving forward, and despite the forecast of increased climate disaster, she remains hopeful. She also applauded the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides multiple tax incentives for a smooth transition to clean energy.
Worrall and the Waterfront Alliance spearhead the Rise Resilience coalition, which has been working hard to pass legislation and influence policy. Recently, they helped pass a law that requires the disclosure of flood risks to all future lease signers. They’re also working with the Army Corps of Engineers on a flood-risk management program. When asked about the GAR report, Worrall says she believes there was a misunderstanding about it, explaining, “The UN is not saying it’s too late. There are many ways to build infrastructure that can withstand changes that will come from climate change.”
Eric Arnum, a member of the Steering Committee for 350NYC (a local affiliate of 350.org, a global grassroots network working to prevent climate catastrophe), was more skeptical. “Basically, what they have to do is they have to raise their worst-case scenario from 3 or 4 inches of rain to 10 or 12 inches, maybe even 19 inches of rain,” he says in a phone interview. “I don’t think you could make enough rain gardens to fix the problem.” He explains that this is partially because the gardens can get clogged with garbage in the same way the gray sewers do now, adding, “You have to get the local people to care for them.” Arnum is also critical of sea walls. “I’ve seen it already happen in certain spots,” he says, referring to tidal flooding breakthroughs. “There’s not much you can do about that, because the water will come in [around] them.”
According to the EPA, sea walls are designed to resist waves and are typically built along ocean shorelines. If a coastal storm surge came inland from the ocean via a river or bay, high water could outflank the sea wall and cause flooding. The Voice checked in with DEP representative Robert Daguillard, and was informed that coastal storm surges could indeed bypass a seawall by feeding into a river or bay and causing a community to flood from there. Additionally, water can come up through a sewer’s outfall if a levee isn’t designed efficiently. “Any stormwater outfall is a potential route for reverse flow back into the community,” Daguillard explains, with the caveat that it is unlikely enough water would flow through to cause a significant flood unless it was coming from multiple pipes. However, if an outfall is being overwhelmed, “It won’t be very long before much more water is pouring over the banks into the community.”
Timon McPhearson, professor of Urban Ecology at the New School and director of its Urban Systems Lab, explains in an email: “Sewage backups are actually quite common, from not only tidal flooding, but can happen during extreme rainfall.” He confirms that “any opening such as CSO outfalls could be places where tidal or storm surge can push water into the sewage network and cause flooding that pushes back up through drains,” adding that Ida caused this in some areas through rainfall. “During both Hurricane Irene (2011) and superstorm Sandy (2012), extreme rainfall caused soil saturation to push up to a foot of water into the drain of my home, completely driven by groundwater, not tides,” he writes. He believes that since storm surge, tidal flooding, and pluvial [surface water] flooding can co-occur even with seawalls, “We need to be building social, ecological, and infrastructural resilience to all three.”
The 350.org program gets its name from the parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the air that scientists have deemed safe. The local branch of the organization is working with the city and state on laws to help achieve that goal, but on inland flooding, Arnum says there isn’t much they can do outside of encouraging the city to act. “I think we’re going to get much wetter,” he says, adding that he expects at least a generation or two of really bad weather “even if we stop burning now.” He pointed out that the war in Ukraine has impacted the global energy supply, citing Germany’s return to even dirtier coal. “Our politicians have done a really good job at fighting the climate crisis” regarding emissions and plastics, Arnum says. But overall, throughout the U.S., “they’re doing a better job on prevention than they are on adaptation.” In other words, resilience efforts are underdeveloped.
“The city needs to be doing a ton more,” says Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, an organization that uses collaborative, design-driven problem-solving to help communities and cities build ecological resilience. “Every single thing needs to be changed in how we operate in order to get us ready for climate change that’s already here.” Chester is also skeptical that the city will be able to keep pace with the rate at which New York might change, feeling that it is behind not just in inland flooding but also in coastal resilience. “They know what they need to do. It’s just hard for them to get there,” she concludes. “It’s will. It’s leadership. It can be done. It’s not easy to do anytime you change the way that a government is going to function. There’s going to be challenges associated with it, but I don’t see any other choice.”
Rebuild by Design began after Hurricane Sandy, with a design competition: The organization joined with the federal government to fund $930 million in infrastructure projects created by local governments, communities, and global experts. The implementation of these projects is underway, and Rebuild recently raised $3.9 billion more in funding. The original design competition, which ended in 2014, led to the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which finally started production in 2021, despite administrative tensions surrounding it. A comptroller report in October 2022 found that the city had used only 13% of its allocated budget, and production was taking longer than expected. The comptroller’s office also found that waterfront development had actually caused an increase of more than $176 billion in property sitting in the city’s floodplain, a 44% increase since Sandy hit, which is projected to reach a market value of $242 billion. Only a few more than 3% of the buildings in this area align with new resilient building codes.
The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project is also seeing intense friction from the local community. The group East River Park Action has been protesting the development since former mayor de Blasio updated the design without proper comptroller clearance, in 2019, calling for completely demolishing the park, rebuilding it at a higher altitude, and thereby destroying the existing ecosystem. This update came without community involvement, and has been devastating to residents. (Initially, de Blasio had planned to close off the entire area, though now the renovation is being done in phases, to be completed in five years.) In addition to the destruction of a beloved park, local protesters believe that the new plans will lead to gentrification, pricing residents out of their current homes, similar to what has happened in Hudson Yards. And the area will be exposed to flood risk until the project is completed. But so far, the Adams administration appears to be continuing with de Blasio’s plans and following in de Blasio’s footsteps, in this instance favoring private developers.
When asked if, in her opinion, NYC will be able to keep pace with climate change, Worrall, of the Waterfront Alliance, replies that it will require a considerable amount of commitment, adding, “I think that the answers about what we need to do are definitely out there … it’s just a matter of getting it done.”
Andrew Scott is a Brooklyn-based writer with a master’s degree in journalism from the New School for Social Research. His work has appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle.