Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Governor Cuomo makes the connection between natural disasters and climate change, calls for building in resilience

Posted 01 Nov 2012 / 2

In an election season when global climate change has been a subject that neither Obama nor Romney seem interested in discussing (see reports by The New Yorker and The Huffington Post), along comes Hurricane Sandy. With the arrival of the second “100 year storm event” to hit the State of New York in as many years, Governor Andrew Cuomo is taking a very different tack. In his high-profile press conferences he has not minced words, making it clear that New York State in general and New York City in particular will have to make resilience in the face of climate change a major priority of future infrastructure development. In order to come to this conclusion, Cuomo has acknowledged explicitly that the increasing frequency of high-intensity storms is linked to climate change.

Below are some of the things that the Governor has been saying:

“I believe he’s right,” Cuomo said. “I said kiddingly the other day, ‘We have a 100-year flood every two years now.’ These situations never happened or if they happened, they were never going to happen again. … I think at this point it’s undeniable that we have a higher frequency of these extreme weather situations, and we’re going to have to deal with it.” (ABC News)

“we have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns.” (The New Yorker)

“There has been a series of extreme weather incidents,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “That is not a political statement, that is a factual statement … Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.” (The Examiner)

“It is something we’re going to have to start thinking about … The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level.” (The Huffington Post)

“For us to say this is once-in-a-generation, that it’s not going to happen again, as elected officials that would be short-sighted. This city, this region, is very susceptible to coastal flooding. Part of learning from this is learning that climate change is a reality” (MarketWatch)

Governor Cuomo is joined by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also sees the need for the city to face climate change in its infrastructure planning. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 vision makes adapting to climate change a major priority, and the mayor has also been a leader in addressing climate change through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Climate change denial is rampant in the United States, where a flagging economy has been the main driver of any decreases in greenhouse gas emissions we have experienced. And this has been the problem: up until now, the dialogue has been framed as one of ‘environment versus the economy’. The general consensus, even among those who advocate for action in the face of climate change, has been that economic sacrifices will have to be made in order to preserve the environment. That is the message that I have been sending through my own teaching: in my Ecology class, we talk extensively about how dependence on fossil fuels to drive our economy creates an inevitable tradeoff as we try to confront the propagation of climate change.

But that story seems to be changing as more and more extreme weather events wreak economic havoc. The damage done to New York City is massive, not just in terms of the infrastructural repairs that now must be made, but also to the economic activity and standing of the city. One could easily read Governor Cuomo’s appeal to rebuild for resilience as a desperate call to maintain New York City’s place as an economic powerhouse. If storms like this start to hit even once a decade as sea levels continue to rise due to global climate change, no amount of resilience will save our city. Whereas the other communities that have been heavily affected by Hurricane Sandy look like most others ravaged by natural disaster (composed of working- to middle-class small homeowners), the most vulnerable area of Manhattan is the financial district. One wonders how long it will be before the geography of finance in New York City will have to relocate in order to survive. But if subway and roadway tunnels regularly fill with seawater, will moving the economic drivers of New York City be enough to preserve its economic dominance? Can engineering alone make our city resilient enough in the face of climate change, or will we need some help from a global reworking of how we harness energy?

Governor Cuomo is a politician, and he would not be talking so boldly about climate change if it did not serve his political purposes. I do not doubt that Cuomo is legitimately worried about climate change, but as we have seen with President Obama being personally concerned about climate change does not mean that a politician will engage the issue. In order for a politician to boldly state that climate change is a threat — especially in the current economic and political climate of the United States — doing so has to be in his or her political interest. I think that we have crossed with Hurricane Sandy a fascinating line, as it appears that the effects of climate change are finally severe enough to make it politically expedient for the governor of a large northeastern state to apply scientific rationality to the way we (re)build our infrastructure.

I like the call for resilience, but only because in asking people to cope with climate change we also begin to ask those same people to consider their impact on climate. Because in the end, we need politicians who go beyond simply recognizing the reality of climate change (or calling for resilience in the face of new risks): we need politicians ready to confront the global energy issues that lie at the heart of the climate change problem.

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2 Comments to "Governor Cuomo makes the connection between natural disasters and climate change, calls for building in resilience"

Ben Knight 1st November 2012 at 3:02 pm

I am curious if you agree with this statement by McKibben, founder of the climate advocacy group“It’s actual experiences that change people’s minds, or let them really feel what’s going on. One wrecked subway system, I fear, equals a thousand academic studies,” He went on to praise Cuomo for his statements on Climate change and Sandy. from:

Chris Jensen 1st November 2012 at 10:36 pm

This is a great question! I am not a psychologist, so perhaps I am not qualified to weigh in on the assumptions McKibben makes, but what he says appears to be true. This is not wholly bad: we live in a society where these experiences do not just influence those who immediate suffer from these disasters but also transmit across the globe via media. If people empathize enough with the victims of these disasters, we might just generate the will to do something about these major challenges.

The real problem with the ‘I will only believe it when I see it’ phenomenon is that sometimes once these experiences become regular and real it may be too late. A major advantage of science is its ability to be predictive (albeit with uncertainty): if we are incapable of heeding the warnings provided by scientific predictions, we may act too late.

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