By Michael Shank and US Congresswoman Yvette Clarke
As the costs and threats from climate change rise, the key is not to wait until it’s too late to take action
U.S. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke represents New York’s 9th district and serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Homeland Security. Michael Shank teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.
Due to less rainfall than initially forecast for Hurricane Barry, New Orleans was, thankfully, able to avoid the worst disaster predictions that came with Barry. But while recovery efforts will, hopefully, return things to normal, this latest threat of historically high river flooding and hurricane serves as a stark warning to cities and states across the U.S. tackling the climate crisis.
New Yorkers, for example, haven’t forgotten Superstorm Sandy, which struck our shores in 2012. In Brooklyn, thousands of families were displaced by Sandy, which flooded entire neighborhoods and ruined many houses, some of which have still not been rebuilt.
These storms, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are now occurring every 25 years and, within the next three decades, they’ll occur approximately every 5 years. Projected sea-level rise will lead to “large increases in future overall flood heights associated with tropical cyclones.” That’s a scary forecast.
Every community across the country is increasingly feeling the impacts of a worsening climate—from wildfires in Alaska and droughts in Washington, to more intense storms, heatwaves and sea-level rise. No city is exempt.
U.S. communities are facing a price-tag of $416 billion over the next two decades to protect against rising sea-levels and the threat of flooding, according to a recent study by the Center for Climate Integrity. Not surprisingly, Louisiana sits near the top of the list (second only to Florida) with $38.4 billion in predicted mitigation costs. Costs will impact coastal communities across the U.S., with New York State facing an estimated $17.4 billion in seawall construction costs by 2040.
The key to avoiding many of the climate crisis’ greatest human and economic costs, as New York City has learned, is not to wait until it’s too late to take action. As part of its own Green New Deal, New York City recently announced new carbon emissions caps on its largest buildings, coastal barriers to prevent future flooding, and much needed congestion pricing in the heart of the city to reduce transportation emissions. Other cities should take note and roll out their own deal. Until Congress passes a national plan to confront the climate crisis, it’s up to cities to take the lead, locally, nationally and globally.
For New York City, action now is critical. The New York City Panel on Climate Change warns that sea levels and temperatures are rising dramatically. Mean annual temperatures increased 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, annual precipitation increased 8 inches, and sea levels rose over a foot — twice the global average.
That rise will accelerate more rapidly in the coming years, putting New York City at serious risk for flooding, which is why its new climate-related measures are so essential. Temperatures are projected to increase nearly 6 degrees by 2050, precipitation will increase up to 11% by 2050, and sea levels will rise up to 21 inches by 2050. We cannot allow this to continue. And we cannot afford delay, especially as Sandy-type superstorms become more common.
We can prevent these drastic changes in our climate and negative health impacts in our communities, but only if we support the wide-spread deployment of renewable energy resources and rapidly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants. We have much of the technology we need. We have electric cars—commercially available in the U.S. at prices that decrease every year. We have wind turbines and solar panels that continue to increase in capacity and come down in costs. It’s time to scale this up globally.
By organizing on behalf of the broad interests of society as a whole, rather than the narrow interests of fossil fuel producers, we can elevate climate action to the top of the national debate. This is a must, before another Barry or Sandy hits our shores. And as the United Nations convenes another global climate change summit in New York City this September, bringing together every country to move forward climate solutions, the U.S. has a real opportunity to lead that process.
Waiting is not an option. With each year, the problem becomes more serious, and the cost of inaction becomes more severe. We have the solutions. We need only the resolve to act. Now is the time.