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Climate Reality Smacks, But What Change Ahead?

Iconic city grapples with new vulnerabilities as climate change exposes weaknesses ignored

Common Dreams staff

Climate change is here. It has teeth. And now—with millions still out of power and a region reeling four days after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Northeast—the nation is realizing that nature is not going to wait as elected officials get permission or find the courage to begin speaking out about how they plan to deal with the impact of a climate in dangerous flux.

As The New York Times reported Wednesday, the warnings about rising sea levels, storm surges and the city's vulnerable infrastructure came again and again:

For nearly a decade, scientists have told city and state officials that New York faces certain peril: rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns. The alarm bells grew louder after Tropical Storm Irene last year, when the city shut down its subway system and water rushed into the Rockaways and Lower Manhattan.

Despite the warnings, little or nothing was done. Now, as half the city remains crippled by power outages and a hobbled public transportation system, talk is getting serious about how one of the world's iconic cities—a major financial, cultural, and transportation hub—can transform itself for what climate scientists are calling the "new normal" of global warming and its destruction siblings, climate change and extreme weather.

As Ben Orlove, director of the master's program in Climate and Society at Columbia University, told United Press International: "Storms and tides are natural, but sea level rise is not. As it continues, New York grows more vulnerable."

"The time has come. The city is finally going to have to face this," oceanography professor Malcolm J. Bowman at Long Island's Stony Brook University told the Associated Press. Bowman has warned for years of the potential for a catastrophic storm surge in New York and has advocated for a barrier.

Politicians and elected officials—often the last to get on board with transformative thinking—are now coming to realize that their history of ignoring the warnings of climate scientists and the reality of climate change may be over.

In the last two days, as the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy grew in its aftermath, both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg—despite their immediate focus on managing the immediate disaster—have taken time to address how the state and its major metropolis might respond to the threat of ever bigger storms.

"Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable," Cuomo said Wednesday during a news briefing after viewing storm damage in New York via helicopter. "There's only so long you can say, 'This is once in a lifetime, and it's not going to happen again.' "

The Democratic governor said the storm should be a "wake-up call" for those who argue global warming is just a political issue.


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"The frequency (of extreme weather events) is way up," he said. "It is not prudent to sit here ... and say it's not going to happen again. ... It's a conversation I think is overdue."

Bloomberg was more equivocal in his comments, but also said that New York City will need to confront the new realities.

Bloomberg said: "What is clear is that the storms we've experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before."

"Whether that's global warming or what, I don't know, but we'll have to address those issues," he said.

Democrat Senator from New York, Charles Schumer, also weighed in:

“There will be some in Washington who say we shouldn’t do this,” said Schumer. “We expect everybody – Democrats, Republicans, people from everywhere around the country — to rally by our side … We cannot cut corners. We cannot count nickels and dimes. This is not just a New York disaster, a New Jersey disaster, a Connecticut disaster — this is a national disaster and it needs to be treated that way.”

On the subject of climate change, Schumer said there was “a group of people in Washington who just deny the truth.”

“We’re going to pay a price for the change in climate in one of two ways. We’ll either have to totally re-adapt our city…or we can take the bull by the horns and deal with the issue,” he said.

Looking beyond New York City, the PBS Newshour looked at how other US cities and regions are (or are not) planning to deal with the growing threat of climate change:

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