Sandy’s Wake

Columbia scientists have long been sounding the climate-change alarm. Will we listen now?

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2012-13
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“People are aware of the immediate event, but they may not be aware of longer-term issues of adaptation,” Chen says. “Adaptation isn’t just engineering; it’s education, it’s adoption of new building standards that take climate change into account, it’s ecologically based policy, it’s environmental justice. And since climate change is not completely predictable, you need adaptive social learning so you’re not just proposing solutions good for the next fifty years, but ones that will allow continuous flexibility.”

“We look at what we call ‘pathways to climate resilience’ in a very holistic and integrated way,” says Rosenzweig. “There are three main areas in this approach: engineering projects, like subway gates and storm barriers; the ecology; and planning and design policies for our communities. We can’t just pick one engineering solution or one ecologically based solution or one policy.”

The Elephant in the Room

The first report that Klaus Jacob and the climate people assembled was the 2000 MEC study, which looked at climate-change impact on the New York metro area. Jacob, assessing infrastructure, quickly came up against a barrier.

“The MTA, which runs the subway system, wouldn’t cooperate,” he says. “I was mostly interested in the MTA because I already had a hunch that the subway would be a problem. So we did the study as well as we could.” Luckily, they found an old FEMA study from 1995 — the Metro New York Hurricane Transportation Study, which gave the lowest critical elevation for each subway line. Somewhere, that line would flood.

“From that study we knew that we had to have the MTA’s cooperation. Where does the water go? How far? How big is the volume of the tunnel?”

In August 2007, a rainstorm caused flash flooding in the subway system, disabling or disrupting every line. The next month, the MTA set up a blue-ribbon commission on sustainability, aimed at making the MTA more ecologically friendly. The next year, the mayor’s office convened the Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which included the MTA and all the other key transportation providers in the region.

Jacob and Rosenzweig gave talks to MTA officials about climate change, risks of damaging saltwater intrusion into the subway system, and the need for adaptive measures. The officials were ready to listen, if not to act. “They didn’t want to hear bad news,” Jacob says — that is, they didn’t want to spend more money.

In 2008, the MTA invited Jacob to sit in on a meeting of the sustainability commission, as an observer. Jacob listened as the commissioners discussed their green initiatives: reducing water consumption for washing subway trains, converting gasoline-burning buses into hybrids, putting solar panels on the roofs of above-ground stations.

When the meeting was over, Jacob raised his hand.

“This is all fine and good,” he said. “You are all very good at thinking about mitigation. You’re talking about spending tens of millions for mitigation. But you’re not talking about spending a few billion to save many billions, through adaptation.”

The commissioners, Jacob recalls, were a little baffled. For one thing, they didn’t know who Jacob was. Perhaps they were surprised when they saw him at the next meeting. Toward the end of that session, Jacob spoke up again.

“What about adaptation?” he said. “The elephant in the room!”

“Would you explain what you mean?” they said.

“Give me twenty minutes next session,” said Jacob, “and I will tell you what I mean.”

The commissioners agreed to hear him out. At the next session, Jacob took the floor.

He told the commissioners that, in the event of a hundred-year storm, the subway tunnels will flood, and that the problem will worsen as sea levels continue to rise, with losses in the tens of billions of dollars.

When he was done, the commissioners said, “We can’t make you a commissioner, but we can have you write a chapter in the blue-ribbon commission report on sustainability.”

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