Exclusive: New York Sandy ‘Climate Resilience’ Plan Won’t Address Climate Pollution

by Brad Johnson, campaign manager for Forecast the Facts

The nearly $300 million climate-resiliency initiative established by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg using Sandy relief funds will not address climate pollution, according to a city official.

The New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), formed in November 2012, will release a report this month indicating how $294 million in federal funding from the Superstorm Sandy relief act should be spent to increase the city’s “climate resiliency.” The report “will present policy recommendations, infrastructure priorities, and community plans, and identify sources of long-term funding” in addition to the emergency federal funds — but it apparently will not include an accounting of the carbon footprint of that infrastructure development.

In an email, SIRR spokesperson Daynan Crull told Forecast the Facts that because the initiative’s job is to “protect New York City against future climate threats,” it “does not directly address energy generation vis-à-vis fossil fuels”:

SIRR’s directive is rebuild and protect New York City against future climate threats, so it does not directly address energy generation vis-à-vis fossil fuels. However, New York City has been a global leader in environmental urban policy, pioneering PlaNYC — one of the most comprehensive sustainable and environmentally conscious policy programs ever established for a major city. It is upon this foundation that SIRR is built. Indeed PlaNYC established the New York City Panel on Climate Change, which is supporting SIRR’s work with the best climate science available.

Crull’s statement makes no sense — if SIRR’s plan is to “protect New York City against future climate threats,” it must necessarily “address energy generation vis-à-vis fossil fuels.” One cannot wall off energy use and infrastructure planning into separate boxes. This announcement is especially troubling because it is not clear that New York City is increasing any of its investments in renewable energy or carbon pollution reduction in response to Sandy. Instead, the city is moving forward with new fossil-fuel infrastructure, including a fracked-gas pipeline planned to cut through the Rockaways.

In 2011, PlaNYC set relatively strong climate-pollution goals for the city: a 30 percent reduction from 2006 levels of carbon pollution by 2017, with hopes of achieving an 80 percent reduction by 2050. However, much more ambitious targets are technologically possible — Stanford researcher Mark Jacobson has detailed a strategy for getting New York State’s energy use carbon-free by 2030. And no climate plan for New York City is complete without goals for divesting the financial industry from fossil-fuel producers like New York’s richest man, David H. Koch.

SIRR’s work will update 2011’s NYC Vision 2020 Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, which included a chapter on climate resilience, defined incompletely by the planners as “adaptation strategies” to climate change impacts such as sea level rise and more intense storms. The devastation of Superstorm Sandy gives the waterfront plan’s recommendations new and tragic urgency — one of the stated goals was to “develop a better understanding of the city’s vulnerability to flooding and storm surge.” The waterfront plan did not explicitly call for resilience measures to emphasize carbon reduction, an unfortunate oversight that looks to be continued.

It is possible that the public word from SIRR is misleading. The climate-resiliency plan is being developed in consultation with the New York City Panel on Climate Change, co-chaired by climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig and urban environmental scientist William Solecki; the NYC Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, led since December 2012 by Sergej Mahnovski, a renewable-energy expert; and Goldman Sachs vice president Marc Ricks, a lead architect of PlaNYC.

Despite the official word that the SIRR plan will not address fossil-fuel energy generation, there are reasons to hope that the plan will promote infrastructure investments that are intended simultaneously to protect New York City residents from the damages of climate-change-related threats and to reduce the pollution that fuels those threats — and provide true climate resilience.