Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Hot, Wet, and Nasty (But Not in a Good Way): Superstorm Sandy and the New York of Tomorrow

Posted By on Tue, Sep 3, 2013 at 9:45 AM

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When his wife fell in love with a clapboard house on a leafy street in the town of Piermont, New York, Klaus Jacob had no choice but to disappoint her. It made him sad to do it, but on the plus side he is well cut out for delivering bad news.

Genial and humorous, white of hair and beard, Klaus looks like a man who has settled very comfortably into the role of aging scientist, bearer of knowledge and hard truths. There’s a touch of Kris Kringle about him. He’s Santa Klaus. Sanity Claus. To all the good children, he brings the gift of informed risk assessment. He liked the house, too, but buying it was against all his professional principles. Only a stone’s throw from the Hudson River, the building was on a floodplain. If he agreed to live there, they would be risking a personal disaster that would, were it to occur, be more than a touch embarrassing given his line of work. Klaus is a geophysicist at Columbia University and an authority on the dangers the changing climate poses to the State of New York. He did not want to add the name of his wife, Isabella, or his own for that matter, to the list of people who have respectfully turned down his good advice.

If Klaus felt flooding was a high probability back then, almost a decade ago, the odds had hardened into certainty come the afternoon of October 29, 2012. As Hurricane Sandy shouldered her way toward the Eastern Seaboard, he and Isabella made their preparations in the house he had once staunchly refused to live in.

Photos by Martyn Pickersgill of Bliink Photography

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They knew to within a few inches how high the water would go. Klaus had been running the numbers ever since they decided to flood-proof the property. When they moved in, the fuse boxes, water heater and boiler went to the top floor. The couple raised the whole structure, a two-and-a-half-story house dating to the 1830s, almost three feet. Unfortunately, that left them only six inches above the FEMA flood zone. Klaus’s research told him this wasn’t high enough, but zoning regulations would not allow him to raise the house any farther. By the time the Jacobs learned about the legal limitation, they had already bought the place. Just like the original Cassandra, Klaus could see the future but not escape it.

With the storm surge only hours away, they lifted the dishwasher onto the counter and took the furniture upstairs. The stove was going to take a beating, but it was too heavy to move. When everything portable was out of harm’s way, Klaus went to bed. Isabella sat on the stairs to the second floor and videoed the floodwaters seeping into their home. For a while, it was as if the place were sinking.

The water had subsided by the time Klaus woke up, and the first floor was streaked and clotted with mud. It was time to get to work.


In December 2012, in response to Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg created the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency. The group was tasked with determining how the city should prepare for the effects of the changing climate. As part of the initiative, the members of the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), who are legally required to address the city administration every three years, reconvened on an emergency basis. Incorporating scientists from various organizations, the panel’s members gathered like King Arthur’s knights or Marvel’s Avengers, only with a greater preponderance of bifocals and twinsets. Klaus Jacob is one of the panel’s members. Modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the New York panel may not be bigger, but it has a claim to be badder than its UN predecessor. With the publication of its 2009 report, the NPCC took the initiative to amend a dramatic oversight in the IPCC’s last set of findings.

“I definitely do not work with the model for rising sea levels that is based on the IPCC forecast from 2007,” says Klaus, “because that had a footnote on it that most people ignore. The footnote said that these are numbers without considering the contribution from accelerated melting of land-based ice in Greenland and Antarctica.” In his German accent, he renders the last word Und-tarctica. He has a voice with a definite edge when it comes to dry understatement: “Well, that’s a big footnote.”

Working out exactly how these giant ice sheets will respond to a hotter climate is devilishly tricky, even for a crack team of scientists recruited by the United Nations. Faced with such a sticky problem, the IPCC opted for a solution favored by generations of high school students: give up. The panel made its calculations as if Greenland and Antarctica didn’t exist, which is a lot of frozen water to wish into oblivion.

In its 2009 report, the NPCC published both the IPCC figures and its own calculations for what it called the Rapid Ice-Melt Scenario (RIMS). Readers tended to be bemused by the two sets of numbers, especially since the RIMS figures approximately doubled the IPCC forecast. That meant a two-foot rise in sea levels come mid-century and as much as five feet by 2100. There was a tendency for readers to assume that the higher set of figures was a worst-case alternative to the more conservative predictions, but this was quite mistaken. The RIMS numbers were merely extrapolated from observed current trends in Greenland and Und-tarctica.

Unfortunately, when it comes to underestimating the effects of climate change, this is not the IPCC’s only offense. Its last report predicted an average increase of between 2 and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit in global temperatures over the course of this century. But the latest research shows that if carbon emissions continue to grow at the present rate of 3 percent a year, then the planet is already making a beeline for that upper, 11.5-degree extreme. Worst case has become probable case. Global temperatures haven’t gone that high at this speed for 250 million years, when 95 percent of the world’s species went extinct. And the IPCC is a big deal, because in politics the panel’s conclusions are considered the gold standard of climate science. The IPCC’s work will form the basis for any international treaty on the control of greenhouse gas emissions.

Against this regrettable global background, Klaus inspires a little hope on the local stage. He is a research scientist who has the ear of those in power. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a problem with what’s between the ears of power. Klaus’s role in the courts and palaces of city administrators can be a bit like that of Lear’s fool, and it’s an open question whether New Yorkers will grow old before they grow wise. No one listened when Klaus spoke out against the inadequacy of the South Ferry Subway renovations at the World Trade Center site. When Sandy brought the inevitable storm surge, the tunnels were filled to the ceiling. The station will be out of action for years. Klaus continues to be vocal in decrying the design of the new Second Avenue line. The Hanover Square station is in the 100-year flood zone, and the Seaport Station, near Beekman and Pearl streets, will join it there later this century as the East River encroaches into Lower Manhattan. No architectural allowance has been made for these risks. As Klaus has pointed out, inexpensive solutions are available. For example, New York could learn from the Bangkok Metro, where station entrances have been raised a yard above ground and commuters walk skyward before heading underground.

Even Klaus’s employer, Columbia University, has declined to act on his warnings. At present, Columbia is developing its 17-acre Manhattanville Campus on a low-lying area between 125th and 131st streets in West Harlem. When Klaus first saw the plans back in 2004, the area wasn’t officially in a flood zone, and he worked hard to deprive the administration of the false comfort that provided. Post-Sandy, the redrawn maps confirm his predictions.

“Fast forward 50 or 100 years,” says Klaus, “and we have a sea level two to four feet higher, and we have a Sandy of the same kind, then you would have four feet of water flooding the underground campus. It’ll cost a billion dollars. In 100 years from now it may have trouble maintaining functionality.”

How could Columbia approve such an apparently reckless plan?

“If I could be rude about it,” he says, “I’d say the president wanted work to get started and a few buildings to go up while it’s still on his watch.” His eyes crinkling, he adds, “I thought that you could argue with educated people on a more rational basis.”

The kind of engineering adaptations Klaus champions are often classified under the heading “risk management”—one of his fields of interest, according to Columbia’s website. In this context, it is a deceptive term. It brings to mind insurance policies and contingency planning. It suggests that, with a bit of luck, we all might get off scot-free. But the rise of the world’s oceans is insistent to the point of bad taste. Were carbon emissions to drop to zero tomorrow, we would still be facing hundreds of years of rising temperatures and vanishing coastlines. The sea level around New York may well not rise five feet come 2100, but it will hit that five-foot mark eventually. Perhaps it’ll take until 2120. But the water is coming, and it won’t stop once it reaches a five- or six-foot notch. In other words, preparing for the deluge is a rock-solid investment for the city; the only question is how long it takes to see the dividends.

Warmer seas and an atmosphere charged with more moisture will probably lead to more severe storms, too. At present, the NPCC calculates there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the North Atlantic will see an increased frequency in the number of intense hurricanes come mid-century. But even if the storms don’t become more powerful, they will be more damaging. A two-foot rise in sea level is a two-foot bonus to any storm surge hitting the city. In 1821, a hurricane resulted in a 10-foot surge that flooded lower Manhattan as far as Canal Street. The surge was 10 feet high with Hurricane Donna in 1960. Both storms would be more dramatic were they to occur now, and the potential for flooding will only grow. In the future, without the right precautions, it will not take a rare Sandy-strength storm to produce Sandy-style effects.

“Sandy was in the order of a 500-year storm as far as flooding was concerned,” says Klaus. “It was a 1-in-30 year storm as far as precipitation was concerned. It was a 500-year storm in terms of its dimensions—how far it stretched along the coast. There are many different metrics you can use. But since we are mostly concerned with flooding, here are some simple statistics. Take the so-called RIMS model. If we apply those estimates, then what was in 2000 a 100-year flood height can be achieved in 2085 with a two-year storm. That’s a fiftyfold increase.”

And what about the scientists who anticipate more frequent, stronger storms? “That is an additional component that I haven’t taken into account.” Klaus is adamant as to what he wants from the city administration: “Not freezing in more risk for the future. That’s my bottom line.”

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Seth Pinsky is head of the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency and president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. If the work of Klaus and his fellow scientists on the NPCC is to find expression in policy and action, it can only be done through such an avatar of the body politic. Seth speaks fast with a high-pitched, clipped insistence perfectly modulated for ending conversations with “I’ll take that under advisement,” or a similar deadly business school idiom. Getting stonewalled by Seth would be like making impact with a polite but unyielding mattress.

On the NPCC’s part in the initiative, he is positive but a little distant: “The New York City Panel on Climate Change has been a very valuable resource for us to call upon.” He strikes one of Bloomberg’s keynotes: “As horrible as the storm was, this is an opportunity for the city, an opportunity for us to think not just about the short term but about the medium and the long term.”

Seth deftly presents an aural trailer for Bloomberg’s forthcoming resiliency plan, clearly a legacy object of the departing mayor; the operative adjectives are “multifaceted” and “multilayered.” Mayor Bloomberg has little faith in “silver bullets,” such as a harbor-wide flood barrier. Nor will he abandon the coastline in an organized retreat. Literally hundreds of initiatives will be presented, framed “within the confines of achievability.” Seth continues, “This is going to be one of the most comprehensive resiliency plans a city has ever put together, certainly for an American city, but I would hazard a guess that it’s probably the most comprehensive resiliency plan that’s been put together by any city in the world.”

With all the glossiness of Seth’s personal presentation, honed, as it would appear, in a million press briefings, it would be easy to be cynical and overlook how impressive it is to hear him talk on this subject. Here is a senior figure in a largely conservative city administration explaining that man-made climate change is a problem decades in the making that will trouble the city for much longer than that. If you ignore the pol-speak, with its peppy can-do sentiments of New York bouncing off the ropes and back into the ring, Seth is doing what is verboten in US politics: he’s saying the future is going to be hard. With the nation’s lawmakers either mute or in a willed state of denial, it’s very good news to hear this bad news.

“This isn’t about fighting the last war,” he says. “We’re not simply trying to protect New York City from the next Hurricane Sandy. The chances are the next extreme weather event will not be exactly like Hurricane Sandy, and in fact it may not be a hurricane at all.”

There’s an endearing alacrity and enthusiasm to the way Seth credits the mayor personally for each of the initiative’s strengths. He even attributes his boss with something his most ardent supporters might find a stretch: an ear for the voice of ordinary New Yorkers.

“There have been unprecedented levels of outreach throughout the special initiative process, and again that is something that came directly from the mayor himself,” says Seth. “We need to make sure that as we’re rebuilding the city we get input from as many people and as many communities as possible.”


Dios de la Profecia de Far Rockaway is the kind of church the earliest Christians would have recognized. Modest is the word, because in this part of town, a house of God is just that: a house. In this case, it’s a shabby residence on Cornaga Avenue. Here the Lord has left no greater sign of his presence than a few slender items of literature, secreted discreetly before the big guy absented himself for more numinous locations. Turning gentrifying conventions on their head, Far Rockaway makes homes into churches.

It is March, and a group of concerned citizens has gathered here to prepare for the coming “charette,” an informal meeting with Bloomberg’s representatives. The charettes are the centerpiece of the outreach plan in Seth Pinsky’s special initiative. The Far Rockaway charette is an opportunity, so he would have it, for the residents of one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, and one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy, to make their concerns known.

Josmar Trullijo, a resident of six years, opens the discussion with an account of the recent West Rockaway charette. The mayor’s subordinate did not impress him:

“The guy literally said, ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’ That’s how he began.” Aquiline and handsome, Josmar has a face that would be best drawn with a calligraphy pen. The T-shirt straining at his biceps bears the words “WORK TRAIN FIGHT,” and it looks like there’s only one item left undone on the checklist. Josmar segues into a summary of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, explaining how he expects the Bloomberg administration to use the kind of exploit-’em-while-they’re-down tactics described in that book. While the residents are still reeling from the storm, the mayor will push forward with long-held plans to develop the peninsula for the benefit of his elite clients. Condos will sprout from eviscerated projects; gentrification will eat away at the established community.

“They’re going to start now, but do this over time,” he says, “like when you boil a frog in water. If the water’s boiling, the frog jumps out. But start cold and turn the temperature up slow, and the frog stays put and dies. We should be uncompromising at all times.”

“The more you engage with it, the more you legitimize it,” adds Greg, who attended the same charette.

The conversation turns to the matter of demands. At the top of the list is the desire to see any plan for the Rockaways before the city approves it. Although no one chooses to dissent, it is pretty clear that several people

think the city’s planners packed away the drawing board weeks ago. There are also suggestions of a more mundane order. One person recommends that utility lines be laid underground, safe from falling trees. There is a call to prioritize sea defenses and practical infrastructure over boardwalks and prettification, the prospect of which the city representatives dangled in front of locals at the West Rockaway charette. The more community-minded attendees at the church want paid employment for the volunteers who came forward after the storm, some of whom continue to work toward recovery on the peninsula. There is a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of a radio station that could coordinate assistance locally during a crisis.

Running like a thread through all these ideas is the demand for transparency and democracy in the creation of the resiliency plan. They want to see what is put down on paper before it materializes on their beaches and street corners. But what would they be able to do were they invited to scrutinize the plans? How could any group of non-specialists know how to protect the peninsula from the depredations of a hotter, wetter, all around less agreeable climate? There is some halfhearted talk of finding an ombudsman, an impartial and scrupulous expert in climate change and urban planning, to work on their behalf. But the important thing for the moment is to push back.

From overall strategy, they move on to tactics. At this point, a dapper gentleman in early middle age, referred to with affectionate formality as Mr. Smith, comes into his own. Clearly a veteran in matters of organized disruption, Mr. Smith instructs his comrades on how to infiltrate the charette and how to coordinate their protest once inside.

Out of context, it is hard to understand the confrontational stance that comes so naturally to the meeting on Cornaga Avenue. Bloomberg is gearing up to spend billions on a citywide rebuilding program and, bending his titanic and turtle-like head to grassroots level, waits to listen. What’s the problem? Shea, a woman who looks to be in her early sixties, tells a story that hints at an explanation. In her apartment block, the municipal authorities cut the electricity two days before Sandy’s arrival. Some of her neighbors were of limited mobility and, once the elevators stopped working, were trapped without assistance. Robust in appearance but asthmatic and far from spry, Shea took it upon herself to fetch them supplies. When other help arrived, the volunteers of Occupy Sandy were prominent. Sometimes they were the only boots on the ground. They ventured into areas with people overlooked by FEMA and the Red Cross.

“Occupy had people who spoke Spanish,” says Josmar, “and they could get access to immigrant communities where most people were illegal residents and were afraid to seek help. A Christian non-profit from Texas couldn’t do that.”

Everyone at Cornaga Avenue has had some positive experience with the Occupy movement, whether as an organizer, volunteer, recipient of its assistance, or merely a witness to its work. The meeting itself is a weekly event that came into being because of Yotam Marom, a veteran of both Zuccotti Park and Occupy’s later incarnation as an aid agency. A dry, self-effacing twentysomething typically sporting a keffiyeh, Yotam came to the Rockaways shortly after the storm and applied his talents to orienting volunteers. “These were white middle-class folks looking for a way to do something good,” he says, “and we were absorbing seriously hundreds of people a day. They were coming through our doors and going out into the most-hard-hit areas, which were predominantly populated by lower-class people of color, and the volunteers were without any sort of experience. We gave them a basic grounding. Making sure they didn’t act like idiots, basically.”

In Far Rockaway, Yotam met local people who, after a while, wanted to talk about climate change and political organizing: “These were mainly young, entirely people of color, low-income, but I mean really low-income—like scrapping metal—people who had been on the streets before the hurricane but all of a sudden were running huge distribution sites as part of Occupy.” In answer to that need, Yotam continued to work in Far Rockaway in his capacity as grassroots activist in an organization he founded called Wildfire.

Other than the fact that Occupy raised $1.3 million in charitable donations, it is hard to quantify what it achieved. That is nothing unusual when it comes to disaster relief. But the anecdotal and eyewitness evidence is impressive. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Occupy volunteers were as commonplace and visible throughout New York as Citibikes are today. The organization was the obvious, often the only, conduit available for citizens seeking to channel their energies into helping the victims. By any estimation, the number of people who stepped in to assist under the Occupy banner runs to tens of thousands. The Occupy collection-points throughout the five boroughs thrummed with activity day and night. Even the Red Cross would defer to Occupy when it came to the distribution of supplies. But relations with the mayor’s office were not such a happy story. Occupy and Bloomberg had history. He was the villain of the piece during the heady days of Zuccotti Park, belittling the protest at the time as “fun and cathartic,” and stepping in to defend the bankers. “It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis,” he said at the time. “It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

Going further back in time, you could cite the establishment of the Far Rockaway housing projects as another factor in the locals’ suspicion of the mayor. The peninsula contains half of Queens’ public housing, but less than 6 percent of the borough’s population. The reason for that rests with New York’s master builder Robert Moses. His ambitions for urban redevelopment required the relocation of large numbers of black people, who were moved from Manhattan neighborhoods to Far Rockaway, far from jobs and established schools. Far Rockaway is a part of the city that has long felt distrustful of City Hall.

When the charette rolls around the following week, Josmar can’t attend. The younger of his two sons has had an asthma attack. Much later, he explains that, at this point, he is already looking to move out of the Rockaways. He suspects Sandy won’t be the last occasion the peninsula is inundated in his lifetime, let alone the lives of his children. Outside the meeting, locals advertise the event by handing out fliers bearing the banner “Charette or Charade?” The atmosphere inside is one of bubbling antagonism. A speaker from the SIRR opens with that unreassuring and misguided line “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” this time misattributed to President Obama. A recurring complaint among attendees is how poorly advertised the event was. The assumption is clearly that the charette was deliberately kept under the radar to keep attendance low. When Virginia Deere takes the mic, this is the first subject she raises. A Rockaway resident, Virginia looks every inch the activist in her black woolen cap and matching combats. She is a dab hand at rousing a disgruntled crowd. She asks for green initiatives and wants to hear more about sustainable energy. “Fossil fuels have to go,” she says, garnering applause.

“Climate change is the reason we are here today.”

Watching her as she speaks, a man from City Hall is in a state of seemingly terminal disdain, his arms and forehead knitted as tightly as Virginia’s cap. There is a shade of Ryan Gosling about this walking thundercloud. In the video of the meeting that the Wildfire group watches a few days later, this angry young man looms behind every speaker, his pink shirtsleeves rolled and arms folded, pouting himself into an early grave. Aside from the delightful spectacle of this unnamed sourpuss, the charette has been an unhappy experience.

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Come June, Klaus and Isabella are preparing to raise their home a second time, by an additional five feet. The zoning department, more willing to make exceptions after Sandy, has approved their application. The procedure will be easier this time around, because the foundations have already been modified.

Mayor Bloomberg also has what he wanted: his resiliency plan. June 11, it debuts on the public stage, in a location heavy with obvious symbolism. The cavernous Duggal Greenhouse in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard was flooded by four and a half feet of water during the storm, but looks magnificent now, like a world-class gallery space. It’s also extremely hot. At a guess, using the James Brown scale, I’d say it’s hotter than 10 motherfuckers. Some of the older members of the press are starting to wilt. At least one fella has dropped off completely when Bloomberg raises that familiar turtle’s head above podium. As usual, his tone is even and measured. Why, even this man’s pattern baldness is expressive of moderation. Not for him the monk-like tonsure or barren scalp. His hairline is the old one downsized, his hair shrinking to the dimensions of a toupee before it sets like the sun behind his crown. Through the windows behind him rise the crenellations of Manhattan’s skyline and, though it’s almost too fitting to believe, a storm begins to brew toward the end of the speech.

It’s not a reproach to say that location and events conspire to diminish Bloomberg’s stature. He’s all too human, like the rest of us. He can’t fail to be dwarfed by the environment. Mind you, his opening lines don’t help him rise to the occasion. He begins by thanking the greenhouse’s owner “for his determination to turn disaster into opportunity.”

“In the 40s,” continues the mayor, “the Navy Yard was nicknamed the ‘Can-Do Yard’ because no place better exemplified the spirit and resolve or our country.”

You don’t have to share Josmar’s suspicions to find these sentiments unsettling. Surely, the only opportunities to arise from climate change will be of the character-building variety, and there are some challenges that must be surmounted regardless of the effect on profitability.

These reflections aside, the report and the mayor’s introduction inject a welcome degree of honesty to the politics of climate change. “We can’t stop nature,” he says, “and so if we’re going to save lives, and protect the lives of communities, we’re going to have to live with some new realities.” It’s important to acknowledge that the city’s greenhouse gas emissions are reported to have dropped by 16 percent during the mayor’s tenure, and a goal of a 30 percent reduction has been set for 2030. In terms of both aims and actuality, New York has, on its own relatively small scale, far exceeded the achievements of the UN’s Kyoto Protocol.

Bloomberg’s speech pauses early on to allow a video to be screened, a collage of first responders, victims and spokespeople in the aftermath of the storm.

Among them is Virginia Deere, captured speaking at her local charette. For anyone who doesn’t know better, the edited Ms. Deere is another booster for the mayor’s office.

Afterward, New York’s journalists dutifully cut and paste the press release. New York magazine manages the impressive feat of publishing six pages on the report without including a single allusion to climate change. For most publications, the take-home details are that 800,000 residents are expected to be living in the 100-year floodplain by 2050, and the number of heat waves is set to increase. More than 250 initiatives are proposed, from small levees and mobile sea walls to an East River counterpart to Battery Park City. With depressing predictability, the forecast from the NPCC is even bleaker than it was four years ago. The sea level may rise more than 2.5 feet come mid-century. All other predictions are up, too. The IPCC statistics have been wholly abandoned.

Klaus has certain reservations on the report now that his work on it is complete: “It was a Herculean task to put the SIRR report together. And there is good and bad news.” Principal among the bad news is the short timeline used. No forecast went beyond mid-century. “If we only plan what is effective on that 2050 time horizon, then we may create liabilities of additional and perhaps irreversible risk exposure to future generations.” And there’s more. “I still believe that retreat from the waterfront in some parts of the city will need to be part of the package.”

As to the future of the most vulnerable areas of the City, Klaus is unambiguous:

“They have the same future as New Orleans. A hundred years from now there is no New Orleans. There may be a very few crests that are occupied by a couple of buildings, but New Orleans as we know it will be gone. It’s not defensible. So places like Staten Island and the Rockaways, but also places like Red Hook, the Newtown Creek area and other low-lying areas, will be parklands and some of them will be water parklands.”

Still, Klaus is an optimist, although not of the Bloomberg variety. Life in New York will not be impossible: “It will just look entirely different. You know the High Line? We will have many high lines. You will walk from building to building on the high line. Some of them might become transportation high lines. Think how New York City looked 200 years ago, when it was a shipping town. Then 100 years ago, when it was a railroad end station, and barges from New Jersey came over to Brooklyn and Manhattan. Now it’s an automobile town. Well, New York might become a water taxi town, where you still have yellow taxis, but they’re boats. They may even be amphibian. Human kind is very adaptive—it’s just very slowly adaptive, and that’s our problem. But New York City has changed all the time, and this is a city that actually has a record of changing fast, compared to Rome or other places.”

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An obvious point of reference when assessing the report is the deadliest extreme weather event to have bubbled out of our new climate—not Sandy, but the European heat wave of 2003. If nothing else, this should make environmentally aware New Yorkers feel much better about their nation’s political inertia. Sandy killed 285 people all told, 43 of whom lived in New York City. In contrast, the 2003 heat wave claimed more than 70,000 European lives. You read that right. If you don’t believe me, look it up. People were dropping so fast in Paris some ended up in unmarked graves. And what was the European reaction to this sign of what’s to come? It was pretty much Congress’s response to the message conveyed by Hurricane Sandy. Nada. But at least the US disaster was graced with an actual name, not just a date.

The Bloomberg report concentrates on infrastructure. Were it to focus on people, it might have given greater consideration to how to keep the city cool. As you’ve probably noticed, cities are hotter than the countryside around them. It’s a consequence of the heat absorbent, mineral-rich materials of the streets and buildings; the ambient heat produced by a density of cars, heating, air conditioners and simple bodies; the lack of greenery; and possibly certain other factors. This is the urban heat island effect, and it operates in a way that’s one of those grim little bonuses greenhouse gases never stop pulling out the hat. An urban environment doesn’t just turn up the thermostat a fraction; it doubles any increase in temperature. According to The City and the Coming Climate, by Brian Stone, a professor at Georgia Tech, “urban temperatures are growing at an average rate of .56 Fahrenheit per decade, compared to a rural rate of .28 Fahrenheit per decade.” To put it another way, as he explains, a city like New York is already living in the hotter world predicted by those mid-century figures from the NPCC, because those figures are global averages, making no allowance for the special conditions within the city.

The Bloomberg report predicts the number of days per year when temperatures go above 90 degrees will increase from 18 at the start of the century to between 45 and 57 by 2050.

“Three out of four of those days will be a heat wave day,” says Brian. “Those are days when people die. That’s how we define what a heat wave day is. That’s just taking figures from one table in this report.”

Working with the report’s forecasts, Brian also predicted a figure for the average peak temperature on a July afternoon in New York 2100, a miserable 98 degrees Fahrenheit. It’ll be a terrible blow to al fresco dining.

In person, Brian is boyish and rather upbeat. In fact, this father of three has written one of the more optimistic books on climate change. What he has found is that cities can substantially reduce their temperatures by using reflective surfaces and increasing the density of vegetation. It sounds absurdly sandals-and-granola, but these techniques, tested on residential parcels in 240 regions in the United States, reduced the demand for cooling energy by between 8 and 25 percent. A study in Toronto showed that developing just 5 percent of the area available into roof gardens lowered temperatures by one degree. This is important stuff, because anything done to cool the city in summer results in less energy being expended on air conditioning, cutting down on carbon emissions, which are, after all, the root of the problem. In New York, this would be especially effective. New Yorkers are responsible for fewer carbon emissions per person than residents of any other US city. At the same time, no other American city produces as much carbon per square foot. If you’re going to cool down 100 square feet anywhere, you’d best do it right here. New York offers the best real estate in the nation for the budding urban environmentalist.

But, in person, Brian can’t keep the conversation positive indefinitely.

“A six-degree-Celsius rise is looking possible,” he says, looking anxious and a touch embarrassed. “At those temperatures, you can’t feed yourself, you can’t grow food. I’ve got a three-year-old son. It’s astounding to me how little we’re doing. We’re not talking about being inconvenienced; we’re talking about not being able to feed our species.” Brian’s a trusting man, like most instinctively decent individuals, and lives to a standard I perhaps can’t match. I suspect that because it doesn’t even occur to me to comply with the request that follows: “Don’t put that in print though. That’s the sad part. If you talk about your research and you conclude with a statement like that, no one will pay attention to you because they’ll think you’re totally off your rocker.”

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