Adapting to a warming planet despite our dysfunctional Congress
I’ve lived in New York City a long time, but I’ve never seen anything like the rainfall that all New Yorkers saw last Friday morning. The duration and intensity of extreme weather events are increasing due to the effects of global warming on the oceans and atmosphere. Things will continue to get worse until we complete the transition from fossil fuels. This shift has already begun, but it won’t happen anytime soon. One of the reasons for the gradual transition is the sheer scale of the changes required and our need to ensure that energy supplies are not disrupted. Our economy and lifestyle depend on energy. The computer I’m writing this on and the website you’re reading this on are not powered by magic: they run primarily on fossil fuels. Another reason for the gradual shift is the self-interest and even greed of the people who own fossil fuel companies and the politicians who live off their donations. However, even if these people realize that their businesses are dying and start investing in renewable energy, it will still take a long time to get there.
At the same time, we need to invest in infrastructure and other measures to enable human settlements to withstand the impacts of extreme weather and to recover and rebuild from the inevitable damage. Currently, Joe Biden has just succeeded in getting Congress to allocate an additional $16 billion to help people in Maui and Florida recover from recent extreme weather disasters. Over the weekend, Congress passed a life raft that would keep the government open for 45 days and slightly delay the budget. The radical ideology that roiled the House sought to block emergency aid and all other federal funding, but ultimately failed, and efforts to reduce government spending and the federal deficit will continue over the next 45 days. I have bad news for them. If we’re going to adapt to climate change, we’ll need to spend more money than we do now, which means we’ll need to (dare I say) raise taxes to do that. I agree that the deficit is too high, but I also think taxes are too low—especially for the many wealthy people and corporations who pay little or no taxes to the federal government. Furthermore, if we are to adapt to global warming, we need more government, not less.
Emergency appropriations for disaster relief are now a fact of the federal budget and will only increase in the coming years. This often delayed and uncertain funding leads directly to human suffering. We need to normalize revenue and expenditure for reconstruction. This cannot be influenced by the whims of the pretentious politicians in Washington, D.C., and as the number of people experiencing extreme weather events in the United States continues to increase now, I doubt even followers of these ideological legislative media will understand that the public is demanding action. Not procrastination – and rebuilding is expensive. Climate-induced disasters have disrupted the insurance industry as many places raise rates and refuse to sell coverage in areas where the risk is too great. We need a federally guaranteed insurance system to ensure that homes and businesses can rebuild after extreme weather events. People should pay for this coverage, but it must be affordable and may need to be subsidized.
In addition to endangered insurance markets, we also need to rethink our public infrastructure. In New York City, we long ago destroyed abundant underground water sources, more than a century ago when city leaders spent vast amounts of public money building reservoirs in the northern part of the city and piping clean water to the five boroughs. Even today, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year patrolling areas around reservoirs and paying locals to keep toxic materials from entering our water systems. Millions more are being spent each year to pay down debt on the third water tunnel and other long-term water-related capital projects. We’ve also spent billions of dollars building sewer and sewage systems to carry waste and water away from our homes and streets, then return it (hopefully in a clean state) back into the waterways around us. It was this system that failed New Yorkers last Friday, as the speed, duration and amount of rain exceeded the system’s capacity.according to Patrick McGeehan and Hillary Howard of New York Times:
“All drainage systems have their limitations, and New York City received 1.75 inches of rain per hour. Unfortunately for many New Yorkers, the storm that flooded the area dropped two hours between 8 and 9 a.m. Friday. inches, and then keep coming. Capacity constraints in the city’s sewer network, pipes and water treatment plants are the main reason why flooding hits New York’s five boroughs. Experts say this likely won’t be the last time the city experiences severe flooding, As it plays catch-up with climate change… Friday’s rush-hour downpours flooded 7,400 miles of pipes that carry stormwater and wastewater underground from the city’s hard surfaces to treatment plants or the nearest rivers and bays. Runoff flowed back into streets. , causing flooding that swamped cars and seeped into basements and subway stations in Brooklyn and Queens.”
Efforts have been made to build green infrastructure and water retention ponds, but it is clear that greater efforts are needed. The question, of course, is how are we going to pay for it? When the storm passes and the flood waters recede, we seem to suffer from storm amnesia, forgetting about the floods and destruction. Like other public policy issues, climate adaptation competes for attention and resources, and action will only be taken when the impacts are too widespread to ignore. Friday’s flooding would need to become worse and more frequent for crisis-scale funding to become a priority.
New York City benefits from at least its leaders not denying the existence of climate change and that these events are a direct result of a warming planet. People in Florida are not even allowed to discuss climate change, and their elected leaders refuse to see that this problem will only persist and get worse. Florida’s low taxes attracted immigrants and led to development in the once sparsely populated area. Now, more and more people are following the path of destruction, and hurricanes are getting stronger and more frequent.
As I have written many times in the past, climate adaptation issues are national and require federal resources. A site might avoid impacts for a decade, only to then get slammed. If we all contribute to a single reconstruction and infrastructure fund, we can systematically build our resilience and regularly rebuild our homes and communities as they are destroyed. I accept that this proposal is not politically feasible. Our House of Representatives is constantly disrupted by a radical minority that cannot see the value of a functioning national government. While we narrowly avoided a government shutdown last weekend, these fanatics are not done attacking our institutions yet. In the complex and crowded world we live in, these people are more interested in destroying our institutions than solving our real and pressing problems. Fortunately, politics works in cycles, and young voters across the political spectrum seem to understand that we are in the midst of a climate crisis and will ultimately take over from whoever runs the place now.
In New York City, the effects of a warming planet were once again frightening Friday morning. Our elected leaders understand the problem, but it must compete for resources with our combined crises of immigration, homelessness, crime, housing and poverty. Unlike some parts of the country, New York City may have the resource base to build a more resilient and sustainable city without federal aid. New York City’s wealth and vitality come from our historic willingness to invest in water, sewerage, ports, roads, bridges, public transportation and energy. But things have to get worse before we invest billions in weatherproofing New York City. While we may not yet have developed the political will needed to focus on resilience, mornings like last Friday may lead us to believe we have no choice.