New York City Moves to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Mayor de Blasio announced today that he will be pushing for the divestment of the city’s pension funds from investments in coal. The Mayor has also proposed that New York City’s public sector pension funds, worth over $160 billion, develop a long-term strategy relative to all fossil fuels in order to “further reduce contributions to climate change while protecting retirees.”

“New York City is a global leader when it comes to taking on climate change and reducing our environmental footprint. It’s time that our investments catch up – and divestment from coal is where we must start,” said the Mayor in a statement.

Noting that the Mayor’s announcement came the day after a White House summit on how to expand offshore wind power projects, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Judith Enck stated that, “every level of government has a vital role to play to reduce carbon pollution that threatens our children’s future.”

The city’s five pension funds’ assets total over $160 billion. This includes at least $33 million of exposure to thermal coal alone in the public markets, reports the Mayor’s Office.

Perhaps the pension funds will eventually consider investing in the Long Island – New York City Offshore Wind Project, which has been described as the largest potential offshore wind project in the U.S. If executed, almost 200 3.6-megawatt wind turbines would be constructed 13 miles off the Rockaway Peninsula. The project is currently working its way through a multi-year federal review process.

Making the case that divesting from fossil fuels is smart financially

The de Blasio administration says it will meet with the city’s five primary pension boards over the coming months to “examine the specific impact and optimal reallocation of these assets [currently invested in fossil fuels].”

The city’s five primary pension funds are administered on behalf of public school teachers and other Board of Education employees, police and fire department personnel, along with employees from other city agencies.

According to the Mayor’s Office, an initial analysis has found that divestment from coal “poses little risk to pension fund returns, especially given the federal EPA’s new clean power plant rules and increased regulatory limitations on emissions, which help reduce the attractiveness of thermal coal as an investment.”

John Adler, who directs the Mayor’s Office of Pensions and Investments, argues that investing in coal at this juncture is risky. There is an urgent need, Adler says, to “address the risks that climate change poses to the long-term performance of the pension funds that protect the futures of our over 700,000 beneficiaries.”

Striving towards an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Taking action on pension fund investments is the de Blasio administration’s latest initiative related to climate change. The city has set the goal of an 80 percent reduction [relative to 2005 levels] in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the cleanest air of any large U.S. city by 2030.

“Divesting from coal reflects both our emissions reduction and clean air goals,” said Nilda Mesa, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, in a statement. “Ozone that drifts to NYC from coal-powered plants is a major source of smog, which affects our most vulnerable populations… We should be investing in energy sources that lower greenhouse gas emissions, as well as make our air cleaner.”

The de Blasio administration says it also plans to “dramatically” increase the use of renewable energy in New York, including a new initiative to power 100 percent of city government operations from renewable sources.

Referring to the twin goals of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 and moving towards renewables, the Mayor noted that, “we’re going to need every city asset helping us achieve them.”

It’s Climate Week in NYC: and there are lots of ways to join in!

One year ago this week, as many as 400,000 people marched through the streets of Manhattan demanding action on climate change. Organizers say the People’s Climate March was the largest mass action on climate change to date.

The past year has been marked by protests and organizing across the globe related to climate change — from Pacific Islanders blockading the world’s largest coal port in Australia to “kayaktivists” blocking Shell’s Arctic drilling rig in Seattle.

And in just a few weeks, on November 30th, the U.N. Paris Climate Summit will commence with the goal of creating “a universal, legally binding agreement that will enable us to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies.”

This week in New York City, climate change is taking center stage.

1.) The Pope will be speaking at the United Nations on Friday. His comments on climate change are widely anticipated. Also- the U.N. is setting a new global sustainable development agenda this week.

2.) On Thursday, two events are happening in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza (East 47th Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan, across the street from the U.N.) in anticipation of the Pope’s visit.

Light the Way multifaith gathering at 4:30pm: Participants from many spiritual traditions will join in a “festival” of song and prayer in support of Pope Francis’ message on the urgency of addressing climate change and poverty.

Under One Sky rally at 6pm: Rally of religious and civil society groups and others to shine a light on climate change, poverty and inequality, and support the U.N.’s sustainable development goals.

According to organizers, “the night before world leaders meet in New York to announce the new Global Goals intended to tackle the most urgent issues of our time – poverty, inequality and climate change – we’ll be coming together to ensure they feel the pressure of all of us demanding these goals translate into reality.

And we won’t be alone. People will be coming together in over 100 countries to demonstrate their shared vision for a better future – from Australia to India, South Africa to Brazil – millions will take action around the world.”

3.) Climate Week events series, organized by the Climate Group, an international non-profit whose goal is a “prosperous, low carbon future.”

Check out the extensive events calendar for Climate Week 2015.

The Climate Group says they are working with corporate and government partners to achieve a “clean revolution: the rapid scale-up of low carbon energy and technology.” The way to achieve this clean revolution, they say, is to “develop climate finance mechanisms, business models which promote innovation, and supportive policy frameworks.”

4.) Climate Crisis and Community workshop on Sunday

350 NYC has organized a workshop series this Sunday to discuss the Paris climate talks and the broader climate change movement, and how best to push for a “renewable energy revolution.”

The workshop is at 1:30pm at Goddard Riverside Community Center, 593 Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.

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Electric car enthusiasts at the 2014 People’s Climate March.

Says 350 NYC, “In November and December, there will be actions and demonstrations around the world to drive home the message that the world needs to get off of fossil fuels now. This weekend, hundreds of local climate action groups like 350 NYC are holding workshops and teach-ins to start getting ready.”

 

 

Climate summit in Brooklyn this week as countdown to 2015 U.N. negotiations begins

2015 is unfolding as planet earth’s hottest year on record as U.N. climate treaty negotiations are set to start in Paris this December. The New York City area has just experienced its third warmest August since local record keeping began.

In response, climate activists are convening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this Thursday night to propose a roadmap for New York’s (and this country’s) complete transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.

Now is the time to “turn off the flow of carbon. The engineers are telling us that we are ready to turn on the abundant flow of sun and wind,” the event’s organizer, 350NYC.org, states.

[350.org gets its name from the finding by climate scientists that in order to avoid the more extreme effects of climate change, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere needs to remain below 350 parts per million. The current level is 400 ppm.]

The majority of greenhouse gases which drive climate change, such as carbon dioxide, come from burning fossil fuels to produce energy, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Deforestation, industrial processes, and some agricultural practices also emit gases into the atmosphere, they note.

Speakers at thursday’s event will include:

NYS plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions- will it be enough?

It will be really interesting to hear what climate activists have to say Thursday night about the progress we are making here in New York on combating climate change.

Both New York State and City say they plan to drastically cut carbon emissions. The State’s long-term goal is to decrease total carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

To date, New York State has reportedly cut greenhouse gas emissions 12 percent from 1990 levels, and it says it plans to achieve a 40 percent reduction in the next 15 years.

2015: the hottest year on record

As Scientific American reported on August 20th:

“In data released Thursday, NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] measured July at 1.46°F above the 20th century July average. Because July is also climatologically the warmest month of any year, this was also the warmest month the globe has seen since 1880, topping the previous record-holder, July 1998, by 0.14°F.

For the year-to-date, 2015 is 1.53°F above the 20th century average, and 0.16°F ahead of 2010, which had the previous warmest January through July.”

Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.4°F over the past century, and is projected to rise another 2 to 11.5°F over the next hundred years, says the EPA. “Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.”

What’s the goal for this year’s climate negotiations?

Starting November 30th, France will host the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21/CMP11), otherwise known as “Paris 2015.”

The goal is to keep average global temperatures from climbing 3.6°F higher than the 20th century average.

“The aim is to reach, for the first time,” says COP21, “a universal, legally binding agreement that will enable us to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies.”

While there is ongoing debate about whether remaining below a 3.6°F increase is even realistic, scientists say that a temperature rise of that magnitude would lead to “drastic changes,” such as significant ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antarctica.

Mitigation and adaptation

Indeed, the ice sheet in Greenland -the second largest glacial ice mass on Earth- is already experiencing a “significant” shrinkage in thickness…”contributing to sea level rise.” The freshwater stored in the Greenland ice sheet has a sea level equivalent of 24 feet (7.4 meters).

Permanent melting of the ice sheet would not only dramatically increase sea level, but also likely alter ocean circulation patterns and the global climate, say scientists.

For that reason, says COP21, the agreement hammered out in Paris must focus equally on mitigation (the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming) and adaptation to the climate change already underway.

The complexity of such a global negotiation is only rivaled by what is at stake.

“These efforts must take into account the needs and capacities of each country,” says COP21. “The agreement will enter into force in 2020 and will need to be sustainable to enable long-term change.”

 

 

NYS Banned Fracking for Public Health Reasons But the Battle Over Gas Pipelines Continues

We are at “a critical moment in our fight to free New York from fossil fuels,” say environmental activists who convened in Albany this week. They are demanding that state officials deny a permit needed for construction of a natural gas pipeline across four upstate counties.

While high-volume hydraulic fracturing -fracking- was banned last year in New York State for public health reasons, pipelines and other gas infrastructure continue to be built here. Natural gas drilled in other states is being moved through New York, both for local consumption and delivery elsewhere.

A segment of the state’s environmental movement is calling for a complete break with natural gas- due to concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of gas infrastructure on local communities and ecology.

Thirteen people from six New York counties were reportedly arrested last week as part of a civil disobedience action against the expansion of natural gas storage [and the introduction of liquid petroleum storage] in salt caverns adjacent to Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes.

Activists read verses from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter on climate change while blockading the Crestwood gas storage facility on August 4th, said advocacy group We Are Seneca Lake.

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Demonstrators at the Crestwood gas storage facility adjacent to Seneca Lake in October, 2014. Photo credit: EcoWatch

The civil disobedience action took place one day after President Obama and the federal EPA announced a plan to set “first-ever” carbon pollution standards for U.S. power plants.

Long-running debate about how natural gas fits in with a clean energy economy

While the President and elected officials across New York State have repeatedly raised the long-term threat posed by climate change and the need to develop a “clean energy” economy, there is no consensus about how to approach natural gas, a fossil fuel.

Proponents of natural gas say it releases significantly lower levels of carbon (than coal, for example) when burned. Natural gas is an abundant and affordable local energy source that can be used as renewable forms of energy -like hydro, wind and solar- expand and become cost-effective, they add.

Opponents charge that methane releases from pipelines and other gas infrastructure pose an enormous risk to the climate. According to the EPA, methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. from human activities.

Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, says the EPA, but “pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 [methane] on climate change is 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.”

Nonetheless, reports the EPA, methane emissions in the U.S. decreased by almost 15% between 1990 and 2013. This is partially due to the fact that “emissions decreased from sources associated with the exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum products.”

Fracking banned in NYS, but gas pipeline construction continues

Expansion of natural gas infrastructure throughout New York continues. Indeed, two new gas pipelines -one crossing the Hudson River and the other off the coast of the Rockaways- have recently been completed in New York City.

The proposed Constitution Pipeline, which will move natural gas from fracking fields in Pennsylvania through southern New York State, has already been conditionally approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

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Protest against the Constitution Pipeline. Photo credit: Daily Star

As NYER reported in December, the federal approval authorizes pipeline developers to invoke eminent domain in order to obtain access rights from unwilling property owners.

The pipeline will stretch 124 miles, from Susquehanna County, Pa. through hundreds of parcels in New York’s Broome, Chenango, Delaware, and Schoharie counties.

The proposed route of the Constitution Pipeline is shown in red.
The proposed route of the Constitution Pipeline is shown in red.

The pipeline will terminate at a compressor station in the town of Wright, Schoharie County, and its contents will be transferred into the existing Tennessee and Iroquois pipelines for transport into New England. The feds have also greenlighted the “Interconnect Project” in Wright.

Pipeline opponents gathering in Albany this week

A coalition of groups including Catskill Mountainkeeper, the New York branch of the Sierra Club and New Yorkers Against Fracking are in Albany this week, demanding that Governor Cuomo and the state Department of Environmental Conservation deny a Water Quality Certificate necessary for construction of the Constitution Pipeline to go forward. The certificate is required by the federal Clean Water Act.

Activists charge that pipeline construction will destroy over 1,000 acres of forests and farmland, clear cut over 700,000 trees, and cross over 277 waterways in upstate New York.

“There is no possible way to tear through the sensitive hills, forests, wetlands, and streams where this pipeline is proposed without threatening water quality and degrading aquatic habitat,” Catskill Mountainkeeper program director Wes Gillingham said in a statement.

Battle over gas storage continues in the Finger Lakes

Activists are also challenging a proposed underground liquid petroleum gas (LPG) facility, and the expansion of natural gas storage, in caverns adjacent to the western shore of Seneca Lake.

Seneca Lake is a major tourist destination in the Finger Lakes district, and lies in the heart of New York’s upstate wine region. It also serves as a source of drinking water for an estimated 100,000 area residents.

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Seneca Lake.

The storage facility would utilize existing underground caverns in the Syracuse Salt Formation. These caverns were originally excavated by U.S. Salt and other mining companies.

Texas-based Crestwood Midstream already has a methane (natural gas) storage facility in two caverns within the formation. The existing facility connects with the Dominion and Millenium pipelines, which deliver gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and other drilling sites. Crestwood has received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to expand methane storage within the caverns.

While the feds have jurisdiction over the methane gas storage portion of the project, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has final say over the storage of LPG, mostly propane and butane. Crestwood is now seeking permission to store about 88.2 million gallons of LPG in the caverns.

Participants in last week’s civil disobedience action at Crestwood ranged in age from 20 to 70 years old. Opponents say that there have been 332 arrests in the eight-month-old campaign against gas storage at Seneca Lake.

Why have some New Yorkers decided to risk arrest?

Joshua Enderle, age 20, who lives in Cuba, Allegany County, made the following statement about his decision to participate in last week’s action at Crestwood:

“By now it is common knowledge that fossil fuels contribute to global climate change and we hold the technology to produce clean and renewable energy that will last generations, but current social, economic, and political systems suppress these advancements and continually allow the reckless exploitation of natural resources as well as threatening the balance of Earth’s life support systems.”

 

New reasons for New Yorkers to be hopeful about national action on climate change

In the hours leading up to last night’s Republican presidential debate, Governor Jerry Brown of California tweeted out the following question to prospective candidates: What is your plan to deal with the threat of climate change?

Despite the intransigence of the Republican Party on the issue of climate change, the results of two surveys released in the last few days offer a glimmer of hope about where the national conversation on climate change may be going.

It’s not a moment too soon.

Federal inaction on climate change for the last quarter century has become almost surreal. News reports from the West, where devastating drought and historic wildfires are afflicting several states, point to a long-term crisis with no solution in sight. Governor Brown has drawn a direct line between California’s 4-year drought and climate change.

california drought
The perimeter of the Almaden Reservoir in San Jose, California. January, 2014. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Why does this matter for New Yorkers? Because we won’t be able to go it alone on climate change even if we want to. No matter how much we cut back on carbon emissions, our area sea levels and weather patterns will be increasingly impacted by the collective amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

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Picking up the pieces on Staten Island after Superstorm Sandy.

The wildfires this summer in California and other states are a case in point. One of the concerns -beyond the local devastation they are causing- is that they are releasing significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Consider this analysis published in yesterday’s Washington Post:

“Before 2000, there is no year on record with more than eight million acres burned across the U.S., according to figures going back to 1983 provided by the National Interagency Fire Center…

Since 2000, however, there have been six years with more than eight million acres burned, and three with over 9 million burned. And 2015, with nearly six million acres burned already — well above the ten year average for this time of the year — could potentially join this list….

It is becoming almost trite to state that this has something to do with climate change. Wildfire risks are strongly influenced by local climatic factors which, in turn, are trending because of changes to the global climate. Heat and dryness favor wildfires — that’s why this year has fire-watchers so concerned, because western drought has been so widespread.”

Where do Americans stand today on climate change?

According to the results of a Quinnipiac University poll released four days ago, U.S. voters support Pope Francis’ call for action to address climate change by a 65 to 27 percent margin.

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Marchers from Coney Island at the 2014 People’s Climate March. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

Even more interesting, a July, 2015 survey of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina indicates that there may be broader support than previously imagined for a pro-active national response to climate change.

The survey was commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters, and carried out by American Viewpoint, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia.

The survey found the following:

1.) The Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire and South Carolina is fairly conservative, yet they still show support for pro-environment policies.

2.) Republican primary voters want to expand the development of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar; and they have mixed views about “traditional” energy sources, such as coal and oil.

Almost three-quarters of Republicans polled -both in New Hampshire and South Carolina- want the U.S. to increase its use of renewable energy.

And, almost three-quarters (72 percent) of New Hampshire Republican primary voters and 68 percent of South Carolina voters say a clean energy plan is important to them when deciding which presidential candidate to support.

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The Long Island Solar Farm at Brookhaven National Laboratory, currently the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in the Eastern United States. The plant is generating enough renewable energy to power approximately 4,500 homes. Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory

3.) There are several clean energy policies that have broad appeal to Republican primary voters.

These proposals all scored well (ranging from a high of 77 percent to a low of 46 percent approving) with Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina:

  • eliminating corporate tax loopholes for oil companies as part of reducing taxes for all Americans;
  • modernizing and upgrading power lines to minimize energy loss;
  • improving energy efficiency in homes, offices, businesses, etc.;
  • expanding access to job training for clean energy jobs; and
  • providing tax incentives for investment in new energy technologies like solar panels and hybrid or electric cars.

Smaller groups of Republican voters were surveyed about setting national targets for renewable energy use, and there was surprising support for this idea as well.

The goal that one-third of all U.S. energy should come from renewable sources by 2030 had the support of almost half of Republicans surveyed in New Hampshire and South Carolina; as did the even higher target of going 50 percent renewable by 2030.

4.) Majorities of Republican primary voters believe in climate change.

In New Hampshire, 51 percent of Republican primary voters said there is solid evidence that climate change is happening; while 48 percent of South Carolina voters agreed with the same statement.

It is worth noting that surveyors did not specifically refer to climate change as “man-made” when they spoke with voters.

5.) There is significant support among Republican primary voters for policies to address carbon pollution.

Nearly 60 percent of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina favored placing limits on carbon pollution.

Surprisingly, even a majority of Republicans in both states supported the EPA proposal to set strict carbon dioxide limits on existing coal-fired power plants (50 percent in New Hampshire and 52 percent in South Carolina).

There is even greater support for action at the state level. Three-quarters of Republican primary voters in both states favored their state “developing its own plan to reduce carbon pollution and increase the use of clean energy and energy efficiency.”

What makes these survey responses so powerful is that they show a potential way forward for U.S. public policy on climate change. Read more here about the survey’s results and methodology.

Will we ever address climate change at the national level?

In the face of federal inaction, New York State and City have moved ahead on both climate change mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (preparing for the impacts of more carbon in the atmosphere).

Take a look at the “Climate” section on our website to learn more.

Whether New York State and City are doing enough to address climate change is an open question. But there is no doubt that our elected officials feel they have a mandate to move forward.

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South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan after Superstorm Sandy. Photo: Associated Press

Many states and municipalities are doing the same thing. Look at the city of Chicago’s plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050; or the state of California’s goals to cut petroleum use in half and go 50 percent renewable by 2030.

One reason we may never have federal action on climate change – it has long been argued- is that the American electorate is simply too divided about government’s role in addressing the issue.

The prevailing wisdom has been that a sizable proportion of U.S. voters, especially those not living on the “more progressive” East and West coasts, are ambivalent about concerted government action on climate change, such as establishing a carbon tax or subsidies for renewable energy development.

Republican voters, it is said, are especially reactionary on the topic. After all, they have elected numerous representatives to Congress (and other political offices) who even question whether climate change is real.

But the results of last month’s survey begin to call assertions about American public opinion into question. At the very least, people’s minds may be shifting as Americans suffer through catastrophic storms, historic flooding, devastating droughts and wildfires.

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Devastation after Superstorm Sandy.

The real question is this: how prepared are any of the presidential candidates -Republican or otherwise- to fight for their constituents’ views on climate change?

 

Uh Oh. Two New Studies Warn Sea Level Rise Is Coming, and Fast.

Two studies out in recent days put New York City at a severe risk of climate change-enhanced flooding—and much sooner than previously thought.

2 Degrees, Surging Seas

The first is a comprehensive new review in the journal Science that shows that if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F), sea levels will rise about 20 feet. Obviously, this could have dramatic impacts on  coastal cities across the globe—including our favorite coastal metropolis, New York City.

If the data is accurate, the authors suggest this could all happen by 2200.

Entire neighborhoods in NYC would be submerged—the East and West Village, TriBeCa, Chelsea, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Coney Island, Long Island City, and the Rockaways to name a few—and nearly 2 million people could be displaced.

A map built by the group Climate Control using this data, shows the impact that two degrees Celsius could have on America’s coastlines.

A significant portion of lower Manhattan would be underwater.
A significant portion of lower Manhattan would be underwater. Image via Climate Central.
Coney Island and the Rockaways would be completely submerged.
Coney Island and the Rockaways would be completely submerged. Image via Climate Central.

Help Me, Hansen

A bicyclist making his way past a stranded taxi on a flooded New York City Street as Tropical Storm Irene passes through the city in August, 2011.
A bicyclist making his way past a stranded taxi on a flooded New York City Street as Tropical Storm Irene passes through the city in August, 2011. Photo credit: AP

The second study is written by James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, along with 16 co-authors, and will soon be published in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry. It posits that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous estimates, which will result in sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years.

According to Slate, the study focuses on

“a feedback loop in the ocean near Antarctica that results in cooler freshwater from melting glaciers forcing warmer, saltier water underneath the ice sheets, speeding up the melting rate.”

Hansen gives no specific timeline, but suggests the feedback loop is likely to occur this century—that is, by 2100.

If correct, Hansen’s findings mean that ice is melting and seas are rising much faster than expected. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected closer to 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Even that amount that would mean serious consequences for New York City residents, and would put runways of JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports underwater.

As Slate’s Eric Holthaus puts it, “New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left.”

According to Hansen, this report requires “emergency cooperation among nations.” He continues:

“We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

Time to batten down the hatches and get to work.

City’s Climate Scientists Broaden Research to Include both Neighborhood & Regional Risks

It’s an obvious point, but one worth stressing- climate change will not impact all 8 million-plus New York City residents in the same way. Depending on where exactly you live, your socio-economic status, age and general health, and so many other factors, the impacts of climate change could affect you somewhat differently than even your immediate neighbors.

And New York City doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our local economy, transportation networks, and coastline and waterways intersect with those across the region. This is also important to consider when preparing for a global phenomenon like climate change.

Think of the flooded New Jersey oil refineries around New York Harbor that caused gas shortages in the days after Sandy.

In light of these enormous complexities, the de Blasio administration says it will be examining the risks posed by climate change using a broader set of measures, including social equity and the vulnerabilities of the entire New York City metro area.

Volunteers help unload food from a truck for distribution to the residents of the Lower East Side who remain without power due to Superstorm Sandy, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, in New York.  In Manhattan, where 226,000 buildings, homes and business remain without power, Consolidated Edison says they should have service restored by Saturday.  (AP Photo/ John Minchillo)
Volunteers unloading food from a truck for distribution to Lower East Side residents without power due to Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/ John Minchillo)

Mayor de Blasio announced the new metrics yesterday at the launch of the third New York City Panel on Climate Change [NPCC], an independent body that advises the City on climate risks and resiliency.

Created during the Bloomberg administration, the Panel’s goal is to ensure that the best available climate science continues to inform the City’s resiliency planning. The NPCC works in partnership with entities such as the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

There are currently 19 scientists on the Panel. The NPCC is led by William Solecki, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, and Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The third NPCC will build on previous research, the Mayor’s office said, but will also look at “climate risks through the lens of inequality at a neighborhood scale, as well as focus on ways to enhance coordination of mitigation and resiliency across the entire New York metropolitan region.”

Climate change- at the human scale

New York City’s need to plan for the impacts of climate change at the human scale was raised as an issue before Superstorm Sandy. In its first years, the NPCC’s research helped the Bloomberg administration to ascertain how climate change would impact the critical infrastructure that serves millions of New Yorkers, such as the electrical grid, the subway system, and power and sewage treatment plants.

In the summer of 2012 -weeks before Sandy struck- the New York City Council voted in favor of a bill that enlarged the scope of the NPCC to focus on populations that are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events — such as the elderly, children and the poor. The legislation also made the panel, and a related task force comprised of government agencies, utilities and other private companies, permanent.

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Woman receiving assistance at a New York City emergency shelter during Superstorm Sandy. Photo credit: People’s Daily Online.

“The panel’s work to date has shaped so much of our sustainability and resiliency efforts,” said Mayor de Blasio in a statement yesterday.

The Mayor referenced the City’s push to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, and the April, 2015 release of One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City, which seeks to integrate four massive goals- economic growth, climate resiliency, environmental sustainability, and social equity.

“Now, NPCC3 will build on that strong foundation, ensuring that – as we adapt to climate risks – we are doing so in a way that serves all New Yorkers and reflects the regional collaboration we need,” the Mayor added.

[For a deeper look at how the City is preparing for climate change, take a look at our analysis published in April, together with the Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY.]

A warning to all New Yorkers

The NPCC’s most recent report – Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency – was released in February 2015.

Crowds wait for free gas November 3, 2012 at the Brooklyn Armory in New York City. With the death toll currently over 90 and millions of homes and businesses without power, the US east coast is attempting to recover from the effects of floods, fires and power outages brought on by Superstorm Sandy.
Waiting for free gas at the Brooklyn Armory days after Superstorm Sandy. Photo credit: Koan Collective

The authors lead off the report with the following statement:

“The climate of the New York metropolitan region is changing—annual temperatures are hotter, heavy downpours are increasingly frequent, and the sea is rising.

These trends, which are also occurring in many parts of the world, are projected to continue and even worsen in the coming decades due to higher concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere caused by burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests for agriculture.

These changing climate hazards increase the risks for the people, economy, and infrastructure of New York City. As was demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy, populations living in coastal and low-lying areas, the elderly and very young, and lower-income neighborhoods are highly vulnerable.”

According to the report, area sea levels could increase 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, they could rise by as much as six feet.

The report suggests that the 12 inches of local sea level rise that have already occurred since 1900 may have expanded Superstorm Sandy’s flood area by approximately 25 square miles.

What are the City’s scientists recommending?

The authors of the 2015 report present a series of recommendations for climate resiliency. You can read through them in the report’s executive summary.

The NPCC states that New York City should both prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change (adaptation); but it can also take steps to reduce the severity of what is coming (mitigation). Here are just two of the NPCC’s recommendations.

1.) New York City needs “an integrated approach that includes engineering, ecosystems, and social strategies.”

In more straightforward terms, this means that the city will need hard infrastructure (like sea walls) and natural solutions (like healthy wetlands) to protect neighborhoods from dangerous storm surges.

But we will also need strong social networks (possibly supported by well organized and funded neighborhood groups) in order to adequately protect vulnerable residents during extreme weather events.

Such an approach “is vital to ensuring climate resiliency in the coming decades. Land use planning for sustainable infrastructure systems, particularly in coastal zones and low-lying areas, is especially important,” the NPCC adds.

2.) At the same time, New York City should develop and support programs and policies (such as the de Blasio administration’s One City: Built to Last plan) that “work to reduce GHG emissions in order to limit the rate of future climate change and the magnitude of the associated risks.”

New climate risk assessment coming in 2016

A new NPCC report will be released in 2016. The report will tackle additional subject areas, such as:

  • Regional climate projections focusing on extreme events
  • Critical infrastructure systems at the regional level: with a focus on interdependent transportation and energy systems
  • Community-based assessment of adaptation and equity: with a focus on the neighborhood scale
  • How to establish a “New York City climate resiliency indicators and monitoring system”
  • How to develop maps that more effectively show NYC area vulnerabilities and climate resiliency, as well as geographic interdependencies

Who are the scientists carrying out climate research on behalf of New York City?

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The co-chairs of the NYC Panel on Climate Change: William Solecki, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, and Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Photo credit: Roosevelt House, Hunter College

Thirteen members of the NPCC have been re-appointed by the Mayor. 

  • CYNTHIA ROSENZWEIG: Co-Chair, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
  • WILLIAM SOLECKI: Co-Chair, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities and Professor of Geography at Hunter College-CUNY
  • REGINALD BLAKE: Member, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center
  • VIVIEN GORNITZ: Senior Research Scientist, Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University and NASA Goddard Institute for Space studies
  • KLAUS JACOB: Special Research Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Adjunct Professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
  • PATRICK KINNEY: Director, Program on Climate and Health, Mailman School at Columbia University
  • HOWARD KUNREUTHER: James G. Dinan Professor; Professor of Decision Sciences and Business and Public Policy at the Wharton School
  • YOCHANAN KUSHNIR: Director of the Cooperative Institute for Climate Applications and Research (CICAR)
  • ROBIN LEICHENKO: Associate Professor, Department of Geography at Rutgers University
  • NING LIN: NOAA Climate and Global Change post-doctoral fellow
  • GUY NORDENSON: Structural Engineer and Professor of Architecture and Structural Engineering, Princeton University
  • MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University
  • GARY YOHE: Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics at Wesleyan University.

The NPCC also has six new members.

  • ALAN F. BLUMBERG: George Meade Bond Professor & Director of the Center for Maritime Systems, Stevens Institute of Technology; Founder of the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS)
  • BRIAN A. COLLE: Full Professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Faculty Director of the University Scholars Program at Stony Brook
  • SHEILA FOSTER: Vice Dean, Albert A. Walsh Professor of Real Estate, Land Use & Property Law; Co-Director, Stein Center for Law and Ethics, Fordham University
  • DR. JORGE GONZALEZ CRUZ: Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Director, ESES & the Alliance for Continuous Learning Environments for STEM at CUNY
  • DR. IRWIN REDLENER: Professor of Health Policy and Management (The Earth Institute), Columbia University; Special Advisor, NYC OEM
  • RAE ZIMMERMAN: Professor of Planning and Public Administration, NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

NYC Challenges Accuracy of FEMA Flood Maps

City officials announced last Friday they will challenge new FEMA maps that greatly expand flood zones in New York City.

The federal maps, set to go into effect in 2016, would nearly triple the number of properties included in official flood zones, and affect more than 400,000 citizens.

Alternative maps proposed by the de Blasio administration would reduce the number of buildings in the proposed FEMA flood zones by nearly half. This could have a profound impact on the flood insurance burdens faced by residents.

But questions also linger about the wisdom of reducing flood zones in a post-Sandy era—and some climate experts wonder whether the FEMA maps actually go far enough.

Whose Maps are Inaccurate?

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FEMA maps with 2010 updates compared to proposed 2016 FEMA maps.

Daily News reports that city officials claim up to 35% of the area FEMA designated as flood-prone is labeled inaccurately. The city argues that federal calculations used a flawed analysis of prior storms, among other reasons.

Many of the homes that would be affected by the new maps are in South Brooklyn (Canarsie), South Queens (Howard Beach, the Rockaways), and Staten Island.

As NYER has reported in the past, these new FEMA maps will have important implications for resiliency projects, human safety, and government policy, but nowhere will the impact be felt more than on individual home flood insurance rates.

Under the proposed FEMA maps, a typical home in the high-risk zones could see premiums increase from around $1,000 in 2014 to nearly $14,500 by 2030.

According to Daily News, the city hired outside engineers to create its own maps. By their estimates, only 230,000 New Yorkers live in flood zones, which include 45,000 buildings. That’s 26,500 fewer buildings than the new FEMA maps count, and 170,000 fewer people.

The review process could take more than a year to complete; no insurance changes will be made during that time.

A Post-Sandy Era

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Flooded Battery Park Tunnel after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Timothy Krause/Creative Commons.

While many, including U.S Senator Charles Schumer, applaud the city’s new calculations, there are others who question the wisdom (and safety) of reducing flood zones in a time of changing climate.

Indeed, there are some who wonder if FEMA’s maps actually went far enough. The Natural Resources Defense Council claims that FEMA’s maps are based on outdated data that does not take into account future effects of climate change, including sea level rise that has occurred just in the last 10 years.

In addition, NRDC found FEMA’s computer models were not calibrated against data from Hurricane Sandy. As a result “the new 100-year flood zone mapped by FEMA is significantly smaller than the area at risk of flooding assuming 3 feet of sea level rise or the surge from a Category 3 hurricane.” By comparison, Sandy was barely a Category 1 storm.

NYER will be covering additional reactions to New York City’s challenge to the FEMA maps in coming days. Stay tuned.

 

NYS Aims to Cut GHG Emissions by Almost 30% in the Next 15 Years. Possible?

As climate change marches on, it’s hard to understand how we as a country will be able to turn this situation around. Our attachment to fossil fuels seems so intractable, and Congress still debates whether climate change is even real. But that’s only part of the story.

Albany [the NYS Energy Research & Development Authority] has just released its 2015 New York State Energy Plan. We are reading it closely now and will have more to say shortly. Take a second to absorb the fact that almost 100,000 New Yorkers commented on a draft of the plan. That’s a lot of people!

If you have the time, check out the plan’s overview. Here are the key goals articulated by the plan for the next 15 years:

1.) 40 percent reduction in New York’s greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels.

To date, NYS has cut GHG emissions 12 percent from 1990 levels- we have 28 percent to go. The State’s long-term goal is to decrease total carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

How will that happen? By reducing GHG emissions from the energy sector- which is responsible for overall power generation, including power for industry, buildings, transportation, and our general lifestyle.

2.) Half of electricity generation to come from renewable energy sources.

“Renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, hydropower, and biomass, will play a vital role in reducing electricity price volatility and curbing carbon emissions,” says the State.

3.) 23 percent decrease in energy consumption in buildings from 2012 levels.

Energy efficiency results in lower energy bills and is the single most cost-effective tool in achieving energy objectives, the State argues.

Renewable Energy- wind, solar and more

As part of the Plan, the State has eight renewable energy categories on which it will focus. We are using the Plan’s language in our summaries below.

  1. Large-Scale Renewables (e.g., wind farms and large solar arrays)- Centralized generation and transmission will continue to serve as the backbone of NY’s power grid. The State is making a 10-year budget commitment of $1.5 billion to stimulate greater investment in large scale renewables and put them on a path to grid-parity. The State has been investing in large-scale renewables since the 1950s, when the NY Power Authority developed its first hydroelectric stations. Since 2004, energy developers have built nearly 1,900 MW of clean power using state incentives.
  2. NY-Sun Initiative- launched in 2014, the $1 billion program provides long term support to the statewide solar industry using a declining incentive schedule. The goal is to create a self-sustaining solar market in New York, with an expected 3,000 megawatts of solar capacity added to the state’s electricity mix by 2023.
  3. K-Solar- helps K-12 schools go solar cost-effectively by aggregating hundreds of schools into regional procurement processes. Through May 2015, nearly 270 public school districts -over 35 percent of all districts in the state- have signed up for the program.
  4. “Shared” Renewables- only a quarter of residential rooftop area in the U.S. is suitable for hosting solar PV. Through “community net metering” New Yorkers will be able to participate in local renewable energy projects of all types and receive credit on their utility bills for their portion of the power produced.
  5. Offshore Wind Initiative-  creates an ecosystem for offshore wind that enables projects to develop at scale, rather than on a project-by-project basis. Includes forming a regional wind collaborative w-other northeastern states, and establishing “wind energy areas” throughout the Atlantic Bight coastal area.
  6. Renewable Heat NY & Other Renewable Thermal Technologies- supports greater use of “advanced” (less environmentally harmful) wood heating equipment, plus other renewable heating/cooling technologies and fuels (e.g., solar space and water heating, ground and air source heat pumps).
  7. Clean Organic Waste Management– helps the state’s wastewater treatment, agriculture, food processing, and waste management sectors to re-use organic waste. This includes anaerobic digestion, which turns waste into biogas.
  8. Sustainable Fuel Production–  re-uses agricultural and organic waste feedstock, especially as a substitute for petroleum fuels imported from out-of-state.

Here’s what some environmental groups have to say about the State’s energy plan

Conor Bambrick, air and energy director for Environmental Advocates of New York:

“The State Energy Plan sets clear benchmarks and standards that will operationalize Governor Cuomo’s prior commitment to reducing climate pollution 80 percent by 2050…The Governor and his team deserve credit for such an aggressive plan.

There will be no way to achieve these goals, however, if the state continues to make bad decisions that stall progress and exacerbate our climate problems, such as re-firing outdated fossil fuel plants and raiding carbon abatement programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

[Public] comments focused largely on issues like climate change, wind and solar power, and the need for the state to reduce climate pollution across all economic sectors. It’s an enormous level of engagement…We applaud people for taking time out of their lives to make their voices heard!

We will also work with the [NYS] Legislature to codify them [the State’s greenhouse gas reduction objectives]. The Assembly passed legislation to do this (A.6072), but Senate leadership has failed to bring the bill up for a vote. It is time for these goals to be set into law.”

And Jackson Morris, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted in a blog post yesterday:

“This is great for the climate, no doubt about it. But it’s also what New York needs to further build its economy. Plans like these, when designed well and thoughtfully implemented, create jobs and save consumers serious money on energy.

New York’s experience in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a case in point. The program, which includes nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, has helped cut greenhouse gas pollution from power plants by more than 40 percent since it was first implemented in 2005.

At the same time, the region’s economy has grown faster than the rest of the country’s, adding thousands of new jobs in fields like energy efficiency and renewable energy, and saving customers hundreds of millions on their energy bills already, with billions more to come.”

Embracing Our Waterfront, Despite Its Uncertain Future

The following interview was published today on AdaptNY.

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One of the organizations frequently at the forefront of New York’s resiliency thinking is the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a non-profit partnership of some 800 NGOs focused on metro-area waterways. Whether with a recently developed set of waterfront resilient building guidelines, or an about-to-be-released analysis of the long-term costs of resiliency, the alliance has delved deep into the complexities of protecting the city’s coastline from the risks of climate change.

The alliance holds its annual Waterfront Conference tomorrow, May 7. AdaptNY took the opportunity to interview Roland Lewis, the organization’s president and CEO.

AdaptNY: We recently reported on the many open questions around New York’s planning for climate adaptation. How well do you think the de Blasio administration has done on resiliency, and with its recently released OneNYC sustainability plan? How does OneNYC compare to the resiliency plans outlined under the previous Bloomberg administration?

Roland Lewis: The mayor’s key policy platform of addressing equity within the overall plan was a welcome addition, and he should be lauded for combining worthy goals to promote both a just and sustainable city. Adding community benefits such as local hiring and workforce development programs, in addition to addressing trash equity issues, have long needed more attention.

We do think everyone is looking for more of the details that support the colorful and inspiring vision that they have used to re-launch PlaNYC to OneNYC. The release of the budget [expected May 7] and numbers that support these visions will be telling, and show exactly which projects advance the goals of OneNYC.

The resiliency plans seem to be a continuation of the Bloomberg administration and the recommendations from the SIRR [Special initiative on Rebuilding and Resiliency] report, which is a great ten-year plan but not completely funded at the end of the day.

We are calling for a more sustained, planning strategy that looks further into the future. We’ve estimated the cost of inaction. Now it is essential that we do the opposite: develop a comprehensive capital strategy to dramatically reduce the region’s flood risk through 2100, including determining and prioritizing the necessary infrastructure investments, ensuring appropriate accountability to execute the strategy, and securing the necessary funds.

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Flooding in Harlem during Hurricane Irene. Photo credit: David Bledsoe via Creative Commons.

AdaptNY: As you point out, one of the big unknowns for New York’s resiliency planning is what it will ultimately cost. You’ve been working on an initiative that probes into that issue. What have you found so far? What do you hope to reveal? Is the city cooperating with information?

Lewis: Our report, “Climate Change Accounting: What Is the Cost,” [to be released May 7] is really trying to draw attention to the need to conduct long-term planning for resiliency and protection of the New York region. And although we have begun to seriously think about protection measures, the work to-date and planned is just scratching the surface, or a “down payment.” Other countries, such as the Dutch have multi-generational plans in place to address climate change that we should look to and model for our own needs.

As for cooperation, we did receive input from various public entities, including the city, in its creation. A problem of this magnitude needs “all hands on deck”, and our hope is this report will help city, state, and federal agencies in obtaining the funding and implementation resources they truly need.

To accomplish this and safeguard our future, the alliance and its partners in the New York–New Jersey Harbor Coalition call for creation of a presidential commission. The commission should include elected representatives from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; necessary federal, state, and local government agencies; and climate change and infrastructure experts from academia and the private sector.

AdaptNY: The alliance earlier this year proposed Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG), a kind of LEED program for waterfront building standards.What are the aims of the program? How are you hoping to test it out? And what’s been the response to these new standards, especially from a city built around rapid development?

Lewis: The goal of the WEDG program is to be a catalyst for sustainable transformation of our waterfront by providing best practices and a ratings system to promote access, resiliency, and ecology. It is a tool for communities, elected officials, government agencies, practitioners, and real estate developers/property owners, anyone that is working on or cares about the waterfront.

Over the next year, we will be identifying a range of projects, including different types (residential/commercial, parks, and industrial/maritime), areas (all five NYC boroughs and New Jersey), and both private and public, to use as case studies and gather feedback on the current version.

Since releasing Version 1.0, the response has been great and the program only seems to be gaining more buzz. It’s the first of its kind in the nation, and from a national planning conference in Seattle to community boards in the Bronx, there seems to be a need and market niche for WEDG.

We’re actually hearing that applicants are mentioning WEDG during the permitting process and in discussion with regulatory agencies and other stakeholders, which is very encouraging to hear. Community boards are beginning to pass resolutions that waterfront projects in their districts use WEDG, which is also a good sign.

AdaptNY: For a city with more than 500 miles of coastline, there are a huge range of fairly immediate waterfront issues, ranging from transportation and security to zoning and jobs. Yet the alliance has taken up an intense focus on adapting to long-term climate change. Tell us more about the organization’s thinking on the importance of resilience?

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Transportation infrastructure in New York City is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo credit: MTA via Creative Commons.

Lewis: MWA works to protect, transform, and restore our harbor and waterways, and resilience against future storms and sea level rise, although critical to the long-term viability of our coastal city, is just one piece of the puzzle.

You’re right that transportation challenges are front and center for many New Yorkers these days. The plenary panel discussion at this year’s waterfront conference, now in its seventh year, will build from Mayor de Blasio’s proposal for a citywide ferry network and new bus routes that connect transit-poor communities to jobs and economic opportunity. We have spent years advocating for expanding ferry service to the southeast Bronx, Astoria, Red Hook, the Rockaway peninsula, and other waterfront districts, and look forward to working with the city and reaching across our alliance of grassroots organizations to help realize the mayor’s vision.

So we’re looking to the waterways to help people connect to jobs, but we are also looking to connect people with the waterways more broadly, for recreation and education. Harbor Camp, a partnership with United Neighborhood Houses to provide water-based summer camp experiences to children in the New York metropolitan area, provides on-water and land-based waterfront education programs, nurturing environmental stewardship in the next generation of New Yorkers.

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Learning to kayak. Photo credit: Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

Our Open Waters Initiative provides on-water education and recreation for the general public, last year reaching over 3,000 participants in programs at NYC Parks’ Bay Ridge Community Eco Dock at the 69th St Pier. We have also helped unlock Gantry Plaza State Park Pier 4 in Long Island City, Queens for human-powered boating programs with New York State Parks.

And finally, our annual harbor-wide City of Water Day festival engages youth and families – reaching nearly 30,000 New Yorkers with the message that the waterfront is not only a threat, but it is a resource for fun, and for education.

From its genesis, our policy platform, created by convening and organizing a vast constituency, addressed sea level rise and climate change and that thread continues through our WEDG program and the new “Climate Change Accounting” report, as well as through our events such as this upcoming waterfront conference.

Because we have such a broad mission, our program and policy platforms do have a wide range and will continue to evolve and reflect the issues of our time, but climate change will always be part of those efforts. As we think about our waterfront as a utility that provides different types of benefits, the issue of “protection” has, of course, been front and center post-Sandy as we think about resiliency.

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AdaptNY, a project of the CUNY School of Journalism, and NYER frequently collaborate on stories about climate resiliency planning in New York City. Our latest joint examination of the city’s planning efforts, with the Gotham Gazette, was published last month.