Chelsea Clinton Moderates NYU Hurricane Sandy Panel, Explores New York's Climate Change Challenges

At a panel discussion at New York University on December 5, Chelsea Clinton said it was "deeply sobering" that no set of U.S. voters prioritized climate change as a top three voting issue in the 2012 election. With climate change back on the national stage after Superstorm Sandy, Clinton and several experts came together for the Institute for Public Knowledge's "Public Forum on Climate Change, Sandy, and the Future of New York City."

Clinton was joined by Heidi Cullen, the Chief Climatologist for Climate Central, a non-profit science journalism organization based in Princeton, New Jersey. Cullen said Sandy was "pretty much the worst storm" to hit New York City since its founding as a Dutch outpost in 1624. New York City will be "dealing with Sandy for months and years to come," she added.

New York City faces important decisions, the panelists said, when it comes to rebuilding after Sandy. With the prospect of rising seas and more extreme weather, soft and hard climate change adaptation measures become paramount to the city's future. For cities like New York, soft adaptation includes restoration of wetlands and oyster beds, and changes to land use, while hard adaptation means infrastructural development including levees, sea walls and barriers.

Columbia University's Klaus Jacob explained that rising ocean levels mean sea barriers are "not the ultimate answer." The "new reality," of storm surges on top of already higher seas later in the century, means that barriers have a "finite lifetime and finite functionality."

Jacob also stressed that rebuilding is "not what we should shoot for," suggesting that it is only "setting ourselves up for the same vulnerabilities." Rather, Jacob said, New York should be focusing on a "managed retreat" from coastal areas and "pro-building" for a "city [that] will look different by the end of the century."

He cited the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project -- a $15 billion, longterm plan to build several high rises on top of a rail yard on the west side of Manhattan -- as an example of "shortsightedness." Jacob added, "The future is not the past," suggesting that future New York development must contend with rising seas.

Dale Jamieson, the director of NYU's environmental studies program, echoed Jacob's assertion that New York must be farsighted and recognize the longterm implications of climate change for the region. Citing a 2009 study by NOAA atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon, Jamieson said it is a "sobering fact" that the world will be adapting to climate change for at least a millenium. The study, according to an abstract, shows that "climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop." Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to cease, sea level will continue to rise past the year 3000 just from thermal expansion of the oceans.

At a meeting sponsored by the Regional Plan Association and the League of Conservation Voters on Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "Let me be clear: We are not going to abandon the waterfront. [But] We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainable."

The Huffington Post previously reported that some of the damage Sandy caused to coastal areas around New York was due to poor land-use management. Despite increasingly clear warnings of the dangers, authorities allowed development of at-risk areas to continue largely unabated in recent decades.

Jacob argued Wednesday that the term natural disaster is a "misnomer," because "we put ourselves into harm's way." He added, "When we put fixed infrastructure at a given fixed height, we become subject to the dynamics of the earth... and we are vulnerable."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the NYU panel took place in November.

Video courtesy of NYU's Institute for Public Knowledge.