New York Raises the Bar on Rising Tides

If you think having an underwater mortgage is a nightmare, imagine owning a home that's literally under water. "A rising tide lifts all boats" may have a virtuous ring in the virtual world of trickle-down economics. But a real rising tide -- the kind that's brought catastrophic flooding to so many coastal communities and beyond in recent years -- actually sinks property values and washes away entire communities, as did Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Oh, and rising tides can kill people, too (that's not a plus, either, unless you're a Malthusian who worries about overpopulation).

But homeowners in low-lying areas aren't the only ones who need to start factoring flood risks into the equation. Government agencies and private utility companies have an enormous financial incentive to include the costs of rising sea levels and other impacts of global warming in their long-term planning, too.

Inevitably, some states are more on board than others. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has historically preferred not to plan for climate change, and was astonishingly blasé about the more than $120 million in damage to New Jersey trains parked in a rail yard that had been predicted to flood pre-Sandy. "Sometimes, people make wrong decisions," he shrugged. "It happens. It's not a hanging offense."

Now, Christie's busy setting up roadblocks for Tesla's electric cars. But enough roasting of Christie. Let's cross to New York's side of the Hudson River to toast a forward thinking trio: the New York Public Service Commission, Con Edison and the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. Together, they"re seizing this epic opportunity to rethink how we rebuild in the wake of increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

Last month, New York's regulators reached a landmark agreement with Con Edison that compels the utility to "carry out an immediate and comprehensive assessment of climate risks to its power grid" and factor all that data, plus new flood zone maps, "into all of its long-term planning, construction and budget decisions." Con Edison's original post-Sandy resiliency plans were deemed inadequate by Columbia Law School's Center for Climate Change Law. But Michael Gerrard, the Climate Center's director, was gratified to find that Con Edison was receptive to constructive criticism: "Con Edison is run by engineers; they speak math. We came in with a quantitative presentation about climate projections, and they quickly grasped how this really could affect their system reliability."

Rising tides cause billions of dollars in damage to electrical grids, water and gas pipelines, cell phone networks, railroads and subways lines -- in short, all the utilities and infrastructure that we depend on everyday. Businesses implode, cars corrode, tempers explode. Our economy grinds to a soggy, salty halt.

And, as luck would have it, our nation's economic epicenter, New York's financial district, is located in one of lower Manhattan's most vulnerable flood zones. Superstorm Sandy's historic 9.8-foot storm surge literally pulled the plug on more than a million downtown Manhattan Con Edison customers, leaving them in the dark for days on end. Subways stopped running, and downtown residents had to head north to forage for fresh food. Sure, Wall Street made millions on subprime mortgage meltdowns. But when a power station floods and sparks a transformer meltdown, no one wins. We collectively lose billions.

Al Qaeda understood all too well how profoundly damaging to our entire nation's psyche and economy it would be to destroy the Twin Towers. Imagine the shock of losing another cherished New York symbol, the Statue of Liberty. Only this iconic landmark runs the risk of being leveled by the rising sea levels that are threatening cultural landmarks all over the world.

Happily, thanks to New York State's forward-thinking regulators, a receptive Con Edison, and Columbia Law School's pro-active academics -- with participation from New York City's sustainability office, the Attorney General, Pace Law School's Climate and Energy Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, who all helped craft this ground-breaking mandate -- the Statue of Liberty has at least half a chance. I say half a chance, because New York shares jurisdiction over Liberty Island, on which the statue stands, with New Jersey. Governor Christie may be reluctant to read the writing on the (sea)wall, but does he really want to see Lady Liberty sleeping with the fishes?

Crossposted from