Monday, June 11, 2007

New York must adapt now to climate change

Albany Times Union, from an editorial by Sarah Newkirk and David VanLuven: President Bush's recent call for long-term carbon emission targets worldwide was the latest in a series of statements by elected officials in America to address the threat posed by rising greenhouse gases. In New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer's creation of a Climate Change Office to focus on carbon reduction and clean energy sends the right signal about the state's commitment to reduce its share of carbon emissions.

Yet reducing greenhouse gas emissions is only one part of the problem. Largely absent from the public debate but equally urgent is the notion of adaptation.

Some of the inevitable consequences of climate change identified by the scientific community are already taking place and are expected to continue for some time. That's because no matter how much we reduce our emissions today -- even if we ceased them altogether tomorrow -- New York and the planet would still continue to warm for decades to come.

The consequences from this warming -- rising waters, more intense storms and protracted droughts -- are likely to prove devastating to our local environment, communities and economy. That's why New York must quickly launch a statewide evaluation of the types of actions that are needed to increase the resilience of our communities and natural habitats. The state must also explore the institutional changes necessary to make these actions effective.

The threats over the next 30 years are very real, researchers have found. More summer days that exceed 100 will roast communities, straining our electrical supply and imperiling sensitive populations that can't afford air conditioners or travel to cooler climes. Warmer winters will tax New York City's drinking water supply as less snow falls in the Catskills. Storm surges riding higher sea levels will increase erosion, flood or destroy coastal homes and assail low-lying transportation infrastructure.

The same changes that threaten our human communities also threaten our natural environment. Conservative estimates suggest that climate change will cause increases in sea level by two feet by 2100. As a consequence, marshes along Long Island's coast and the Hudson River all the way to Troy will likely drown unless they can migrate landward with the water.

Already, research is indicating that marshes on Long Island's south shore are not able to accumulate sediment at a pace that allows them to keep up with sea level rise. Beaches -- and the habitat they provide -- are also disappearing, especially in places where their migration is choked off by bulkheads and other shoreline armoring. You need only take a look at New Orleans to understand why healthy marshes and beaches constitute a valuable natural resource.

Human and natural communities will need to apply the same adaptation strategies to survive. We need to conserve low-lying freshwater and coastal areas to accommodate rising sea level and storm waters, thus preventing important ecosystems from being "pinched out" and homes from being destroyed or flooded.

Floodplains along streams and rivers, and wetlands across the landscape, will become even more important to slowing runoff from violent storms and absorbing fresh water to support thirsty communities. …

Of course, we still need to curb emissions, and we need to do so immediately. But climate change is a multifaceted challenge with long- and short-term consequences. Emissions reduction will help us survive the long-term implications, but adapting to climate change is critical for getting us through the next 30 years.

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