Monday, December 14, 2009

A blueprint for resilience in New York City

Media Newswire has a story that I am very pleased to be a part of. I worked as consulting editor for the New York City Panel on Climate Change: As world leaders gather at the climate summit in Copenhagen, experts here in New York are working on a way to help the city—and its 8.3 million residents—respond to the effects of climate change. The strategy, “Climate Change Adaptation in New York City: Building a Risk Management Response,” was devised by 15 experts, including eight from Columbia’s Earth Institute. Their findings and proposed blueprint for policymakers and stakeholders will be published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in January.

Climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts are both important elements in PlaNYC, New York City’s long-term sustainability plan, established in 2007 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who will be in Copenhagen for the climate summit. To advance the city’s adaptation goals, Bloomberg convened experts from both academia and industry to form the New York City Panel on Climate Change ( NPCC ) in 2008. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the NPCC’s main task is to provide technical advice and scientific expertise to the New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which is charged with developing an adaptation plan for the city.

As part of its mandate to help the city become more resilient to climate change, the NPCC’s first report encourages stakeholders to approach adaptation from a risk management perspective, leading to the development of what is called “flexible adaptation pathways”—strategies that can evolve through time along with the needs of the city and climate change impacts.

The report includes a set of climate projections for the New York City region, an examination of how climate change may affect critical infrastructure, and overviews of legal and insurance perspectives on adaptation. In addition, NPCC members created three workbooks to help guide decision makers as they incorporate climate change considerations into their organization’s planning.

NPCC co-chair Cynthia Rosenzweig, scientist with Columbia’s Center for Climate Systems Research and head of the Climate Impacts Group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, both part of the Earth Institute, says that the primary goal of the report’s recommendations is to help to lay the foundation for climate change adaptation in the city, based on scientific research and climate projections for the area.

“We developed projections that are specific to the New York City region. We took all the global climate models—about 18 of them—and we looked to see what they are projecting for New York City,” said Rosenzweig. “First of all, the issue is often called global warming because it will be hotter, up to 5 degrees hotter by 2050. What people really react to is heat waves, and they are very likely to become more frequent.” According to NPCC analysis, the city may experience a four-fold increase of 90-degree-plus days by the end of the century, which has the potential to affect public health and infrastructure such as electricity demand and transmission and water supply.

Using climate models, NPCC researchers also predict that New Yorkers can expect to see at least two feet of sea level rise by the 2080s as a result of climate change. “Keeping a close eye on melting from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, we project that rapid melt could lead us to what we call a ‘rapid ice-melt scenario,’—an increase of up to four feet in sea level by the end of the century.” According to the report, such increases pose significant risks to low-lying neighborhoods and infrastructure, threats to consistent delivery of water supplies, increased structural damage, and impaired operations.

While it is difficult for scientists to know with absolute certainty just how climate change will affect the city, preparing for this uncertainty is a central part of helping make the city more resilient to whatever impacts may come.

Based on its analysis, NPCC members offer policy recommendations to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive, risk- and science-based adaptation program, including the establishment of a climate change monitoring program to track and analyze key climate change factors, impacts, and adaptation indicators in New York City and a partnership with the insurance industry to facilitate the use of risk-sharing mechanisms.

“The NPCC report reflects a maturation of how we look at climate change—it’s no longer something that will appear only sometime in the distant future,” said William Solecki, NPCC co-chair and head of the Institute for Sustainable Cities at The City University of New York. “Climate change is here, and it’s going to be here for the foreseeable future.”

A preview and discussion of the report was held Dec. 2. Hosted by the New York City Panel on Climate Change, The New York Academy of Sciences, Columbia University and CUNY, the discussion highlighted the findings and recommendations of the report.

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