In setting out a plan to make Manhattan better prepared for extreme weather, Mayor Bill de Blasio is delivering a sorely needed message on climate change.
Usually when extreme weather like a hurricane hits, we hear the same old calls for drastic carbon cuts. Yet these are both ineffective and hopeless at helping victims of hurricanes.
Global warming is real and man-made, but arguments for ever more drastic carbon cuts typically ignore the reality that sweeping emission reductions are enormously expensive. The price tag significantly outweighs the cost climate damage would have caused.
The European Union plan to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 would cost around $1.4 trillion annually. New Zealand’s world-beating (and far-fetched) promise of carbon neutrality by 2050 will cost 16 percent of GDP by 2050, according to an official estimate — more than last year’s entire national budget.
That’s why research from the world’s only climate economist to win the Nobel Prize, William D. Nordhaus, shows we should take action — but not make such draconian cuts as to hurt ourselves in the process.
Moreover, cutting carbon is an ineffective way to reduce hurricane impact. Even if we made unrealistically deep carbon cuts, the climate impacts will only become measurable in 50 to 100 years and can only slow the temperature increase, not stop or reverse it.
And trying to help future hurricane victims by cutting emissions is essentially a very expensive and feeble way of doing a tiny amount of good in the distant future.
But there are sensible ways to help. When Hurricane Sandy hit it was clear that cheap solutions like subway covers would have helped avoid expensive flooding.
So-called adaptation actions, like building flood walls, grassy berms and removable storm barriers, mean we’re better prepared — both today and for whatever climate change may send our way.
Adaptation is often much more effective than far more talked-about climate policies. Back in 2005, climate researcher Roger Pielke Jr. showed that climate damage from social factors are much more important than from CO₂: If we could magically implement carbon cuts to halt all of climate change’s effects but people still moved to the coasts and built ever more expensive homes, hurricane damage in 50 years would still climb 200 percent to 500 percent.
If climate change continued unabated but we managed to keep more people from moving to riskier places, the impact in half a century would be just 10 percent to 20 percent higher than today.
Moreover, changing the climate is incredibly hard, whereas shaping society is relatively easy. Thus, reducing hurricane damage can be achieved most effectively and cheaply by making vulnerable communities more resilient. Fundamentally, this is what de Blasio is suggesting. His thinking should be followed around the country.
De Blasio plans to augment berms and storm barriers and create a coastal extension by creating more land, as well as a catalogue of other policies meant to protect lower Manhattan. At this point, it’s hard to gauge which ideas are cost-effective or would achieve the most protection per dollar.
If anything, the plan should be broader. De Blasio speaks about “climate-proofing” New York but focuses on flooding. There are many other smart ways of adapting, too, like cooling cities by enlarging green spaces and reducing black tarmac and concrete that soaks up heat.
But de Blasio’s plan encouragingly shows that leaders can take off their blinkers, divert their focus on carbon cuts and look more at adaptation to address the problem.
They need to. A recent global study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that with less than even a 3-foot rise in sea levels and no increase in adaptation spending (as a ratio of GDP), we’re headed for a major catastrophe: 329 million people flooded annually across the world (compared with 3 million today) and a cost reaching $17 trillion annually.
But if just $40 billion more were spent globally each year on adaptation, costs could be reduced by 99.8 percent. The number of people flooded would actually decline. That’s why some countries (the Netherlands stands out) are already investing in adaptation.
That estimate of $40 billion, by the way, suggests that de Blasio’s $10 billion figure for just Lower Manhattan might be slightly excessive. But fundamentally, the study underscores the soundness of his proposal.
Making New York more resilient to any extreme weather — and to future shocks — is an eminently sensible plan.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.
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