New York Will Become a Climate Change Hotspot | Opinion

Hurricane Ida recently ravaged New York City, causing at least 45 deaths in the tristate area and an estimated $24 billion in property damage. Adverse weather conditions like Ida will likely become commonplace in New York City due to climate change.

Meteorological organizations have independently researched the actuarial potentials of climate change in different geographies, including New York City. According to these organizations—most prominently among them being the journal Nature—much of what we know and love about New York City will vanish by the end of this century because of climate change.

The estimated rise in sea levels across the coastline of the Big Apple is believed to increase from one to three and a half feet by 2080—a trend that has been occurring since the 1950s, costing the city billions in damages. Storm surges are expected to rise both in frequency and in terms of their ability to cause devastating floods. Such flood surges from stronger storms are estimated to increase upwards of 15 feet, which will lead to billions of dollars in property damage and the displacement of thousands of New York residents. One survey found that by 2050, 37 percent of lower Manhattan will be particularly vulnerable to these surges and floods. Yet, most unnervingly, these are all conservative estimates.

Scientists believe that these occurrences aren't merely highly probable; rather, they're sure about their estimates. Accordingly, we should act as if these climate-related events will occur, not that they may happen—the former connotes a level of seriousness that the latter tends to thwart. In considering such earnestness, what have New York City's elected officials done about this looming threat?

Mayor Bill de Blasio has bragged about two bills he enacted, known as Int 2092 and Int 2170. The bill's provisions include instructing and permitting the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability to create New York City's climate resiliency guidelines. The sort of planning expected to occur entails implementing clean energy sources throughout the city—doing away with inefficient and pollution-prone pieces of infrastructure, such as old furnaces, chimneys and water heaters.

The city has already seen significant improvements in this respect, before these laws were introduced. Most MTA vehicles are now electric, and the air quality in New York City has markedly improved for the past several decades. Many baby boomers from New York recall when the city literally had a chronic smell of garbage, with little to no wildlife in sight—minus pigeons and squirrels. Now New York is flourishing with wildlife—though it still smells quite bad, but not "chronic garbage" bad.

Clean energy and green transportation are not enough. While we need to retain them—as they have empirically helped reduce pollution and improve air quality—these measures alone will not alter the course of New York's collision with a grim future of climate change caused tumultuous weather events. Nor will they protect us from these events.

Cars abandoned on flooded Major Deegan Expressway
People look at cars abandoned on the flooded Major Deegan Expressway following a night of extremely heavy rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What can protect us from extreme weather? A model of what needs to be built throughout the city is located at Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park in Long Island City, Queens. A physical fortification against storm surges, or sea walls, were constructed that prevent floods, complete with gullies that redirect water away from populated areas.

Much of the hesitation behind implementing climate-focused policies involve a hesitancy of having sea walls overtake the New York City waterfront. Additionally, such plan proposals still might not be enough. A $119 billion sea wall proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers would take 25 years to build—assuming that there would be no political upheaval in response to its construction, which is unlikely. Some have said the walls would not be high enough to actually protect the city against storm surges. One alternative being proposed is "managed retreat," which more or less amounts to moving people and their assets "out of harm's way"—which really means moving New Yorkers out of New York City.

Are the only two real options to combat climate change in New York City a substandard sea wall or a climate refugee crisis? Is it not unreasonable to suggest that a New York version of the Dutch Maeslantkering storm barricade be built? The potential New York storm barrier would be roughly 6 miles from New Jersey to Long Island, quite far off from New York Harbor. The Army Corps of Engineers need to systematically design this barrier in a way that absolves it of all potential criticism from detractors—which is no easy task, as some critics, like waterfront property owners, will never be satisfied. This means the barrier must be extensively studied and planned to ensure the stability of the surrounding environment, wildlife and geology—a feat which might be impossible.

We cannot let vanity and trivial concerns get in the way of protecting New York City and other coastal cities. A concrete plan is needed, and it is needed fast. Otherwise, many New Yorkers and others living near coasts will inevitably become displaced. Many will die due to negligence and poor planning if action is not taken soon.

Daniel Lehewych is a graduate student of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, ethics and the philosophy of mind. He is a freelance writer, powerlifter and health science enthusiast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.