Post-Sandy flooding near South Street Seaport: Photo: NYC Department of Small Business
What gives New Yorkers the confidence of clean air, safe water and healthy food? The confidence to go about our lives, grow our businesses, to innovate and excel in commerce and the arts, and to build families, careers and businesses? We rely on the landmark environmental protections of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Clean air, safe water and healthy food are essential to a decent life, and it is impossible to imagine a prosperous New York without them. And yet, they are at greater risk today than they have been in fifty years. Claiming that these long-standing common-sense environmental regulations are “job killing,” today’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is systematically weakening the rules that govern the way power plants operate, cars are built, mines are dug, oil and gas are extracted, and water is stored and piped into our homes. These rollbacks will make NYC less healthy, less safe and less prosperous.
Example one: the EPA’s proposed rule change to the Clean Power Plan (CCP) would let the dirtiest coal plants keep running and remain dirty instead of retiring them or refurbishing them by adding modern pollution controls. In the 1990s a clean-air device called a “scrubber” helped end the acid-rain crisis. Scrubbers were first installed on new power plants in the 1970s to reduce air pollution before people were focused on acid rain, which gave us an additional reason to install scrubbers in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. About 30 percent of US coal plants still do not have scrubbers and another 22 percent do not have advanced anti-smog controls. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from combusting fossil fuels are primary drivers of global warming and CO2 is the main byproduct of coal combustion. Coal-fired power plants also emit mercury which returns to earth in precipitation and enters our food supply. According to the World Health Organization, exposure to mercury — even small amounts — can cause serious health problems.
Example two: the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration propose to freeze the Federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards. The proposed rule would freeze emission standards and fuel economy targets at 2020 levels (around 38.5 mpg for all cars and light trucks overall) instead of rising to about 49.5 mpg by 2025. Transportation is a critical contributor to climate change and accounts for 27 percent of global emissions and roughly one-third of NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Loosening emission and fuel economy standards will hurt NYC twice — making us suffer from more pollution and making us pay more for gasoline in less fuel-efficient vehicles.
According to a recent Princeton University article, “Study finds climate change will only exacerbate inequality in the United States.” Climate change will worsen inequality in our society if underserved communities become uninhabitable. Migration, some planned and some in panic, will stress already overburdened social welfare systems and infrastructure. The best way to mitigate these effects is to limit the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
With the approaching sixth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, we remember its devastating impact on NYC which has over 500 miles of shoreline. Sandy caused 48 deaths in New York mostly due to drowning. Sandy also did an estimated $71 billion in economic damage in the NY-NJ region, with $19 billion in losses to NYC. While the storm’s immediate impact lasted only weeks, major infrastructure systems, including mass transit and electrical and telecommunications systems, sustained lasting damage, some of which is still not repaired.
Sandy was extraordinarily disruptive. It hit Lower Manhattan hard while the neighborhood was still rebuilding from September 11th. The historic South Street Seaport and portions of the Financial District, Tribeca and Battery Park City and the World Trade Center site which was still under construction were flooded, along with tunnels and subways. Even the New York Stock Exchange was closed for a couple of days. Schools were temporarily relocated.
The cleanup and rebuilding efforts to bring our community back online were enormous and costly and involved many government agencies and the assistance of elected officials at the city, state and federal levels. Many buildings went days and other weeks and months without utilities. Generators and other temporary mechanical equipment filled the streets and reduced air quality. Many small businesses in CB1 suffered dire financial situations; some were not covered by federal or private flood insurance and were still paying back 9/11 loans. Furthermore, many commercial and residential buildings were closed, depleting local businesses of their customer base.
Sandy taught us the importance of preparation and the necessity of investing to prevail in the worst potential impacts of climate change. Two recent developments strengthen the case to act. One, the future of the National Flood Insurance Program is uncertain and is due to expire on November 1, 2018. We do not know if or how much the federal government will assist in rebuilding our communities after the next Superstorm Sandy. Two, Moody’s, a major credit rating agency, recently added climate to credit risks and warns cities to address their climate exposure or face rating downgrades. Lower ratings would shut cities off from the investments they need to adapt to climate change and to recover from future storms.
The bottom line is that climate resiliency is critical to our city’s future. The EPA’s reckless rollbacks will threaten that future.
For more information on attempts to scale back federal climate mitigation and adaptation measures, visit the Columbia Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law which maintains a Climate Deregulation Tracker.
Catherine McVay Hughes served two decades on Manhattan Community Board 1, half of that time as chair or vice-chair. After Superstorm Sandy, she was appointed co-chair of NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program for Southern Manhattan. Hughes serves on the Earth Institute Advisory Board at Columbia University, CERES Presidents Council, Battery Park City Authority, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, The Trust for Governors Island, South Street Seaport Museum, WTC Scientific Technical Advisory Committee and the Storm Surge Working Group Steering Committee.