Early this week in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio championed what officials in his administration are calling a "modern, efficient, state-of-the-art" transit link along the waterfront of Brooklyn and Queens.
Since de Blasio signaled his intention to support the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) project earlier this month, neighborhood activists and climate experts have raised questions about its feasibility, price tag (currently $2.5 billion), and necessity, with many critics arguing that express busses (into Manhattan) would better serve the low-income communities along the waterfront.
The question of whether the project - which would traverse several low-lying waterfront areas - makes sense from a climate change perspective has not yet been fully scrutinized.
Instead, most news accounts have presented the BQX as a restoration of one leg of the trolley lines that used to be common throughout the boroughs, giving rise to the name of the Brooklyn (trolley) Dodgers. But at the Red Hook press conference, Polly Trachtenberg, the city's transportation commissioner, explained that the project would actually combine both trolleys and light rail.
The proposed route of the BQX is shown running through current flood zones (red), 2-feet of sea level rise (orange), and 4-feet of rise (green). Map by Klaus Jacob.
Promoted by a variety of transportation advocates, the BQX would extend from Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Astoria, Queens along a 16-mile route connecting what the city calls "innovation clusters. The New York Times' architecture critic Michael Kimmelman and the longtime traffic expert "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, among others, have come out in support of the project.
At the Red Hook launch, Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the city council's transportation committee, called the project "sustainable" and "the type of infrastructure investment the city needs in the 21st century."
But some leading climate change specialists are cautioning otherwise. Columbia University geologist Klaus Jacob says that while the proposed BQX project "solves desperate transportation needs, the problem is that it runs along current and future flood zones."
According to the latest report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), which consists of both de Blasio administration officials and leading scientists and urban planners, sea levels are projected to rise 11-21 inches by mid-century, 18-39 inches by the 2080s, and as high as 6 feet by 2100.
Jacob has been a member of the NPCC since it was created by the Bloomberg administration. He cautions against building up low-lying areas of the city until a variety of basic issues are resolved. "The resiliency of all transportation and infrastructure - electric and gas, sewage, etc.- in vulnerable areas needs to be established before large development projects should proceed," he said.
De Blasio, for his part, vows to connect the project to his administration's larger climate change initiatives. Amy Spitalnick, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said, "The BQX, like any new development along the waterfront, will be made climate resilient, and will be fully integrated into the $20 billion resiliency plan underway in Brooklyn, Queens, and across the city."
Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park and Red Hook, explained that those communities are engaged in "extensive flood protection, resilience, and environmental justice work that can serve as a model for the BQX plan." However, UPROSE, a leading environmental justice organization based in Sunset Park, cautioned that the project requires a "serious environmental impact analysis" led by the waterfront communities themselves.
Absent the creation of sea walls along the waterfront (which are not part of the administration's plans), areas like Red Hook will remain particularly vulnerable to flooding. And so one climate-ready solution would be to convert the BQX into a monorail.
Jacob points to many "elegant" examples of elevated rail in low-lying cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo. Though located on higher ground, the town of Wuppertal, Germany, which is nearby Dusseldorf, offers a particularly handsome monorail, one that's been running since 1901.
Closer to home, elevated tracks in New York City have yielded mixed results. The streets below tend to be dark, cramped, and noisy. And the great urban planner Jane Jacobs argued that areas under expressways and railroads became "border vacuums," walling off neighborhoods from one another.
But the successful renovation of the High Line on Manhattan's West Side recently showed that a repurposed overhead railway passage can help ignite a development boom. One trick for the BQX could be to merge some elements of the High Line's pedestrian-friendly benefits into a functioning railway project.
Spitalnick said there are plenty of design issues to be resolved, making it "incredibly premature to judge" the BQX project at this point.
Jacob offered two related suggestions. One is for the city to conduct a complete technical study, fully estimating the cost of the elevated option. The other is for it to show how the entire project corresponds with the comprehensive planning of the waterfront.
And should it proceed on the ground or in the air, Jacob said, if the BQX is detached from a full blueprint that maps out the waterfront's long-term sustainability, it risks becoming "one more example of short-sighted, short-term planning."
TRENTON - A group of environmental activists has sued the Christie administration to overturn new state rules that encourage development in flood-prone coastal areas like Barnegat Bay, posing "the biggest threat" to the Jersey shore since Hurricane Sandy.
The state Department of Environmental Protection adopted rules in July 2015 that make it easier to do things such as get permits to build docks, boat lifts in manmade lagoons and two-family homes in waterfront communities. The rules also make it easier to expand or build marinas and add restaurants to those properties.
The rules were the first major revision to coastal development regulations since the October 2012 storm devastated large swaths of the Jersey Shore and other waterfront communities.
The rules are "intended to help maintain the economic viability of existing marinas and encourage the development of new ones in appropriate circumstances while minimizing environmental impacts," according to the department's announcement when it unveiled the proposal in June 2014.
The state Department of Environmental Protection held the first of three public hearings on the first proposed changes to coastal development rules since Hurricane Sandy
But environmental groups say the challenge they filed on Friday was necessary to protect coastal residents' properties, prevent future development, and maintain the integrity of the delicate ecosystems that are already at risk, such as shellfish beds, forests and wetlands that provide a home to threatened and endangered species.
"Hurricane Sandy should have been our wake up call to realize unchecked development along our coast will only be costlier in the future due to sea level rise. Instead, DEP's finalized coastal zone rules will only green-light more development in vulnerable coastal communities," said Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey and one of the plaintiff's in the case.
"These new rules are a gift to developers who are loving the Shore to death," O'Malley added.
The lawsuit by Environment New Jersey, Save Barnegat Bay and residents from Eagleswood along the Barnegat Bay was filed in state appellate court. The plaintiffs seek an injunction to block the rules and restore the old regulations until a new set can be developed, said Attorney Bill Potter who is representing the environmental groups.
John Weber, Mid-Atlantic regional director for Surfrider and Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club told reporters during a conference call Monday their organizations also intend to join the case.
Ocean County's coastline and waterways are particularly vulnerable, such as the barrier islands, Mystic Island, Tittel said. "They should have mapped areas where the storm surges happened, like Mystic Island and the barrier islands, and adapt, so we are more resilient for the next storm. Instead, these are areas targeted for major development," Tittel said.
"These rules are the biggest threat to our coast since Hurricane Sandy," he said.
A state spokesman defended the rules in response to the lawsuit.
"Our coastal rules are both environmentally responsible and conducive to sound and safe coastal development. We look forward to demonstrating in court that this challenge lacks merit," state environmental protection spokesman Bob Considine said.
Ray Cantor, a chief DEP advisor testified before a legislative panel in August 2014 that the more than 1,000-page plan aims to streamline administrative procedures that will save the state and residents time and money.
When the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was announced at COP16 in 2010, the intention was to give small, developing countries direct access to finance to protect themselves from climate change. Yet many of the smallest and most at-risk countries in the world now claim that they do not have the means to access these funds directly.
"It's a paradox," said Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati in December. "We need [the funds] the most but we don't have the capacity to get it because we're not accredited." Tong added that the accreditation process involves so much bureaucracy it is a significant challenge for low-resourced governments.
Later, when told of Tong's words by the Guardian, representatives of the governments of Tonga, the Comoros and Grenada all said they shared his concerns.
The GCF, which became operational in 2015, is funded by developed countries and aims to assist developing countries with climate change mitigation and adaptation projects, such as early-warning systems for climate-related disasters.
Deep in the bayous of Louisiana, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans, lies the Isle de Jean Charles, a tiny swath of land that's all but vanished into the Gulf of Mexico.
Over the last half-century or so, the island has fallen victim to irresponsible oil and gas extraction practices and the effects of climate change. Many of its residents -- members of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Native Americans -- have been forced to flee.
"What you see of the island now is just a skeleton of what it used to be," Chris Brunet, a tribal council member and lifelong island resident, told The New York Times in a mini-documentary called Vanishing Island in 2014.
A recent federal grant, however, will allow the state-recognized tribe to resettle on higher ground, making it the first community of official climate refugees in the United States, according to Indian Country Today.
Late last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded $1 billion for resilient infrastructure and housing projects as part of its National Disaster Resilience Competition. On the list is $52 million for the Isle de Jean Charles tribe to relocate to a "resilient and historically-contextual community," HUD wrote.
Since the 1950s, the tribe has lost 98 percent of its land to rising sea levels, coastal erosion and flooding. Experts suspect the island will be completely submerged within 50 years, Houma Today reports.
Albert Naquin, chief of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, has been fighting to secure funding for 13 years and said the money will allow the tribe to reestablish community, something that -- like their historic island home -- is being washed away.
"I'm very, very excited," Naquin told Indian Country Today. "Now we're getting a chance to reunite the family. ... They're excited as well. Our culture is going to stay intact, [but] we've got to get the interest back in our youth."
For 170 years, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw have occupied this remote island, surviving off the land as fishermen, oystermen and trappers.
What was once a 22,000-acre island, however, has been reduced to a 320-acre strip. As of 2009, only 25 houses remained occupied, down from 63 only five years prior, according to a report by Northern Arizona University.
Pat Forbes, the executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development, said in a release that the tribe's people are on the front line of Louisiana's coastal land loss disaster.
"This $48 million grant," she said, "will allow the state to help them resettle their entire community to a safer place with a minimum of disruption to livelihoods and lifestyles. Together, we'll be creating a model for resettlement of endangered coastal communities throughout the United States."
The tribe will reportedly retain ownership of the island even after it relocates to its new community, which could happen as early as 2019.
Representatives of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe could not be reached for comment Thursday.
While the Louisiana tribal members are reportedly the first official U.S. climate refugees, they are not alone in their struggles.
In Alaska, for example, climate change already affects more than 180 villages. Among the hardest hit is the Yupik community of Newtok, a village that the Army Corps of Engineers predicts could be completely underwater by 2017. The Yupik people have also been called America's first climate refugees.
A well-meaning but ultimately flawed new study tries to argue that climate change is even more unfair than we thought. It has long been understood that climate change is uniquely inequitable and immoral since most of the world's poorest countries will suffer greatly from its impacts, even though they have contributed little or nothing to the problem because they are historically low emitters of carbon pollution.
A study released Friday by The University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society goes even further, however, arguing that the world's big carbon polluters won't suffer greatly from climate change.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, asserts:
Some countries, such as China and the United States of America, are in a win-win position of achieving economic growth through fossil fuel use with few consequences from the resulting climate change, while many other, mostly Island and African, countries suffer low economic growth and severe, negative climate change impacts.
While the second half of that assertion is true, the first half is, quite frankly, absurd. China and the U.S. are both going to suffer devastating consequences from climate change - indeed, we already are.
"It is certainly clear that the rich nations have gotten rich on fossil fuels and that many of the world's poorest countries are going to suffer a great deal and they didn't contribute at all," as I told the Christian Science Monitor Friday. "It's also clear that the U.S. isn't doing its fair share. Those points are sort of indisputable."
But it's a mistake to leave people with the impression that it's only poor countries that will take the brunt of climate change, as I have explained many times. We are the world's breadbasket with a vast, highly populated shoreline. We are very vulnerable to changes in precipitation, drought, heat waves, extreme weather events, storm surge, and sea level rise, as well as ocean acidification, invasive pests like bark beetles, and spreading tropical diseases. The list goes on and on.
Just this Monday I reported on the latest study showing the U.S. Southwest is drying out exactly as the climate models had predicted, dramatically increasing the chances for mega-droughts. We saw a glimpse of the havoc this drying (combined with warming temperatures) can bring in the recent multiyear California drought - as well as the devastating Texas and Oklahoma drought earlier in the decade. A 2014 study found that "drying will spread to 30 percent of land" around the globe because of climate change, and "even regions expected to get more rain, including important wheat, corn and rice belts in the western United States and southeastern China, will be at risk of drought."
Rising sea levels and storm surges will be especially devastating to countries like the U.S. (and China) that have vast amounts of wealth along their shores. To be clear, poor low-lying countries, like Bangladesh and the small island states, will be devastated by human-caused increases in sea level and storm surges. And, again, every rich country has a moral responsibility to help poor countries deal with a problem they did essentially nothing to create.
But the U.S. has more than $1.4 trillion in vulnerable coastal property along the U.S. shore. A 2013 NOAA study found that under business-as-usual climate change and sea level rise projections, Superstorm Sandy-level storm surges will become commonplace on the Northeast coast in the second half of this century. And a study from just last month found that human-caused climate change appears to be supercharging East Coast superstorms more than we thought, boosting both precipitation and storm surge in particular much faster than the global average.