In an essay after superstorm Sandy, Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law At Columbia University, proposed that instead of thinking about what Sandy was, we should focus on "what Hurricane Sandy was not," as his title put it.
Sandy was neither a worst-case climate event nor a 100-year storm, he says. And because there's already so much heat roiling the climate system, government action won't stop future warming and future Sandys for at least the next century. So the country needs to look harder at how to adapt to them.
Katherine Bagley of InsideClimate News spoke with Gerrard, a nationally known environmental lawyer, about where things stand with U.S. adaptation policy, what can be accomplished under current law and whether Sandy has changed thinking on adaptation.
InsideClimate News: There's currently no comprehensive federal law on adaptation. But are there any piecemeal federal, state or local laws that could provide a model or legal framework for something more sweeping?
Michael Gerrard: Well, the National Environmental Policy Act and the counterparts that exist in several of the states certainly provide a framework for analyzing the impact that climate change may have on proposed [government] facilities and undertakings.
So, those laws do provide a framework for the analysis part—for analyzing what the problems may be and pointing toward solutions. They are pretty much purely procedural instead of substantive, but I think they are about the closest we have at the federal level.
(Editor's note: The National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1969, requires all government agencies to consider the environmental impact of their activities.)
ICN: Do you think Hurricane Sandy will make it a priority for Congress to pass a comprehensive law on adaptation?
Gerrard: I think for the people who already believe in climate change, it may move it up a notch on the priorities list. I don't know that the hurricane is going to have a big impact on those who don't believe in climate change, and that is a group that regrettably seems to be controlling the [U.S] House these days.
ICN: Are we at a critical point where we have to pass a law?
Gerrard: Both in respect to mitigation [slowing climate change] and adaptation, the longer we wait, the harder it will be. It is hard to identify exactly what the critical point is. One could argue that it passed some time ago because regardless of what happens, things will get a lot worse before they get better. But certainly, every month that goes by, we get further in the hole.
ICN: What would have to be included in the framework for it to be effective?
Gerrard: It would start with analysis of what is the whole varying array of problems that need to be addressed. Then decisions have to be made about to what degree of protection do we want to invest in. When you look at all the infrastructure—the power systems, the transportation systems, the coastal areas—everything has been built up with a reliance on a more or less continuation of climate trends and with historical extremes being future extremes.
ICN: What kind of public investment would be needed?
Gerrard: Public investment in preparing for it [climate change] and coping with it would be truly immense. I don't see anything even approaching public consensus for that kind of expenditure, especially in an era when the predominant mood seems to be reducing government expenditures.
ICN: You say that land-use decisions involved in adapting to climate change are "heartbreaking." Why?
Gerrard: Some of the areas that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, for example, were communities where people have lived for generations. The question arises: Does it make sense to have rebuilding, especially with public money, in areas that are just as vulnerable now as they were before the hurricane arose? One possible outcome is not to have public money go toward rebuilding in extremely vulnerable areas. Or, to possibly go further, to say that rebuilding is prohibited in extremely vulnerable areas. But, that would have the effect of destroying a long standing community, which is a heartbreaking outcome.
ICN: You live and work in New York City. Is it your sense that Sandy is inspiring action?
Gerrard: Well, certainly in New York City it is. Sandy very much got the attention of the political and policy communities in New York. It is leading a tremendous amount of thinking and planning and work on how do we guard against the worst effects of this kind of thing in the future.
ICN: Is there anything New York City can do at this point to "climate-proof" the city?
Gerrard: I think climate-proofing is not something we can do. There are so many different kinds of extreme events that can happen. I don't see any circumstance under which the city could be made to invulnerable to those. It can certainly be more resilient and be able to cope with them better.