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A Year After Sandy, Climate Change Nearly Absent From NYC Mayoral Race

Neither candidate has said how they plan to rebuild Sandy-stricken communities and make New York more resilient to extreme weather events if elected.

By Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci

Oct 29, 2013
Mayoral candidates Joseph Lhota, a Republican, and Democrat Bill de Blasio

The devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy a year ago today thrust the issue of climate change into the center of the presidential campaign and to the top of the national political agenda.

And yet in the mayoral race for New York City, one of the epicenters of the tragedy, talk of climate is practically nowhere to be heard. 

In nearly all of the mayoral debates and forums held this year, the issues of global warming and Superstorm Sandy have not come up. That is despite New York's struggles to recover from the storm, the city's vulnerability to future climate disasters and its reputation as a global warming leader under Michael Bloomberg.

In campaign settings when the issues have surfaced, leading candidates Joe Lhota, a Republican, and Democrat Bill de Blasio have agreed that man-made climate change is happening and that New York, as a coastal city, is especially at risk. Neither has said exactly how they plan to rebuild Sandy-stricken communities and cope with the reality of climate change if elected on Nov. 5.

"The candidates have forgotten about the issue, they've forgotten about us," said Donna Crockett, a resident of Howard Beach in Queens whose house was flooded during the storm. "But this isn't a problem that's just going to go away. We need protection. I used to love the ocean, but now I see the wickedness of it."

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Superstorm Sandy One Year Later: 'We're Still Living Through It'

On Oct. 29, 2012, Sandy's 14-foot storm surge devoured entire New York neighborhoods, tearing houses from their foundations and shattering lives. Forty-four New Yorkers were killed. The destruction created a picture that looked eerily similar to predictions made six years ago of future warming.

The storm revealed the inadequacy of the city's—and the nation's—ability to handle climate-related weather extremes. Days after it hit, Bloomberg endorsed Obama for president, citing the president's leadership on climate change. In June, the mayor unveiled an ambitious, highly touted $19.5 billion plan to rebuild New York and protect it from future Superstorm Sandys and other climate threats.

The administration wants to see 59 of the plan's 250 initiatives implemented before Bloomberg leaves office on Jan. 1. Those measures include strengthening the city's electrical infrastructure and approving new construction codes that lower the risk of flooding and wind damage to buildings. 

That leaves more than 190 initiatives that would fall to the next mayor, and it's still uncertain whether and how Bloomberg's successor will implement the plan.

"We've all been trying to make it an issue," said Matt Ryan, the executive director of the Alliance for a Greater New York, a labor coalition involved in post-Sandy rebuilding efforts. "But climate, resiliency and the environment have not been at the top of their lists."

Jessica Proud, a spokeswoman for Lhota, said the mayoral hopeful "strongly supports the plan that the mayor put out" and he "wants to begin to implement it." She said Lhota has talked about climate change "quite a bit," especially the "need to take steps to protect the city's assets—that it's not a question of if there will be another storm, but when."

De Blasio's office did not respond to requests for comment.

The websites of both campaigns acknowledge climate change and Sandy recovery. Among the 19 topics listed in de Blasio's "issues" section, climate resiliency is last. Sustainability is 11th on the list.

In Lhota's 22-page online "policy book," the environment appears on page 18 and is grouped under "quality of life" issues with topics such as crime and public safety, support for senior citizens and affordable housing.

Why No Specifics?

Since the beginning of the mayoral race, climate change has taken a back seat to traditional hot-button issues such as education, affordable housing and Bloomberg's controversial "stop and frisk" police policy.

There have been a few exceptions, however.

During an Earth Day forum hosted by The League of Conservation Voters, nine mayoral candidates, including Lhota and de Blasio, talked broadly about continuing Bloomberg's sustainability agenda and rebuilding post-Sandy with climate change in mind—but no one offered specifics. In June, de Blasio appeared at a Brooklyn forum on Sandy recovery efforts where he endorsed Bloomberg's recovery and resiliency plan. He offered vague details on what he plans to do with it.

Most recently, a moderator raised a question about Sandy in the second of three debates between de Blasio and Lhota. Both talked about the need to prepare for future climate disasters. Lhota criticized the $19.5 billion price tag for Bloomberg's initiatives. De Blasio called it a "great blueprint for the future of this city ... It's the affordable approach."

The lack of hard specifics has irked environmentalists and community leaders. In interviews, several said that part of the reason climate and Sandy issues are not top priorities is that voters are not demanding that candidates present a coherent post-Bloomberg strategy.

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