"All our work ground to a halt [when Christie took office]," said Mauriello. "It was a sad day for New Jersey. We went really from being a leader on these issues to not having the programs in place at all."
Over his four years in office, Christie's has changed his stance on climate change several times. In 2010, he said he was skeptical that humans were causing the earth to warm. A year later, after a meeting with scientists, he said "climate change is real" and that humans were responsible. In 2012, he angered environmentalists by not acknowledging the connection between climate change and Superstorm Sandy, which many scientists say was likely strengthened by warmer ocean temperatures and the impacts worsened by higher sea levels.
Experts point to Christie's national political aspirations as the reason for his climate inaction as governor.
"We're finding that his policies are much more aligned with the Koch brothers than they are with the people of New Jersey," said Tittle of the Sierra Club. "Because he wants to run for president, he is sacrificing New Jersey's environment and our climate." David and Charles Koch have a history of funding conservative causes and candidates who refute the impacts of climate change.
The governor's office did not respond to requests for comment. The NJDEP, which is handling much of the state's recovery effort, said it couldn't respond to questions unless InsideClimate first obtained an interview with the governor's office.
Post-Sandy New Jersey
As Superstorm Sandy roiled up the East Coast in 2012, it set a course aimed directly toward New Jersey, which prides itself on its expansive and densely populated beachside communities. Winds hit 89 miles per hour and storm surges reached nearly 14 feet, tearing boardwalks, businesses and homes from their foundations. A rollercoaster in the tourist town of Seaside Heights crumbled into the sea. Dozens lost their lives.
In the days that followed, Christie crisscrossed the state, vowing to restore New Jersey to its pre-Sandy glory.
Congress approved a $60 billion aid package for states affected by the storm, including money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's relief efforts, reconstruction of infrastructure and direct aid to victims. The Obama administration said the money should also be used to "help the region prepare for future challenges, including future severe storms and coastal flooding, as well as impacts associated with a changing climate."
But almost none of the nearly $5.7 billion that New Jersey has received so far has been used to prepare for future climate threats, said scientists, environmentalists and policy experts who are following the state's recovery effort. The Christie administration hasn't revealed how it will divvy up the additional $15 to $20 billion in federal aid it expects to receive.
New Jersey has designated $1 billion to restore protective dune systems washed away by Sandy, as well as other flood protection measures like sea walls. But these projects are being built to handle storms at current sea levels, not the additional ocean height expected to accumulate over the next century, experts said. Scientists estimate that the ocean off the coast of New Jersey will rise 1.5 feet by 2050 and 3.5 feet by 2100—more than a foot higher than the global average.
Following Sandy, the Christie administration adopted new building codes, requiring homeowners and businesses to rebuild one foot above updated FEMA flood zones. A $100 million program provides money for homeowners to elevate their houses. However, FEMA's latest flood maps—which are being used to guide this reconstruction—don't include future sea level rise or more frequent Sandy-like storms.
This means that structures rebuilt after Sandy will be vulnerable again in just a few years.
New Jersey has also expanded an ongoing floodplain land acquisition program to include homes damaged by Superstorm Sandy. However, the structures being bought are along rivers in landlocked Middlesex County, not the coastal communities most affected by Sandy or most at risk from New Jersey's future climate threats.
"If you know an area is going to flood every 10 years in the future, why not help communities and property owners think about transitioning out of those places now?" said Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that pushes for sustainable development. "Assuming that sea level rise is going to continue, the government is going to have to respond eventually."