The Christie administration's dismissal of climate change from its rebuilding work seems to contradict what voters actually want. According to a poll conducted in April, nearly two-thirds of New Jerseyans believe climate change fueled Sandy, as well as Hurricane Irene and a devastating October snowstorm in 2011. Three-quarters said climate change will likely cause another extreme weather event in the United States over the next year. Most said they expect climate change to increase the cost of disasters to consumers and the federal government over the next few decades.
Most New Jerseyans, however, haven't protested the state's rebuilding strategy. Grief-stricken and financially devastated by Sandy, they wanted normalcy as quickly as possible. That's what Christie delivered, and in an election year.
By May, just seven months after Sandy, the state's iconic boardwalks and beachside blocks stood almost exactly as they once did. Commercial and print ads popped up in media outlets across the northeast showing Christie proclaiming that New Jersey was "Open for Business."
The problem, Tittle of the Sierra Club said, is that "when you deny climate change and you deny the science, you are denying the opportunity to do things better. Instead of fixing the mistakes of the past, we're going to perpetuate them and put more people and property in harm's way."
Across the Hudson River in New York is an entirely different scenario. Both New York City and the state have made addressing climate change a key priority in their post-Sandy recovery. According to a recent InsideClimate News report—Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City—Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his staff recognized almost immediately after Sandy that New York City needed to do more than just rebuild. It needed to stave off future climate threats.
In June, the Bloomberg administration released a $19.5 billion climate adaptation strategy, known as the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, complete with 257 initiatives to safeguard the city from stronger storms, fiercer heat waves and rising seas. All of the work is rooted in hyper-local climate projections created by a team of regional climate scientists.
At the state level, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a $400 million land-buying program for the most vulnerable areas that pays clusters of homeowners the pre-Sandy values of their houses. The structures will be torn down and the property left vacant to act as a natural buffer for future storms. Cuomo also has proposed a climate change-based building code and is funding flood and climate resiliency projects across the state.
"New York isn't perfect, but they are doing a lot more," said Tittle of the Sierra Club. "Christie is giving the incentive for people to rebuild in high hazard areas. In New York, they are giving people the incentive to get bought out, to leave those areas. They are actually working on sea level rise and adaptation. We're not."
"We're envious," said Mauriello, the former NJDEP commissioner. "It is really tough to see. There are things being done and statements being made by the mayor and governor [in New York] that I wish I were hearing from my governor."
The fact is, however, that as neighbors, what affects New York also affects New Jersey. Scientists and environmentalists say the two states need to create a comprehensive climate action plan, one that projects the whole region. If they don't, a seawall built by one state, for example, could worsen flooding in the other.
An Uncertain Future
New Jersey will be forced to re-examine its approach to climate change if it hopes to take full advantage of the latest round of federal Sandy aid. New Jersey's share is expected to be about $1.5 billion.
The funds, provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, require states to analyze how climate change will affect any proposed infrastructure projects. New Jersey officials could to eliminate infrastructure work from their proposal, essentially bypassing the climate change requirement. Or they could simply let the money go—a move that would no doubt cause political backlash among communities still trying to recover from the storm.
In the meantime, New Jersey green groups, researchers and policy experts plan to keep pressuring state officials to take action on climate change. They'll also try to persuade more local communities to create their own strategies.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, for example, released a resiliency and readiness plan in August that calls for sea walls, flood barriers and flood mitigation systems to protect the low-lying city from storm surges and sea level rise. The plan also requests updates to building codes and encourages more smartly built infrastructure. The city established a resiliency task force to brainstorm more projects and policies to safeguard the city.
A handful of other towns have hired municipal planners to create climate strategies, thanks to a partnership with New Jersey Future and Sustainable Jersey, two nonprofits that focus on sustainable development.