De Blasio Mum on NYC Climate Plan, Despite Boost From Rockefeller Foundation

New effort could help cement the city's reputation for climate action, but it's still unclear if Mayor-elect de Blasio has any real interest in the issue.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has said he supports Mayor Bloomberg's plan for protecting New York City from the perils of climate change. But he has offered no specifics about what his own climate agenda will look like, or whether he'll have one. Credit: Kevdiaphoto

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As Mayor Michael Bloomberg winds down his last month in office, his plan for protecting New York City from the threats of climate change has received an important boost. But there is still uncertainty over whether his successor, Bill de Blasio, has any interest in carrying forward Bloomberg’s legacy on combating global warming.

New York last week was one of 33 cities worldwide selected to participate in the first round of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Network. The initiative grants cities undetermined portions of a $100 million pot of money for hiring a “chief resilience officer” and developing long-term resiliency plans to assess and tackle risks they face from climate and other disasters.

New York is ahead of the curve on both issues. It already has a director of resiliency in the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, as well as a comprehensive strategy in its Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR)—a $19.5 billion plan unveiled in June in response to Superstorm Sandy. The plan includes 257 initiatives spread across the city, about one-quarter of which could be completed before Bloomberg leaves office.

The Rockefeller support could help New York implement the rest of the plan and cement the city’s reputation for being at the forefront of climate action.

But all that is essentially up to Mayor-elect de Blasio, and it remains uncertain whether his administration will keep climate change at the top of the agenda. The keys to Bloomberg’s success in developing a comprehensive climate strategy included his constant, outspoken support for global warming action and his administration’s nonstop consultation with the city’s top scientists, experts and environmental organizations.

MORE: Bloomberg’s Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City, the story behind the historic effort by Mayor Bloomberg to safeguard New York from the effects of climate change.

Since the November election, de Blasio has given praise to Bloomberg’s resiliency plan, but he has offered no specifics and has not said whether he will advance Bloomberg’s climate plan or develop his own. “I think the resiliency plan he put forward is a great blueprint for the future of this city,” de Blasio said in a televised mayoral debate weeks before the Nov. 5 elections. “On resiliency, I actually think he’s right.”

Among the 19 topics listed in de Blasio’s issues section on his campaign website, climate resiliency is last. Sustainability is 11th on the list. On the campaign trail, he focused on traditional hot-button issues such as education, affordable housing and Bloomberg’s controversial “stop and frisk” police policy.

The Bloomberg administration applied to be in the Rockefeller network over the summer. And while it’s unlikely de Blasio would pull out of the initiative—it’s essentially free money and services for New York City—the mayor-elect could choose to sideline the effort and make climate issues less of a priority.

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

Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s resiliency director, didn’t seem concerned. He joined the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability in June to carry out the mayor’s SIRR program—one of the most ambitious and scientifically accurate plans of its kind in the world. Zarrilli and a team of about 30 city staffers worked around the clock to develop the plan in six months so that Bloomberg could start implementing some of its climate initiatives before leaving office.

“We’re going to work with everyone we need to, to make sure resiliency stays on the agenda of New York City,” he told InsideClimate News.

He said the sustainability office recently supplied de Blasio’s transition team with a lengthy briefing on the city’s ongoing activities, near-term plans and long-term concerns, which the de Blasio camp is still mulling over.

Meanwhile, the Bloomberg administration has done what it can to keep its environmental measures in place. The sustainability office, for instance, is a permanent institution that is legally required to continue working on climate resiliency, and it would take a vote by the New York City Council to dismantle it. Councilmembers in recent months have passed dozens of the city’s resiliency proposals, including a batch of green building laws meant to better prepare properties for future storms.

The Rockefeller Foundation itself has outlined five “resilience recommendations” for de Blasio to complete in his first 100 days in office. The list includes hiring a deputy mayor for economic development and resilience, and creating a public-private infrastructure bank for resiliency projects.

‘It’s the Things You Need to Survive’

The Rockefeller Foundation announced the 100 Resilient Cities initiative in May to mark the centennial of the nonprofit’s founding. Nearly 400 cities applied this summer to join the network, and two more rounds of winners will be announced in the next couple of years.

The goal is to make resiliency planning a staple of city work, as institutionalized as education or health services, said Michael Berkowitz, the network’s managing director. “There aren’t good places where city managers can turn to look for how to address some of these issues,” he said. “We wanted to support this new community of practice. … At the end of the day, it’s the things that you need to survive.”

It’s part of a larger attempt to help cities carry out aggressive plans to guard against climate impacts, natural disasters, public health crises and security threats as more people move into urban environments. By 2050, three-fourths of the world’s population will live in cities, up from about 50 percent today, according to the foundation.

One of the first goals of the network is to help define what resiliency planning looks like in a geographically and demographically diverse bunch of cities. The relatively new concept is gaining steam as climate change impacts become more tangible in financial terms and in threats to public health and safety. Yearly economic losses from natural disasters nearly quadrupled in the past three decades, according to a recent report by the World Bank, the Washington-based global development organization.

The Rockefeller network will connect local governments to the World Bank and other partnering organizations such as Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest reinsurer, the American Institute of Architects, Architecture for Humanity and Palantir, a U.S. software firm.

For instance, if planners in Los Angeles found that buildings were ill prepared for powerful earthquakes, the two architecture organizations could set up a “resilient design center” to train local builders and help rewrite municipal building codes. A city like New Orleans could tap Palantir’s data services to map how future flooding would cripple transportation systems.

New York and the foundation are still hashing out how the city will participate and how much in grant money or pro bono services it could receive. “It’s not a dollar figure just yet,” Zarrilli said.

He added that New York will use its ties to the network to expedite the remaining initiatives in its post-Sandy resiliency plan in the coming years. That could include developing financial incentives to help homeowners and businesses make basic improvements, like elevating electrical panels out of flood-prone basements or installing metal hurricane straps to keep roofs in place during a storm.

Bloomberg has voiced cautious optimism for the future of New York’s climate plans.

“Hopefully [de Blasio] will have a strong environmental agenda. He knows what we’ve done, and I think he will continue that,” Bloomberg said during a Nov. 26 press call for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. The outgoing mayor, who had chaired the organization since 2010, is now president of C40’s board of directors.

Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, told reporters in October at a press conference for the anniversary of Sandy that while the city’s top brass will change, many people currently working on environment and climate issues across city agencies will likely stick around.

“The vast majority of people that are engaged in New York in implementing these [resiliency measures] are going to be in place on January 1 and on,” she said.