Superstorm Sandy: Lessons for Climate Resiliency Ten Years Later
In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy made landfall as one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever hit the United States, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage and dozens of casualties. A decade later, climate change has continued to intensify the impacts of hurricanes in the United States, as made evident by recent Hurricane Ian. Our panelists discuss lessons learned in climate resiliency over the past decade, and how the United States can better prepare for natural disasters moving forward.
The Lessons From History Series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
MORAN: Well, thank you very much, and hello, everyone. It’s great to be here and to talk about this subject—this subject, the lessons of Superstorm Sandy ten years on, lessons for climate resiliency in particular.
And I should say that this is—this Lessons from History Series—and this meeting is part of the Lessons from History Series at CFR—is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein. And we can learn a lot, obviously, ten years on from Superstorm Sandy.
I’m a senior national correspondent with ABC News. I’m a journalist that covered Superstorm Sandy on the—on the ground. And I’m looking forward to learning about what we’ve learned today from that with our panelists, a distinguished panel.
Jainey K. Bavishi is the former director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate Resiliency from 2017 to 2022 and she was the associate director for climate preparedness at the White House Council on Environmental Quality from 2015 to 2017.
Craig Fugate is now the chief resilience officer at One Concern, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well, from 2009 to 2017.
Klaus Jacob, geophysicist and specialist—a special research scientist at the Columbia Climate School and he was a former member of the New York City Mayor’s Panel on Climate Change from 2008 to 2019.
Welcome to our panelists. This is, as you can see, a panel that will really be able to help us with this subject. And when we were meeting prior to this meeting just to kind of get a sense of where we might go with it, what struck me in listening to Jainey and Klaus and knowing what Craig wanted to say as well, is, as a journalist, how differently we would cover Superstorm Sandy today, right.
At the time, people were aware of climate change. It seemed a long way out—a real problem but a long way out. We covered Superstorm Sandy as a disaster, right? I mean, we were down on the coast, and I don’t recall it being much more than secondary, even tertiary, part of the coverage at that time. That’s on us.
Today, we would recognize it for what it is, for what it was, and that was part of the history of climate change in this country and the world, and I’d like to start, I guess, just briefly, if I could ask each of the panelists who were in different positions at the time that Sandy hit just for their memories of those days.
As I say, my memory is one of covering a disaster, right, obviously, on the New Jersey shore. We were doing—helping—watching people getting evacuated and covering a lot of that. But today we would cover it differently. That was my perspective.
Jainey, if I could start with you, where were you? What did you think of Superstorm Sandy when it hit? Was it part of your understanding of what we face on the climate at that time?
BAVISHI: Yeah. Thanks, Terry.
Well, when Superstorm Sandy hit I actually worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—NOAA—during the Obama administration and, you know, our role was to provide climate data to make more informed decisions in the face of climate change.
So, in many ways, you know, we were all hands on deck trying to make sure that we were not only trying to get climate data to communities that were affected by Sandy but also to our federal partners.
The president, soon after Sandy, started a Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Taskforce, which laid out a set of really important policy recommendations for guiding an equitable and resilient recovery from Sandy but also really, you know, informing our policy frameworks for what we do if this happens again.
So we were, you know, trying to get data to our federal colleagues there. But then also we worked very closely with FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers to create a sea level rise tool to make sure that when people were rebuilding and the affected states were rebuilding, you know, they were also thinking about sea level rise because we knew that if this happened again it was going to be worse.
And, Craig, you had a front row seat, as it were, to Sandy at FEMA. You were in the thick of it. What do you remember?
FUGATE: Well, it was a storm. We respond to a lot of storms. But I think what was different was a conversation that President Obama had with me as we were heading out to visit Governor Christie in New Jersey, and he said, Craig, the debate about climate change is over. We need to start talking about adaptation.
And up and to that point, almost all the federal policy was geared towards reducing carbon emissions as if climate change was something in the future versus something that had already been changing, and we had been going through these record-setting events, weather events, constantly, rainfall events, and really framed it that way.
That really, I think, started a shift in federal government that it wasn’t just enough to talk about what was going to occur in the future. It was really talking about how we were going to adapt to change that was already occurring and what we would need to do differently, and a big part of that was we just can’t rebuild it the way it was.
We’re going to have to start incorporating future risk in our decision making and not looking back a hundred years to make those kind of investments.
MORAN: And, Klaus, as a scientist and as somebody who was working on this issue and known to be very deeply concerned about it well before Superstorm Sandy, what—when it rolled in did you feel vindicated at all? How did you feel?
JACOB: Well, I was glued to the information coming in, actually, from the agency that Jainey worked at that time, namely, the National Hurricane Center, and followed the track of this approaching storm, which then was renamed superstorm. It was a merging of two systems, a hurricane and another weather system.
And it became clear maybe two days ahead—forty-eight hours ahead—that this may be, actually, the scenario that we had described a year earlier in making an assessment. Largely, my responsibility was for the transportation systems in the New York metropolitan area.
And, sure enough, as the time shortened and the eye of the storm came closer and closer, it became clear, yes, that’s the scenario and, hopefully, the MTA and other agencies that run infrastructure systems would actually remember that they have a blueprint what to do.
MORAN: And let’s now talk about that.
First, Klaus, if I can follow up with you.
In the ten years subsequently—as I say, journalism, for what it might be as a barometer or a bellwether of a general kind of popular understanding and consciousness of this has moved. Has the threat—is it at the same
level that you would have expected ten years ago, or is it accelerating? In other words, I’m wondering, do you think these things are, to a layperson—to a lot of laypeople, it feels like, especially this past year, things are happening faster. Like, we don’t have as much time to adapt and mitigate and change our ways. Is that an accurate impression?
JACOB: I assume, Terry, you addressed me.
MORAN: Yeah. Please.
JACOB: Well, it should not be a surprise, given all the climate assessments and data that we have, that global warming makes food for more intensive hurricanes. It raises the sea level, and sea level has the nasty property that when you raise sea level you need ever smaller storms to reach the same height on the ground.
That means smaller storms, since they are more frequently, the risk is really amplified drastically, and to give you an example just for, let’s say, downtown Manhattan, if you take the current storm surge heights and then superimpose sea level rise you will find that the frequency of a subway entrance at a particular elevation will be seventy times—seven oh—seventy times more often flooded in the year 2100 than it was in the year 2000.
So, yes, not only the frequency goes up but also the intensity of these events, and that’s not just for coastal storm flooding. We have more intensive rainfalls, we have more intensive heat events, and, believe it or not, in some places, drought events.
MORAN: And that’s our life, not a debate, obviously, and not even a projection. That is what we are living through.
Jainey, I want to ask is, how much has New York City done, given your experience there and as an example of what every major city on the water in the world is going to have to deal with? How has New York City done?
BAVISHI: I mean, I—you know, I spent five years as the director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate Resiliency in New York City so I was actually responsible for implementing many of the projects that were funded post-Sandy in New York City to prepare for the next storm.
We were implementing a $20 billion portfolio of projects and programs across the city and this was focused on hardening the coastline. New York City, by the way, has five hundred and twenty miles of coastline. That’s more than San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Boston combined, just to give you a sense.
We were focused on upgrading our buildings because we want to make sure we’re creating multiple lines of defense, hardening our critical infrastructure like energy, water, wastewater, sewer, our transportation infrastructure, and then we were also working with our communities to make sure that they had the information they needed to make more informed decisions in the face of climate change, whether it’s about flood insurance or protecting small businesses or just creating social networks so that people are checking in on each other during and after an extreme event. These are all important layers of our resiliency approach.
You know, I think that New York City is one of the leaders in this work in the world. I think that just given the level of investment, given the leadership that we’ve seen from all parts of the city, that there’s just a lot that’s been done, a lot that’s in progress.
But there’s a lot more work to do. We really need to rise to the moment that, I think, climate change presents. We really need every part of our government working together. Climate change forces us to transcend government silos and work together across not just agencies but across different levels of government and across different sectors.
You know, this is not just something that government can solve. We need the private sector to also play a leadership role, and we need to get to a place where every policy decision that we make, every investment we make, takes climate change into account.
I think New York City is starting to really show some leadership on this front, too. Last year the city actually passed a local law that requires every capital investment that’s made by the city—so that means every library, every bridge, every hospital that the city builds with the city dollars—must take future risks into account.
This is huge. We didn’t have a framework like this before, and a framework like this doesn’t even exist at the federal level. So that’s an important step to account for climate change and the entire $90 billion capital portfolio that New York City advances.
But that’s just a step. You know, in our conversation before the event Klaus pointed out we need this for building code, for zoning code. We need private developers to also be taking climate change into account and I don’t disagree, and I think New York City is taking steps towards that front as well.
But, again, this is way beyond what we’re seeing in other parts of the country and there’s a lot of work that even New York City still has left to do.
Craig, it just—it’s an enormous task and it feels to me just, once again, as a reporter, like, the notion that every decision government at local, state, and federal level make in these areas needs to take climate change into account.
We’re a long way from that, aren’t we? Would you assess our progress and what it looks like, going forward?
FUGATE: Progress is dismal, actually, both from the standpoint of our built infrastructure but in too many places in the country we continue to build to, in many cases, not even current building codes, not current elevations, outdated flood maps, and there’s an uncertainty how high we should be building.
In the Obama administration we took the steps of amending the federal floodplain management standards saying we just don’t have good maps and good data. So let’s stop building, which our minimum standard was one foot above what we thought was the 1 percent risk of a flood or what many people refer to as the flood maps.
Now let’s go to two feet. Just double it. And if it’s a critical facility go to three feet, and if we’re using federal dollars we’re going to build to a higher standard. Cities like New Orleans had already done this after Katrina where they have to build three feet above their minimum base flood elevations.
It was a start. We did it by executive order. It got rescinded in the next administration. The current administration has reestablished it and we’re working with Congress to try to get this in statute.
But we have to avoid this tendency, and you hear this time and time again, we’re going to rebuild it back where it was, and they’ll say better. But what we know for two of the principal threats, sea level rise and extreme rainfall, which can occur inland as well, we either need to build back or higher, and looking at past data isn’t driving those changes.
And so we’re increasingly seeing that the federal government needs to be more aggressive in our investment strategies, making sure that when we’re making investments it’s not limited to more affluent areas because too often we look at cost benefit analysis instead of the impacts to the populations.
But part of this has been recent legislation that Congress has passed and the president signed into law to increase infrastructure funding, to increase FEMA’s funding for building resilience prior to disasters. But it’s a—we have a long ways to go and the climate has already changed. So we’re very far behind in this event.
MORAN: And, Klaus—and by the way, panelists, if you want to just chime in chime in. You don’t need—we don’t need to play ping pong here.
But let me ask Klaus. On this question of progress so far, you know, there has been work done. As a professor, how would you grade us as a country—this is a global problem, obviously—but just the United States of America on this issue of resiliency and adaptation in our built environment in the way that we are responding to what Sandy taught us?
JACOB: C+. A plus because, yes, there have been efforts underway. I mean, Jainey listed some of the things that New York City did. But it’s a $20 billion program. Give me a break. That’s a drop in the bucket of what’s really needed to make a metropolitan area like New York City resilient for the future sea level rise forecasts and all the other climate change factors.
We don’t yet even have an estimate that’s realistic what’s needed for the decades and beyond 2100 because if you build infrastructure it has a lifetime of fifty, a hundred, a hundred fifty years, normally.
But the climate will be entirely different by 2100. So unless we take that into account we are wasting our money now and make it difficult for future generations to live up to our mistakes and pay for that, and that’s an intergenerational injustice that we put onto them.
MORAN: May I follow up? Are you talking about the standards that Craig was talking about are insufficient, given what the danger is or—
JACOB: Absolutely. That’s a nice starting point for raising awareness. But, for instance, if you build a new tunnel system or a bridge or whatever, then you have to look at the expected lifetime of this thing, that it’s functional throughout its lifetime.
So we have to take the sea level rise projections to 2100 and beyond into account when we do that, and there is no regulation right now to do this in that strict sense, as I just said.
Yeah, we have these recommendations that FEMA luckily made to put some—(inaudible)—on top of whatever. But even the hundred-year flood zones that was an insurance instrument that we’re now taking for constructing our infrastructure.
That’s not meaningful. That’s not a real foresighted planning. We took one thing that was meant to be one thing, maybe insurance related, and used it suddenly for our planning of our infrastructure in the cities and land use.
MORAN: Jainey, what would that look like? Is that practical, from somebody who worked on these issues in New York City? If you planned—it almost sounds to me like if you planned at that level, given the projections, given what we’re living through and expecting us and our children and grandchildren to live through, you’d have to move New York City.
I mean, I’m exaggerating. I’m joking. But—
BAVISHI: Well, I think Klaus’ ears perked up when you said that.
But, you know, I think there’s some limit to the science here, too, right. We’re facing a lot of uncertainty. You know, Klaus served on the New York City Panel on Climate Change, which, again, was a(n) institutionalized panel.
It was a panel required by local law in New York City, appointed by the mayor, and there was a panel of independent scientists that provided the city with local climate projections that covered the hundred-mile radius around Central Park, which we use as the basis of our entire resilience portfolio.
So those are the projections that we use to plan, you know, how high a flood wall should be or, you know, as we’re thinking about—as the city is now thinking about building code and incorporating climate projections into building code, those are the projections that will be the basis.
But, you know, the scientists tell us or at least told us while I was in that position that 2100 was the sort of limit as to where they had confidence in the projections. Beyond 2100 it was harder to say, and that might be changing with new data. But at least that was the—you know, that was the data we were working with.
So, for example, the local law that I mentioned that institutionalized our climate resiliency design guidelines and incorporated climate projections into the $90 billion capital portfolio, that did take into account the useful life of an asset.
So if you build a building now you’re going to assume that it will last for a hundred years, right, and so you’re supposed to take that into account as you think about which set of projections to use.
But, again, we’ve got to—we’ve got to use the projections that we have. Scientific confidence and sound science was really the basis of our policymaking. So there’s this bit of a dance between the science and the policymaking so that we can move the work forward.
JACOB: I do have to respond to that because the uncertainty works two ways.
Yes, maybe if you take too high an estimate out of the portfolio of sea level rise values that the NPCC—the New York City Panel on Climate Change—provides. But there is one advantage. Sea level rise only goes up. It doesn’t go down for the next few thousand years.
So what you bought yourself if you took a little bit too high a design level, you bought yourself safety and time into the future. So it’s not wasted money. What is wasted money is to take the lower levels because then you really are exposed to risk.
FUGATE: If I—
MORAN: Go ahead.
BAVISHI: Sorry, Terry. If I could just respond.
I want to say, you know, as a local official, we also had to make that case to our budget officers, right. So there’s also this question of what is scientifically sound and what is fiscally responsible.
So we would take the high end of the projections that we were given but—and another, you know, design tactic that we took was to make the foundations of, like, the floodwalls we were building, for example, adaptable so that they could—we could add more load later without starting over.
But those were some of the ways that we could ensure that we’re accounting for changing projections without having the science to point to about, you know, what the projections will be in future years.
MORAN: And, Craig, if I could shift gears just a little bit where this is at a general and helpful level, but have you got a sense of what are some of the most important practical steps that municipalities and governments can do, are doing, right now?
What are the concrete things that—action points that could be accomplished by governments, as Jainey is talking about? New York’s a very wealthy city. A lot of cities don’t have those resources. What things work?
FUGATE: Correct building codes and expanding their flood plain understanding and looking at that, and some of the stuff we did in New York City it was—the problem in New York City is you, basically, have an underground vulnerability that so much was down there.
And so on the Hospital Row we saw just about every hospital—there were nine hospitals impacted because generators, diagnostic equipment, laboratories, were all below grade. They all flooded.
So when you build back, don’t put your generators back in the basement. Put them up on the second floor. Move the diagnostics up. And there was a reason it was down there. It was easier to shield, more stable. But it meant we had to incorporate that into the repairs in buildings so that you could move things out of the basement.
And, you know, the other thing that they looked at is can you seal enough of the entrances with either temporary measures or permanent work to reduce the inflows and then put in the pumping capability. Because you always have water down there. It’s always, you know, a constantly evolving thing.
But it was amazing how many things we didn’t know, and this is probably the other thing we’re having to look at. We tend to look at a building or a facility in isolation, and what we’re finding with climate impacts you really got to look at the function and the system because just looking at a point may not always expose all of the risk.
And as we saw in New York City, when you have impacts to the port and the electrical grid from the storm you impacted the fuel system, which then cascaded to more numerous situations on top of the flooding that we were seeing in downtown Manhattan and the places where all of the subways where water had come in.
So this tendency to look at a point on the map or say we’re going to harden this facility, well, if the facility is hardened, like a hospital, but all the roads leading to it flood, you really haven’t changed the outcome for the community.
MORAN: That’s a great point. We’re going to go to questions in a couple of minutes. But I have just one more—we’ll go back to the general—and that is the human factor here.
Jainey, you were talking about getting different constituencies and different parts of the government to coordinate, cooperate, buy in to this. Where are we on that, do you think, for most governments?
I mean, I can—I have a sense politically because that’s kind of my business. It’s, certainly, more on the map and, certainly, you see even very conservative Republican senators in places like Florida no longer peddling denial and even kind of buying into the need to adapt.
But how would you describe not politically but the—in government where so much can get kind of clogged up, do you get a sense that in New York City government and your sense beyond your experience in federal government that there is a whole of government buy in at least and that there is a sense that the government can get after this?
BAVISHI: Yeah. You know, I hear you asking two questions, Terry. One is about government capacity around climate change but one is around government capacity around equity, right, because climate change is also fundamentally an equity issue.
We know that socially and economically vulnerable communities are going to bear the disproportionate impacts of climate change. We’ve seen it time and time again and we’ll continue to see that.
So, you know, I do believe that both in my experience at the local level and at the federal level that there was a willingness to, you know, dive into these issues and advance them. I don’t think there was anyone questioning the importance. But every agency just has a lot in front of them, right.
If you ask DOT is their main job to build and maintain the streets or is it to prepare the city for, you know, the impacts of climate change, of course, it’s going to be building and maintaining the streets, and we just need to get to a point where building and maintaining the streets is one of the tools that we use to prepare for climate change. We need to see it that way. We need to see it hand in hand.
And we also need to be overlaying equity on top of that as well—embedding an equity perspective. So there’s a lot of capacity building that, I think, that’s needed across government. Some of this is about training and just, you know, sharpening our—the skills that we have across governments to understand the issues that are at stake, both at a human dimension but also, you know, just in terms of risk.
But I think some of it is also that we need to build out, you know, the capacity of our infrastructure agencies, of our health agencies, to also respond to climate change, right. We need to see that these agencies are important players. Preparing for climate change cannot only be an emergency management function, you know, and I think that too often it becomes that because we don’t have another natural place to put it.
But it really needs to be, you know, an all-of-government all-of-society effort, as I said before.
MORAN: And while we’re going to questions and waiting for questions, to ask a question you’re going to raise hand—click the raised hand icon on your Zoom window and then unmute when you’re called on.
But, Klaus, I want to ask you that as a scientist. For so long, scientists were prophets in the wilderness, right. Maybe still some. But do you get a sense that governments—I’m speaking in general now, not just the federal government—but are more clued in?
JACOB: Many branches of the government are really seriously working on their silo contribution. What is missing is an overall vision and plan where we go. Let’s say with New York City, and, of course, Florida—Palm Beach is an entirely different story and I always say I have written off Palm Beach. Sorry to say that.
But New York City has the luxury of topography and we have to develop land use and zoning that takes that topography into account as safe havens for the future, and we have not a plan for New York City that takes that sort of approach.
We still go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer(s) and listen to what they have to offer us to protect the harbor or portions of the harbor or—and so on—is, in my mind, not sufficient.
And so if I see one role of the various portions of government, and government is very dispersed, I mean, it’s—there’s, fundamentally, three branches of the government and often we see the legislature still approving, let’s say, in the New York City Council, things that should not be approved like putting new housing in areas that we know will not be livable in towards later this decade.
So, in short, the government has to get its action together and the action in this sense means a climate change functionality that we do not have right now. It’s all silo visions, not a(n) overall plan.
MORAN: That’s such a major challenge—thank you, Klaus—given the government seems to be struggling at national and local levels on getting so many things done.
But let’s go to questions and I’ll turn it over to Laura, who will handle your questions.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Marisol Maddox.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for this event.
So, my name is Marisol Maddox. I’m a senior Arctic analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in D.C., and I really wanted to kind of foot stomp something that Klaus said earlier, which is this idea that that hardened infrastructure really needs to be taking a more, you know, kind of worst case scenario approach because of, you know, hardened infrastructure, once it reaches its capacity it fails, right.
And so my concern—obviously, I work on Arctic so it’s, like, why am I talking about New York. The Arctic change that we are seeing has profound implications for the rest of the world and, specifically, the Greenland ice sheet—there’s research that shows that it’s so large that it actually generates its own gravitational pull and that as it loses mass it’s not only contributing significant amounts of sea level rise globally but it actually, through oceanic circulation, pushes it towards the Eastern seaboard of the United States. So that has disproportionate impact for places like New York City.
We’re seeing that—you know, in 2019 the Greenland ice sheet saw loss of ice that wasn’t projected until 2070 and we’re consistently seeing that reality is being—is outpacing what models are projecting, and we also know that there’s a huge gap in our carbon accounting because models—current climate models do not account for methane and other very significant carbon emissions from things like permafrost thaw in the Arctic.
And so all of that being said, you know, this is something that I work very closely with different parts of U.S. government on, and there seems to be a real gap between the time that it takes for these comprehensive reports like the IPCC to be—you know, go through peer review and be issued.
That’s a very timely process, time consuming, but we, in real time, are learning, you know, things that have immense consequence for policy decisions, right.
So this is all to say I am concerned because, you know, New York, in particular, is a place very close to my heart. I’m from New York. You know, my grandparents immigrated there. I want New York and other cities in the world to get this right.
So it doesn’t seem to me that the most up-to-date information is really making it to these localities. So I’m curious if there are suggestions from any of you on how we can better facilitate communication between people who are working, really, on the ground on those issues and seeing, you know, changes that should have immense consequence for how, you know, policymakers are thinking about things like adaptation, if there’s ways that we can just develop those relationships.
So I’d just love to hear kind of responses on that because I really want us to get this right.
MORAN: Craig, what do you think?
FUGATE: Well, there’s actually some work in Congress—I don’t know if they’re going to pass the bill, but—to get to some of the issues we talk about, as there’s not a focal point in the federal government. It’s split up among the science community and th
So there’s a bill out there to create a chief resiliency officer to go into the White House to serve that role and provide the staff, similar to other functions at the federal government. The White House is the convening authority. It has the ability to bring the various branches together. We did this, to a certain degree, after Superstorm Sandy.
But this would create a permanent position in the White House. That job would be working on resiliency and that’s—and resiliency is interesting. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have problems in the future.
But it avoids this catastrophic failure that we see time and time again, and that we build systems that if they’re going to fail they fail in a predictable manner to allow communities to manage that and recover quickly.
We’re just not going to be able to move everything and prevent everything from being impacted. But we’ve seen a lot of good work out there of things that can be done to make it more resilient, come back quicker, and not have the catastrophic failures that we have seen, as Klaus says.
When you build to a certain level and then it overtops, it tends to be a catastrophic failure; versus did you build it in such a way that if it fails, it fails in the least vulnerable part or the most resilient areas instead of the most vulnerable areas.
JACOB: I have concerns.
BAVISHI: If I may—
JACOB: You mentioned—we lost our questioner.
But I wanted to say the NPCC had the advantage, compared to the IPCC, that it usually incorporates the latest science very quickly into its forecast. So it avoids all that bureaucracy that comes with coming to a consensus internationally in reviewing the IPCC, and the IPCC is always three to five years behind the real science while the NPCC is right on top of it.
OK. That’s the advantage for New York City.
BAVISHI: I also just want to mention that the pending legislation that Craig referred to would also require a national resilience—climate resilience and adaptation strategy to be created.
It’s important to mention that many countries have a national resilience strategy but we do not, and I think that that would send a really important signal to states and localities about where we’re going and where the federal government is going in terms of working together through an all-of-government approach to address these issues.
JACOB: Just one comment in the international context.
Many nations, including the U.S., have made a commitment to the Paris Agreement and then they have made commitments how to implement them.
But if you look what’s needed to follow the Paris Agreement with the two degrees and, better, one and a half degrees C, stabilizing the temperature of the atmosphere, then there is such a big gap between those made commitments and what would be needed to follow the Paris Agreement.
So that’s not on the adaptation side, which is mostly the topic that we learned here from Sandy. But it is an international issue, and the developed countries are in the most—in the largest gap between commitments and the goals for targets for Paris.
So the poor nations, the Micronesia that already have to move off their atoll islands, they don’t emit any CO2 to begin with. It’s, really, us who have to act, and I’m not sure we fully understand in the public the urgency for that.
MORAN: I’d agree with that.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Sheri Fink.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for having this today.
I just wanted to ask a question off of something that Craig Fugate began talking about, which has to do with the hospital preparedness and resilience, and maybe, Jainey Bavishi, you’d be in the best position to answer this.
But if I recall correctly, there were a number of proposals in New York after Sandy both to make new construction of hospitals more, you know, sort of conforming to the concepts that Craig Fugate laid out earlier. But then there was also a proposal to get the existing facilities which are very vulnerable retrofitted within a certain number of years and I’m just wondering whether that ever went anywhere.
BAVISHI: Sure. I can chime in, Sheri, and I don’t have a detailed response for you. I don’t know exactly what the status is of each of the hospitals on Hospital Row.
But there are—there have been retrofits that have happened. I think they’ve been happening faster in the private hospitals than they’ve been happening in the public hospitals.
But there are also—apart from building retrofits there are flood walls being built, especially on Hospital Row in Lower—or in midtown and Manhattan and that that flood wall system is actually going to connect with a larger flood protection project called the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. So it will provide a continuous line of flood protection for that area.
There have been other upgrades that have happened kind of across the city. So, for example, in Coney Island the hospital has received quite a bit of investment for retrofits, Staten Island as well. So there are many projects that have either been completed or are underway.
And then any hospitals that are built with city funds will now have to comply with the local law that I mentioned earlier. So they’ll have to take climate change into account. So lots underway and good progress, I think, for the future as well.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Alex Wallace.
Q: Hi. Alex Wallace. I’m a media adviser.
It’s a question for Klaus. You know, we talked a lot about adaptation, building back. I love kind of a phrase you said about Palm Beach—you’ve written it off.
My question is about climate change migration. The drought in the West, wildfires out west, sea rise—I mean, at some point, some of these places will become uninhabitable, and even after this meeting I’m going to sell my apartment right away in New York City.
My question is where. Where becomes—obviously, there’s a part of southern Louisiana where there—obviously, people have moved already. There’s some people that are saying they’re not going to build back after Ian.
Where do you think we will see the most soon real migration in America?
JACOB: Well, I come back to my suggestion that we need a comprehensive thinking that puts the short- to mid-term solutions in a long-term context, and the long-term context is the one that the body politics has avoided and that is leaving low ground and moving to higher ground in coastal areas.
In wildfire areas we are not supposed to build any more suburban things in forests or on the edge of the forest, and so on.
So depending on where you are you have to develop a long-term vision. Then the body politics can translate in the zoning and land use. That really helps us to mitigate into the future rather than fiddling around only with short-term measures.
Yeah, it’s good to build sea walls in front of certain communities and helps for the next few decades. But we need to understand what we do beyond the next two decades so we can actually funnel our financing and capital that we have for these sorts of things in a meaningful way. It needs planning, planning, planning, and scientific input, and then political will to translate that into action.
BAVISHI: And I want to just add that I think that this is one of the issues that comes up for me as being one where equity is absolutely critical.
It’s probably going to be lower income communities that—or in communities of color where we see more of these relocations needing to happen—communities that are getting, you know, flooded on a repetitive basis.
I think, you know, it’s absolutely important that these relocations are voluntary and also we need to think about how, in a city like New York City where there’s an affordable housing crisis, can we ensure that families who are considering the possibility of relocation because of climate impacts can actually thrive somewhere else in the city.
And I think that, you know, there is—we run the risk of repeating cycles of inequitable policies—redlining, and, you know, just histories of racist and inequitable policies—if we are not absolutely thoughtful about how to approach these very, very complicated issues.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from the Mahesh Kotecha.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
Q: Can you hear me? Thank you very much. A fascinating discussion.
My question is, really, about public policymaking and making it more effective. Clearly, the science doesn’t quite always make it to the public policy domain in a timely fashion and a comprehensive manner and a long-term manner that policy can be effective.
What lessons have been learned, for instance, by Jainey, among others, and also Craig from his work at FERC—at FEMA that would suggest some better ways of handling this at both the federal and at the state and municipal levels?
Do we need to think about climate czars, for example, as we have John Kerry, for international kind of outreach?
The World Bank has been urged by Yellen recently at the World Bank meetings to start thinking not just of country-by-country level projects but on a global climate mitigation issue cross-border projects that are regional projects that are involving coordination across borders.
We may have to think about this as well because looking at jurisdictional by jurisdictional kind of responsibilities may bypass the real problems that may be tristate problems and may be handled better on a coordinated basis across boundaries that are political.
MORAN: Who would like to tackle that one?
FUGATE: Yeah, I’ll start.
Again, the real authority the federal government has in this area is the money, and everybody hates red tape and they hate the strings attached to it but the reality is Congress and the executive branch can drive a lot of this by putting in the requirements to support higher standards in new construction.
This is everything from HUD community block grant dollars to federal aid highway transportation projects, Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA projects.
And what’s interesting is on both sides of the aisle they’re—in a highway transportation bill a couple years ago both sides were wanting to build resiliency into new construction. The challenge is to what level, because there’s increased cost and that always then becomes the challenge.
You know, if you put in the higher standards you make things less affordable. You can’t build as much. But I think even on both sides of the aisle there’s an understanding that paying billions and billions and billions of dollars after disasters for things we could have built back better minimize the future cost, and it’s really—I think when you explain this as a taxpayer, because everyone talks about those federal dollars like it’s somebody’s money, it’s, like, your money. It’s your taxes.
And I think as a nation we will come to a community’s need in a disaster to help rebuild. But we should make investments that we rebuild one time, not suffer the same thing over and over and over again, and if that means spending more money on the upfront cost of building in that resilience that’s a good investment for the taxpayer.
We know that in most cases these investments can return or avoid losses of 4 (dollars) to $9 for every dollar we invest. But the challenge continues to be how high, to what level, to what degree of resilience, are we needing to build in these areas and are there some areas that we’d be better using natural protections, building back away from the water, and allowing nature to provide defense versus being right there at the front and then trying to harden that.
There’s finite resources. So we have to pick and choose where we’re going to make our investments and where we need to let nature drive those decisions.
JACOB: I want just to add one thing.
Follow the path of the money, meaning, Craig just mentioned that every dollar invested in the right way towards adaptation can return 4 (dollars) to 9 (dollars), in some cases up to 13 (dollars) and not incur losses.
So we need the financial sector discipline itself. If banks still give loans to developments and allowed to give development in areas that we know will need to be abandoned in the future—and I say future loosely, not to put a time on it—then, I think, we have not yet the right policies in place.
We need also regulations for the financial sector so that the private sector is being brought into through the money.
MORAN: Well, got a few more minutes here and I’d like to ask kind of the—a big, big question to each of you and that is one reason that you might be hopeful about our ability to confront this challenge, this crisis, and address it in a way that will mitigate considerably the dangers that we all know are there, and one reason that you’re pessimistic that we won’t be able to get enough done and we will see our children and grandchildren beyond suffer far more than they need to.
Who’d like to go first?
FUGATE: I’ll take a crack at it.
I think I’m optimistic because we’re now talking about adaptation. We’re not arguing whether or not climate change is real. That debate’s so far gone, and it’s really a question to how do we do that.
And, as Klaus says, it’s going to be interesting as the markets start to look at this, as they start pricing risk. We’re already seeing insurance companies and the insurance crisis in my home state of Florida. We’re not pricing risk at the cost so we’re not to the point where we’re changing behavior.
But as bond markets start looking at interest rates on providing money to local communities who are making these infrastructure investments and start pricing bonds based upon that risk, that will start driving changes in behavior. When investment banks and others are either charging more interest or reducing their investments in more risky endeavors, that will start changing behavior.
The reason I’m a pessimist, however, is human behavior is we tend to look backwards to our past and judge our future risk, and I’ve been to a number of disasters where we talked about the risk and they said, I’ve lived here all my life. That’s never happened. And then I’ve gone back after the disaster and says, I’ve lived here all my life. I never knew it could be this bad.
This is what you’re hearing a lot down in southwest Florida with Hurricane Ian—I went through Irma. I went through Charlie. It wasn’t that bad. I’ve lived here all my life, you know. And the leading cause of death down there was drowning from storm surge.
MORAN: Yeah. I remember in Katrina—I was down at Katrina, too. There was—there’s a railway line. I was on the Gulf Coast. I was near Gulfport. There’s a rail line that runs right along the coast, and I can’t tell you how many people on the other side were clinging to their roofs. I saw a couple of them—I saw some of the dead were in the trees. Had said that they had never—as long as they were behind that railroad line no floodwaters had ever come, and they were escaping onto their roof at that point.
Jainey, optimism? Pessimism?
BAVISHI: You know, I think the reason to be optimistic is that we have shown that we can be innovative. You know, we have solutions that we can point to that are not only going to—and they’re not all—they’re not all realized yet, right. Some of them are in planning stages. Some of them need funding.
But I think that there are solutions out there that point to our ability to not only prepare for these impacts and build resilience but also make our communities better and make them better places to live, and I think that’s exciting.
You know, I think the reason to be pessimistic is that change is hard. You know, the reason that some of those solutions are taking so long to come online is that we’re fighting with each other.
It takes a very, very long time to get people to come around to actually fully support a project and, you know, in my experience at the local level there are projects that are being hampered by lawsuits and, you know, some criticizing us for not being transformative enough in sort of conceiving a particular project.
But even the one that we are trying to advance that maybe isn’t transformative enough is taking years and years and years to come online because of, you know, lawsuits and protests, people chaining themselves to bathrooms and parks to protect the comfort stations, right. I mean, just little things that prevent the project from moving forward, right.
And so how do we sort of come together, realize the magnitude of the problem, the urgency of the need to act, and start moving in one direction? And the details matter. I don’t mean to gloss that over at all. But, you know, how do we get together on the details quickly?
I don’t know the answer to that. But I think that’s the part that feels really hard.
MORAN: And Klaus?
JACOB: One minute left.
I’m not a pessimist. I’m not an optimist. I’m a realist and an activist. And that’s what we all have to become, realistic and face the risk as we know it’s out there, not in being in denial. And that has to be on the ballot box when you go voting. It has to be in the political bodies, whether in the executive and the legislative, and in the jurisdiction. And I see too much judges being still blindfolded towards climate change. So we have to be realistic and not be in denial.
MORAN: Amen to that.
Well, that has been a great discussion, and Jainey and Craig and Klaus, thank you very much for that. I really enjoyed it, and I hope the panelists have, too.
This is an uncorrected transcript.