Critics: Christie Deep-Sixed Climate Change Prep

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Christie on December 7 photo: NJ Governor's Office

"I know there are some folks at Rutgers who are looking at whether climate caused all this, but I certainly haven't been briefed in the last year, year-and-a-half on this," Christie told WNYC's Bob Hennelly last month.

But the question may be more than academic.

The state's transit agency that answers to Christie, New Jersey Transit, acknowledged this week it lost $100 million in trains and equipment. Some critics are linking NJ Transit's decision to store trains in low lying rail yards during the storm to its lack of a climate change preparation plan. The agency said, before the flood, it had figured that there was an "80 to 90 percent chance" there wouldn't be flooding.

That turned out to be a losing gamble, and one, critics say, that reflects a pattern in Christie's term in office.

In his first year, Christie closed the Office of Climate Change and Energy which had been created and given top-level priority under Jon Corzine.

It was run by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Its mission was to ready the state  to handle more severe storms, heat and rising sea levels.

“So none of this work is getting done,” said Bill Wolfe, a 30-year-veteran of DEP and now a harsh critic.

“And if you want to get something done, the DEP has all the tools to get something done and they’ve chosen not to use those tools for political reasons, reflecting the Governor’s priorities and Governor’s policy,” Wolfe said. “And they just don’t want to own up to that.”

Robert Martin, Commissioner for the Department of Environmental Protection, defended the Christie Administration’s efforts. The DEP hasn’t been weakened, he said, it’s been streamlined to cut red tape and wasteful spending.

Thrift is an issue Christie is comfortable talking about. Climate science isn't. As Sandy was bearing down on the region , WNYC’s Bob Hennelly asked Christie if the Governor was discussing the increasing severity of storms with climate change scientists.

“No, that’s over my head.,” Christie replied.

That’s been Christie’s approach to questions about climate change. Once he said he was "skeptical." When he was pressed about the increasing severity of storms, he maintained he’s a lawyer, not a scientist.

“But that’s what we have an academic community to do is to think about those bigger issues and if those experts have an answer for me, my door is always open to listen to them,” Christie said.

Several of the people who lost their jobs when the Office of Climate Change was cut now work in academia -- at Rutgers University.

The Bergen Record earlier this month dug up a video of David Gillespie, director of Energy and Sustainability Programs for NJ Transit, specifically saying the agency decided not to develop a climate adaptation plan.

 “The mitigation plan that we have for movable assets -- our  rolling stock --  is we move it out of harm’s way when something’s coming,” Gillespie said. “Generally we have enough time to do that, so we didn’t spend a lot of money on that.”

Gillespie said there’s  no need to make changes in the next five to 20 years, and that the agency has 50 years to adapt to climate change.   That's despite a federal study distributed to all the nation's transit agencies that warned them to protect their assets by readying for worsening storms.   And despite the lessons of Irene, where New York's transit system suffered the worst transit damage in modern history.

New Jersey was well prepared for Sandy,  said Martin, the DEP chief. “While unfortunately some lives were lost, by and large we protected the state, we protected thousands of lives and lots of homes and lots of property overall and again we’ve done a great job with that and the Governor provided great leadership overall."

And NJ Transit's James Weinstein told a Senate committee Thursday that the agency had no choice -- if moved elsewhere out of potential flood zones, the trains could have been damaged by falling trees, or stranded, as they were during Irene.  "Keeping the trains in the yards was the best decision, especially in light of what happened during Irene.”