Degrees of Concern - Part V

Most New Yorkers probably think of climate change as some force that melts polar ice caps or inundates islands in the Pacific. Its impact on an urban area like New York is harder to comprehend. Still, that doesn't mean New Yorkers aren't paying attention to climate change. Around the city and the region a number of efforts are underway to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gasses that are blamed for the man-made disruption of the climate. In the final story in our series "Degrees of Concern" John Rudolph reports that these efforts are not likely to protect New York from some widely predicted effects of climate change such as rising seas and more frequent storms.

One of the city's more ambitious projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a new apartment building under construction in Battery Park City. Martin Dettling is the construction manager.

DETTLING: We're at the top of the building here. This is the highest point of the building.
RUDOLPH: How many stories?
DETTLING: It's twenty-seven stories, plus a mechanical bulkhead. That contains all of our equipment.

The building is called The Solaire, a name that combines the words "solar" and "air." On the building's western wall, facing the Hudson River, an array of metallic-blue photovoltaic cells captures sunlight and transform it into electricity. The cells are expected to provide about 5 per cent of the building's energy. This is one of several features intended to make the Solaire 35 per cent more energy efficient than your typical Manhattan high rise.
The Solaire was built in response to a number of environmental challenges. Chief among them, says Dettling, is the need to combat global warming.

DETTLING: We have estimates of how much emissions we're going to reduce going into the air. I think it's the equivalent of-, of four hundred automobiles per year not being driving around in our streets, is what this building's design difference has made, and that-, that is a very large factor. I mean, that's where all of this comes from.

The developers of the Solaire call it America's first environmentally-sustainable high-rise residential building. It's energy efficient design is admired by climate researcher Klaus Jacob of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. But Jacob points out that like many buildings in New York, the Solaire is vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

JACOB: There's another side to this particular building that is sort of unfortunately ironic.

Jacob notes the structure has no protection against rising seas and violent storms. And the Hudson River is only about 50 yards from the Solaire's elegant lobby entrance.

JACOB: So we are just probably at that level where - under the current circumstances - this building may do all right, but at the end of the century when sea level rise has fully taken effect, it may be flooded.

Professor Jacob argues that the Solaire, and other buildings that follow it, should include safeguards against the effects of climate change. For example, he says, all the electrical and mechanical systems that normally go into a building's basement should be put on higher floors where they won't be damaged by flooding.
Requiring buildings to include these kinds of protections would be difficult, but not unprecedented. Jacob points out that codes already exist to protect structures from other threats such as earthquakes.

JACOB: I'm afraid it needs a very thorough, and unfortunately scientifically engineering-based approach on this with cost-benefit assessments built into this. We have not yet gotten to that stage. Nobody is willing even to finance any such assessment right now.

Last year a United Nations conference concluded that "adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change is of high priority for all countries."
Still this notion of adapting, of finding ways to cope with the predicted effects of global warming is a concept that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including some environmentalists. They've spent years trying to prevent global warming. To them adaptation is a form of surrender. Ashok Gupta develops climate change strategies at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Manhattan.

GUPTA: We have the capacity as a civilization to be able to address this important problem, and that adaptation is really giving up, and the harmful effects that will go with adaptation are too serious to accept. /// My view is that we gotta do whatever we can to stop the disaster that would take place with significant climate change.

Gupta worries that emphasizing adaptation will reduce the pressure to eliminate man-made causes of global warming. Especially greenhouse gases produced by power plants, factories and cars.

Yale University economist Robert Mendelsohn has a different objection. Mendelsohn studies the regional impacts of climate change. He says it's not worth it for New York to adapt, since climate change really isn't a threat to the city's economy.

MENDELSOHN: If you tell me that sea level rise is going to be 90 centimeters in 100 years, you don't want to start building a 90 centimeter wall, or a two meter wall around New York City today, because that is so far in advance of the actual risk involved. /// One of the mistakes that some of the climate scientists make is that they get very caught up into bad things that might happen in 100 years. And they want us to actually respond today to that risk. It's just way too soon. And it turns out that acting too soon is going to waste resources. If we try to adapt to things that might take a hundred years to unfold I think what you'll find is that we're going to adapt to many things that we simply we didn't need to adapt to. We'll make mistakes, very big mistakes.

How much money, time and effort should be spent preparing for an uncertain future? This is the question New York faces as the impact of man-made changes in the world's climate begins to be detected around the metropolitan area.
We know the world is getting warmer, that seas are rising, that storm patterns are being disrupted. But no one can accurately predict how quickly these changes will be felt, or how severe they will be.

[Jamaica Bay ambiance]
Already rising seas are thought to be contributing to the devastating loss of marshland in Jamaica Bay, near Kennedy Airport. Scientist Vivian Gornitz studies sea level rise at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Standing at the water's edge, looking out over New York's skyline Gornitz worries about the cost of not adapting - especially in a city surrounded by water, and constantly in the process of rebuilding its waterfront.

GORNITZ: You're sort on a collision course between heavy development that's happening along the coast and the gradual rise in sea level, but superimposed on that the storm surges that are inevitably going to happen. So you have the potential for a lot of damage, destruction of property and hopefully not, but possible loss of life too.

On a calm autumn day it's hard to visualize the potential danger. But one major study shows that in a class three hurricane, which is not even the most severe type of storm, lower Manhattan would become its own island. The financial district, city hall, the World Trade Center site, all would be separated from the rest of New York by water.
And so over the long term, the city's response to climate change could be just as important as defending buildings and bridges against terrorists, or reviving the economy. Because of this, growing ranks of New Yorkers are focusing on climate change and how it may impact the city. They want New York to be ready when the changes come.
For WNYC, I'm John Rudolph

More on the Degrees of Concern series by John Rudolph