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Creating Climate-Resilient Cities: Progress in NYC and Beyond

Creating Climate-Resilient Cities
Reported by
Christine Van Lenten

Posted March 09, 2010

Presented By

NYC Panel on Climate Change

Earth Institute at Columbia University

City University of New York

The New York Academy of Sciences.


More than half the world's population now lives in cities, and the rate of urbanization is accelerating. Cities produce roughly between 40% and 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. They are particularly vulnerable to climate change. The limited success of the December 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations heightens the urgency of cities' efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. New York City has emerged as a global leader on this front.

The foundational document for New York's initiatives is its ambitious long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030. Pursuant to the plan's climate change strategy, in 2008 the Mayor formed a NYC Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) and a NYC Climate Change Adaptation Task Force. The NPCC's charge is to provide climate projections and tools that the Task Force and City can use to devise strategies to protect critical infrastructure.

At a daylong event held at the Academy on December 2, 2009, the NPCC previewed a path-breaking report, Climate Change Adaptation in New York City: Building a Risk Management Response (to be published in April 2010 as a volume of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences). The report contributes to a knowledge base that will inform the design of a comprehensive adaptation program. At the Academy, NPCC members summarized the report. Then stakeholders from the Task Force and City officials offered their perspectives. The audience posed questions and offered comments. Together, scores of voices brought home the enormity of the challenges the City faces, and conveyed a powerful sense that historic change is under way. (Click the Multimedia tab above for a recording of, and slides from, the event.)

That evening, the NPCC and the Academy hosted an event titled "Cities as Solutions to Climate Change." Rohit Aggarwala, Director of the NYC Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, explained the City's bold and pragmatic approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Henriëtte Bersee, Attache for the Netherlands Ministry of Environment, described how her country—26% of which is below sea level, and another 29% of which is susceptible to river flooding—is managing its response. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General, and a member of the Academy's Board of Governors, delivered a scorching critique of congressional and international failures to mitigate climate change. He also cautioned gravely that a growing anti-science bias in the United States jeopardizes progress on the climate front.

Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and multimedia from this event.

Multimedia available from:

Cynthia Rosenzweig (NPCC)
William Solecki (NPCC)
Adam Freed (The New York City Mayor's Office)
Malcolm Bowman (Stony Brook University)
Gary Yohe (Wesleyan University)
Radley Horton (Columbia University)
Rae Zimmerman (New York University)
Alice LeBlanc (Environmental and Economic Consulting)
Reggie Blake (Columbia University)
David Major and Megan O'Grady (Columbia University)
Tom Matte (New York City Department of Health)
David Major (Columbia University)
Mike Hainzl (Sprint/Ericsson)
Victoria Simon (New York Power Authority)
Rohit Aggarwala (New York City Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability)
Jeffrey Sachs (The Earth Institute at Columbia University)

Climate Change Adaptation in New York City

Rohit Aggarwala (New York City Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability)
  • 00:01
    1. Introduction
  • 08:45
    2. PlaNYC
  • 13:06
    3. A three-phase approach
  • 18:31
    4. Trade-offs; Conclusion
  • 24:07
    5. Q and A with audienc

A Global Perspective on Climate Change Adaptation

Jeffrey Sachs (The Earth Institute at Columbia University)
  • 00:01
    1. Introduction; Global urbanization
  • 11:12
    2. Confronting the challenges; The failures of intergovernmental approaches
  • 18:53
    3. The U.S. political process; Public consensus on climate change
  • 24:12
    4. Science and society; The Wall Street Journal editorials
  • 31:24
    5. Q and A with audienc

Morning Session: First Discussion

  • 00:01
    1. Introduction; Acceptable risk
  • 03:33
    2. Findings of no significant impact and risk
  • 10:34
    3. Involving citizenry in climate monitoring
  • 15:00
    4. Stakeholder impediments to adaptation; Future projections of ice events
  • 19:08
    5. Job projections; More on citizen involvement; National design and engineering standards
  • 24:20
    6. Disaster recovery; Heat-related health issues; Conclusio

Discussion: Moving Forward

  • 00:01
    1. Introduction; Sharing the NPCC model; Event projection and probability
  • 13:28
    2. Green infrastructure; Overcoming vested interests; Incentives
  • 28:07
    3. The economics of adaptation; Different cities, different approaches; Sustaining PlaNYC
  • 45:20
    4. Communication among stakeholders; Consistency and regional approaches; Architectural/scientific collaboration
  • 57:44
    5. Growing a climate-smart community; Conclusio

Morning Session: Second Discussion

  • 00:01
    1. Introduction; Flood insurance and FEMA; Insuring against extreme weather events
  • 07:47
    2. Food and climate change; Citizen participation in climate monitoring; Extreme events and social disparities
  • 17:43
    3. Flood barriers for New York City; Mitigation opportunities; Conclusio

Adaptation to Climate Change in the Netherlands

Henriëtte Bersee (Netherlands Ministry of Environment)

Welcome and Introductions

Cynthia Rosenzweig (NPCC), Heidi Perry (New York Academy of Sciences), Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio (Rockefeller Foundation)

First Opening Talk

Adam Freed (The New York City Mayor's Office)

Second Opening Talk

William Solecki (NPCC)

Morning Session: Introduction

Malcolm Bowman (Stony Brook University)

Adopting a Risk-Based Approach

Gary Yohe (Wesleyan University)

Climate Observations and Projections

Radley Horton (Columbia University)

Infrastructure Impacts and Adaptation Challenges

Rae Zimmerman (New York University)

Law and Regulation

David Major (Columbia University)

Insurance Industry

Alice LeBlanc (Environmental and Economic Consulting)

Indicators and Monitoring

Reggie Blake (Columbia University)

NPCC Workbooks: Adaptation Assessment Guidebook & Climate Protection Levels

David Major and Megan O'Grady (Columbia University)

Morning Session: Conclusions and Recommendations

Cynthia Rosenzweig and William Solecki (NPCC)

Stakeholder Panel: Introduction

Tom Matte (New York City Department of Health)


Mike Hainzl (Sprint/Ericsson)


Victoria Simon (New York Power Authority)

Wrap-up and Conclusions

Cynthia Rosenzweig (NPCC)

Web sites

America’s Climate Choices
At the National Academy of Sciences, a 2009 Summit will produce four reports, one of them on adapting to impacts. (NPCC member Gary Yohe served on this panel.)

Center for Clean Air Policy
New York City participates in the Urban Leaders Adaptation Initiative, a network of ten large counties and cities that serves as a resource to local governments. It is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group
A group of the world's largest cities, one of them New York, C40 is tackling climate change. It partners with the Clinton Climate Change Initiative to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency.

Cities Act: The Copenhagen Climate Summit for Mayors
Mayors convened in Copenhagen in December 2009 to share approaches to addressing climate change.

This international association of local governments pursues climate protection and sustainable development. See its Climate Resilient Communities Program.

New York City
PlaNYC 2030 is the City’s long-term sustainability plan. See pages on climate change and a wealth of related documents, including the NPCC’s February 2009 report, Climate Risk Information. In 2008, the Dept. of Environmental Protection published a Climate Change Program Assessment and Action Plan.

New York State
See the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Office of Climate Change and its Sea Level Rise Task Force, NYSERDA’s Climate Change Research Program and ClimAID project, and the Governor’s Executive Order establishing a carbon reduction goal and Climate Action Council that is to produce a Climate Action Plan.

National Weather Service
See its Climate Services Division and Eastern Region Climate Services Program.

Urban Climate Change Research Network
This consortium analyzes climate change mitigation and adaptation and energy issues from an urban perspective. Its First Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities, ARC3, is in the works.

U.S. Global Change Research Program
This federal interagency program integrates research on climate and global change. In 2009 it published a comprehensive, plain-English assessment of current and potential impacts of climate change on U.S. regions and on such sectors as energy, water, agriculture, and health.


Macabrey, J-M. 2009. The Dutch strive to make their country 'climate proof'. The New York Times (June 1).

Nordenson, G. et al. 2008. On the Water: The New York - New Jersey Upper Bay. Places/The Design Group (Oct. 15). Of particular interest: the lurid graphics.

Ousareff, N. 2009. Future Dangers for a Maritime City. The New York Times (Oct. 21). “A dense network of piers, wetlands and oyster beds could project out into New York Harbor . . . breaking up storm surges. An additional archipelago of small fingerlike islands could be built in the center of the harbor, and old subway cars could be dumped into the water to form reefs.”

Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, an exhibit sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, March 24-August 9, 2010. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the exhibit presents proposals, developed in an architects-in-residence program, for adapting to sea-level rise.

Stutz, B. 2009. New York City Girds Itself for Heat and Rising Seas. Environment 360, Yale University (September 10).

Wolman, D. 2008. Before the Levees Break: A Plan to Save the Netherlands. Wired (December 22). A lavishly illustrated blockbuster.

World Bank. 2008. Climate Resilient Cities. “A practical guide to climate-proof our cities.”

From the Academy

Bracing for Super Floyd: how storm surge barriers could protect the New York region, featuring Malcolm Bowman and Doug Hill. 2005. New York Academy of Sciences eBriefing, sponsored by the Environmental Sciences Section.

New York City Panel on Climate Change. 2010. Climate Change Adaptation in New York City: Building a Risk Management Response. Annals: 1183 (Forthcoming in April).

Climate change: what we know and what we can do, featuring Michael Oppenheimer et al. 2008. New York Academy of Sciences eBriefing, sponsored by Green Science and Environmental Policy Group.


The Rockefeller Foundation

Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, PhD

The Rockefeller Foundation
web site

Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio joined the Rockefeller Foundation in April 2007. As an Associate Director, she helps develop the Foundation’s initiatives regarding building resilience for poor and vulnerable people who will be affected by climate change.

Prior to joining the Foundation, Rumbaitis del Rio was a postdoctoral fellow conducting research on sustainable development at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. She also conducted policy research for the United Nations Environmental Program, the U.S. Department of State, and other institutions. She was a recipient of the 1996 National Harry S. Truman Scholarship for Public Service and a Mass Media Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement Science. Rumbaitis del Rio received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University. She also has a doctoral degree in ecology from the University of Colorado.

New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC)

Cynthia Rosenzweig

Cynthia Rosenzweig, PhD

NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
e-mail | web site | publications

Cynthia Rosenzweig is a Senior Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where she heads the Climate Impacts Group. She has organized and led large-scale interdisciplinary regional, national, and international studies of climate change impacts and adaptation. She is a Co-chair of the New York City Panel on Climate Change. She has co-led the Metropolitan East Coast Regional Assessment of the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, sponsored by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. She was a Coordinating Lead Author of the IPCC Working Group II Fourth Assessment Report observed-changes chapter, and she served on the IPCC Task Group on Data and Scenarios for Impact and Climate Assessment.

Rosenzweig's research involves the development of interdisciplinary methodologies to assess the potential impacts of and adaptations to global environmental change. She joins impact models with climate models to predict future outcomes of both land-based and urban systems under altered climate conditions. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she is a Professor at Barnard College and a Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia Earth Institute.

William Solecki

William Solecki, PhD

CUNY Institute for Urban Studies
e-mail | web site

Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities. William Solecki is also a professor in the Geography Department at Hunter College, CUNY. His research focuses on urban environmental change, urban land use, and suburbanization.

He has served on the U.S. National Research Council's Special Committee on Problems in the Environment. He has also served as the co-leader of the Metropolitan East Coast Assessment of Impacts of Potential Climate Variability and Change. He is a member of the International Geographical Union Megacity Study Group and the International Human Dimensions Programme, Urbanization and Global Environmental Change Scientific Steering Committee. Solecki holds a BA in geography from Columbia University and an MA and PhD in geography from Rutgers University.

Reginald Blake

Reginald A. Blake, PhD

New York City College of Technology
e-mail | web site

Reginald Blake is a geophysicist and a water resources engineer who has a rich and extensive background in hydro-climatology, climatology, climate change and its associated impacts, hydrology, meteorology, physical oceanography, and air pollution. He is currently an assistant professor of physics at the New York City College of Technology. Blake’s PhD is in the specialized area of hydro-meteorology/climatology, and his PhD dissertation research was conducted at Columbia University’s NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA/GISS).

He received his PhD in 1998 from the City University of New York, and he was a postdoctoral fellow at NASA/GISS from 1998-2001. From 2001-2004, Blake was a City Research Scientist for the New York City Departmental of Environmental Protection. He is a renowned educator with more than two decades of pedagogical experience in the STEM disciplines. He has taught at the junior high school, the high school, and the college levels. Currently, Blake’s research involves climate/climate change impacts and the application of satellite and ground-based remote sensing to the study of hydro-climate, hydrology, vegetation, hurricanes, and air pollution.

Malcolm Bowman

Malcolm J. Bowman, PhD

Stony Brook University
e-mail | web site

Malcolm Bowman is Professor of Physical Oceanography and Distinguished Service Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. He is leader of the Stony Brook Storm Surge Research Group, President of the Stony Brook Environmental Conservancy, a Distinguished Member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, and a Director of the Environmental Defence Society (NZ). He was Founding Chair and Head of the School of Environmental and Marine Sciences at Auckland University, New Zealand.

Bowman is a leading authority on regional climate change issues, particularly as they relate to the impact of extreme weather events, storm surge, and rising sea level on Metropolitan New York, northern New Jersey, and Long Island. His research interests include estuarine and shelf dynamics, oceanic fronts and the physics and nature of storm surges. He has recently participated in television documentaries and interviews for National Geographic Society, CBS News/Science Channel, ABC News, Franco-German Public TV, Rode Vis Producties (Netherlands) and NHK Japan Public Television. He serves on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York Panel on Climate Change, which advises the Mayor and the Council on key issues affecting the City’s future, as related to climate change and its impact on infrastructure and the safety and security of its citizens.

Craig Faris


Craig Faris is an Executive Partner at Accenture and leader in the Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) practice. In this practice he works closely with companies to design and implement risk identification, analysis, and management approaches across a broad spectrum of risk types. He has more than 25 years of business experience, with over 15 years specializing in risk management / strategic planning and 10 years as an earth scientist.

In 2007 Faris led the analysis of the economic impact of climate change on the City of Chicago as part of the development the Chicago Climate Action Plan. He was with Amoco Corporation for several years in international strategic planning, risk management, business planning/analysis, and exploration geology.

Craig holds degrees in Geology from Virginia Tech and the University of Missouri, as well as an MBA from Kellogg School of Management.

Vivien Gornitz

Vivien Gornitz, PhD

NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Columbia University
e-mail | web site

Vivien Gornitz is a geologist and special research scientist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Center for Climate Systems Research. Vivien earned her PhD from Columbia University in geology/mineralogy/geochemistry and her BA from Barnard College in chemistry. She is currently examining the impacts of sea level rise and extreme climate events on the metropolitan New York region. In addition, she has edited the Encyclopedia of Paleoclimatology and Ancient Environments (Earth Science Series, Springer). Gornitz is also interested in evidence for water and past climate changes on Mars. Previously, she has investigated the effects of human-induced hydrologic transformations on sea level, as well as recent and Holocene global sea-level change.

Radley Horton

Radley Horton, PhD

Columbia University
e-mail | web site

Radley Horton is an Associate Research Scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University. He conducts regional climate change scenario assessments for stakeholders around the globe, based on climate projections and likely impacts of those projections on a variety of systems including agriculture, water resources, ecosystems, and infrastructure. He is the Climate Science Lead for the Science Policy Team of the New York City Panel on Climate Change. He is also involved in climate change impact and adaptation projects in New York State, the Southeastern U.S., and Central America. Additional research interests include polar climate, sea level rise, abrupt climate change, and adaptation to climate change.

Klaus Jacob

Klaus H. Jacob, PhD

Columbia University
e-mail | web site

Klaus Jacob is currently a part-time Special Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, where after more than three decades of research and teaching in basic Earth Sciences he retired from a full-time position in 2001. He continues actively as an Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, where he teaches a graduate course on disaster risk management.

Jacob’s ongoing research includes the effects of global climate change and related sea level rise on coastal storm surge frequency, flooding, and inundation, primarily of infrastructure systems in major coastal cities. This research was applied for instance to the New York Metropolitan East Coast Regional Assessment that examined the impacts of climate change and flooding scenarios on the New York transportation infrastructure and other built assets. Most recently he coauthored the U.S. National Academies Transportation Research Board Special Report #290: Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation, and the Climate Change Adaptation Chapter in the Report of the MTA Blue Ribbon Commission on Sustainability. He is a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, the ClimAID project advising New York State on climate change adaptation strategies, and a member of the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force.

Alice LeBlanc

Alice LeBlanc

Environmental and Economic Consulting

Alice LeBlanc is the Director of Environmental and Economic Consulting and acts as a Strategic Advisor to Karbone, an environmental credit brokerage, finance, and carbon advisory company. She is trained as an economist and has worked for the past 20 years to promote market mechanisms as tools for environmental protection and sustainable development.

LeBlanc formerly headed the Office of Environment and Climate Change in the Corporate Affairs Department of American International Group (AIG), where she designed and implemented AIG’s global corporate climate change strategy. She has also worked as a Senior Economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, as Senior Vice President at the Chicago Climate Exchange, and as an independent consultant on climate change issues to clients including the USEPA, Government of Australia, World Bank, UNCTAD, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, and the U.S. and Canadian private sectors.

LeBlanc holds a BA in mathematics from Smith College and an MS in economics from the University of Houston. She is a member of the Society of Woman Geographers, the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, the New York City Panel on Climate Change, and the Board of Advisors to the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Robin M. Leichenko

Robin M. Leichenko, PhD

Rutgers University
e-mail | web site

Robin M. Leichenko is Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University. She received a PhD in geography 1997 and an MA in eEconomics 1995 from Penn State University. Her research explores the social and economic effects of climate change on cities and regions in advanced and developing countries. In 2004, Leichenko was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Oslo, where she worked on the development of conceptual and empirical models of regional vulnerability to climate change. Her book Environmental Change and Globalization: Double Exposures, coauthored with Karen O'Brien, received the 2008 Meridian Book Award for Outstanding Scholarly Contribution in Geography from the Association of American Geographers.

Megan Linkin, PhD

Swiss Re

Megan Linkin is the atmospheric perils specialist for Swiss Reinsurance America Corporation in Armonk, NY. Her primary responsibility is assessing the insurance risk posed by hurricanes, tornadoes, hail, and winter storms globally by the development of tools and techniques for underwriters and actuaries. She also provides real-time weather forecasts during impending catastrophic events and is one of Swiss Re’s experts on climate change science. She is a regular presenter at the annual meetings of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union and has manuscripts published in the Journal of Climate and Weatherwise magazine.

Linkin received her Masters of Science in 2006 and PhD in 2008 in atmospheric and oceanic science from the University of Maryland, with her dissertation “North Pacific Climate Variability and Arctic Sea Ice.” She graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Science in meteorology and a minor in mathematics. She is an active member of the American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, ReUnder40, and the New York City Panel on Climate Change.

David C. Major, PhD

Columbia University
e-mail | web site

David C. Major is Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia University Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research. He completed his undergraduate work at Wesleyan University and the London School of Economics, and received the PhD in economics from Harvard. Major has been a faculty member at MIT and at Clark University, a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge, a senior planner with the New York City Water Supply System, and Program Director for Global Environmental Change at the Social Science Research Council. His principal scientific research focus at Columbia is the adaptation of urban infrastructure to global climate change. Major is the award-winning author, coauthor or coeditor of fourteen books on natural resources planning, environmental management, biography, and literary studies.

Megan O'Grady

Columbia University
web site

Megan Cornwell O’Grady is a Project Manager at the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. She has over 10 years of experience in environmental and international development programs. She is currently managing the New York City Panel on Climate Change and the NYSERDA ClimAID: New York State Climate Change Adaptation Assessment. Through these projects, she works directly with scientists, stakeholders, and policymakers to develop feasible climate change adaptation strategies, and to mainstream climate change adaptation thinking into all levels of decision making.

O’Grady has a BA in international environmental policy from Saint Olaf College, and an MPA with a concentration in environmental policy from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Gary Yohe

Gary W. Yohe, PhD

Wesleyan University
e-mail | web site

Gary W. Yohe is the Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics at Wesleyan University; he has been on the faculty at Wesleyan for more than 30 years. He is currently a visiting professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, and received his PhD in economics from Yale University in 1975. He is the author of more than 100 scholarly articles, several books, and many contributions to media coverage of climate issues. Most of his work has focused attention on the mitigation and adaptation/impacts sides of the climate issue. He is a senior member of the IPCC that was awarded a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Involved with the Panel since the mid 1990’s, he served as a Lead Author for four chapters in the Third Assessment Report that was published in 2001 and as Convening Lead Author for the last chapter of the contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report. In that Assessment, he also worked with the Core Writing Team to prepare the overall Synthesis Report; and he continues to work for the IPCC as it begins preparations for the Fifth Assessment Report that will be published in 2013.

Yohe is also a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change and the standing Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change of the National Academy of Sciences. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the “Hidden (climate change) Cost of Oil” in 2006, the Senate Energy Committee on the Stern Review in 2007, and the Senate Banking Committee on “Material Risk from Climate Change and Climate Policy” in 2007. In addition to accepting an invitation to join the Adaptation Subcommittee of the Governor’s Steering Committee on Climate Change (CT), he is currently serving on the Adaptation Panel of the National Academy of Sciences’ initiative on America’s Climate Choices and the National Research Council Committee on Stabilization Targets for Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Concentrations.

Rae Zimmerman

Rae Zimmerman, PhD

New York University
e-mail | web site

Rae Zimmerman is Professor of Planning and Public Administration at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and since 1998, Director of the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems, a center for interdisciplinary engineering and social science research on infrastructure. Her research and teaching spans transportation, energy, and water infrastructure, which she has approached from the perspectives of climate change, natural hazards, environmental impacts, and security. Her research has been funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, through three universities and various state and local agencies.

In the climate change area, she was a member of the Metro East Coast study led by Columbia University, focusing on institutional aspects of global climate change and infrastructure. Other environmental and infrastructure research includes attitudes of farmers toward the environment and adoption of agricultural practices for water quality, and social and economic characteristics of communities with hazardous waste sites.

Zimmerman is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and past president and Fellow of the International Society for Risk Analysis. She is a member of the NYC Panel on Climate change, MTA Blue Ribbon Commission on Sustainability working groups, and the U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board Homeland Security Advisory Committee. She has held many other professional appointments. Her publications appear in a number of environmental, water resources, energy, public administration, technology, and risk journals. She is an Editorial Advisory Board member of Risk Analysis, the Journal of Risk Research, the Journal of Urban Technology, and the International Journal of Critical Infrastructures.

She holds a BA in chemistry from the University of California (Berkeley), a Master of City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD in planning from Columbia University.

City of New York

Adam Freed

New York City Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability
e-mail | web site

Adam Freed, AICP, is the Deputy Director of Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, which is responsible for implementing New York City’s long-term sustainability plan (“PlaNYC”) and supporting other sustainability efforts in the City. In this capacity, Freed leads the City’s climate change adaptation efforts and chairs the New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which is working to develop adaptation strategies to secure the City’s critical infrastructure.

Previously, Freed served as the Assistant Comptroller for NYC in the Office of the New York State Comptroller, where he evaluated large-scale economic development projects and crafted corporate governance strategies for the $150 billion state pension fund. In addition to his work in city and state government, Freed has worked on several city, state, and national political campaigns. Freed received his Master's in urban planning from NYU and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Aaron Koch

Aaron Koch

New York City Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability
e-mail | web site

Aaron Koch joined the New York City Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability as a Policy Advisor in July 2008. In this role, he works to implement the water quality and stormwater management initiatives in PlaNYC, the Bloomberg Administration's plan for creating a greener, greater New York. Koch was responsible for creating the New York City Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan, which was released in December 2008.

He previously served as the Director of the Mayors' Institute on City Design, a national program of the National Endowment of the Arts, United States Conference of Mayors, and American Architectural Foundation. During the summer of 2007, he was a Mayoral Fellow in the Office of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. He also served as the 2001-2002 National Vice President of the American Institute of Architecture Students.

Koch graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design with a Master of City Planning and a certificate in real estate design and development. He received his Bachelor of Science in architecture from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Stakeholder Panel

Susanne E. DesRoches

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Susanne DesRoches is the Sustainable Design Manager at the Port Authority of NY & NJ, where she supports the Agency's sustainability efforts by providing technical guidance and compliance methodologies. Currently, she is leading the agency in the development of sustainable design guidelines for infrastructure project. Additionally, Susanne represents the Port Authority on numerous regional climate change efforts including the New York City Climate Change Task Force.

Prior to joining the Port Authority, she was a senior designer and project manager at several consultancies in New York City where she held a leadership role in development and implementation of design strategies for a diverse list of clients including Pfizer Inc., Ernst & Young, McDonald’s, Best Buy, and the United Nations. Susanne graduated with honors from Pratt Institute with a Bachelor of Industrial Design and holds a Masters in Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy from Columbia University.

Mike Hainzl

Ericsson Services Inc.

Mike Hainzl, of Ericsson Services Inc., has over seventeen years of experience in the telecommunications industry with a background in engineering, operations, and business continuity. Prior to working with Ericsson Services, he held positions with Sprint Nextel and AT&T Wireless Services. He has been involved with many system-wide projects to enhance efficiency, reliability, and resiliency of wireless networks.

Thomas Matte

Thomas Matte, MD

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Thomas Matte is Director of Environmental Research in the Bureau of Environmental Surveillance and Policy at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). In that capacity he is directing health department studies of the health impacts of extreme heat and air pollution as well as the New York City Community Air Survey, a PlaNYC initiated study of neighborhood air quality variation in New York City.

Matte worked as a medical epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for much of his career. His research has spanned several environmental and chronic disease areas, including: pathways, risk factors, and prevention of lead exposure domestically and abroad, asthma in daycare populations, prenatal and early life exposures and their relationship to later health status, and evaluation of major New York City Health initiatives including nicotine patch distribution, a trans fat ban and calorie labeling initiatives.

Matte received his MD from Albany Medical College and MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health. He is board certified in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Victoria Simon

New York Power Authority

Victoria Simon is the Chief of Staff to the Chief Operating Officer & Director of Energy Policy at the New York Power Authority. She is charged with supporting the day-to-day activities of the COO while leading and executing key policy initiatives. Specific projects she focuses on include NYPA’s Corporate Sustainability Plan, the development of the New York State Energy Plan and NYPA’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.

Prior to working at NYPA, Simon was Assistant Vice President in Energy & Telecommunications at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the City’s primary vehicle for economic development. She also served as Special Assistant to Chairman Bill Flynn at the New York State Public Service Commission. Simon earned both her bachelor’s and master’s from Stanford University, where she graduated with honors in international relations and received a MA in political sociology.

Esther Siskind

New York City Department of Environmental Protection

Esther Siskind is an Assistant Commissioner for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) and the deputy director of the Bureau of Environmental Planning and Assessment (BEPA). She has worked in NYCDEP for twelve years; she worked for an environmental consulting firm for five years. She has a broad background in technical, economic, and regulatory issues related to water supply, wastewater, drainage, and stormwater planning and in environmental impact assessment.

As Assistant Commissioner for NYCDEP’s planning bureau, Siskind is also responsible for long-range planning, trend analysis, stormwater management planning, climate change planning, regulatory review, and modeling and research. She is directing a multi-million dollar project that is evaluating stormwater management adaptation strategies for use in New York City.

Three Strategic Perspectives on Climate Change

Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs, PhD

The Earth Institute at Columbia University
e-mail | web site

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of the Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is also Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors. From 2002 to 2006 he was Director of the UN Millennium Project and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals. He is also President and Cofounder of Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization aimed at ending extreme global poverty.

Widely considered the leading international economic advisor of his generation, Sachs has for more than 20 years been in the forefront of efforts to meet the challenges of economic development and alleviation of poverty. He is one of the leading voices for combining economic development with environmental sustainability, and as Director of the Earth Institute leads large-scale efforts to address human-induced climate change.

In 2004 and 2005 Sachs was named among the 100 most influential leaders in the world by Time Magazine. In 2007 he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, a high civilian honor bestowed by the Indian Government. He lectures around the world and has written hundreds of scholarly articles and many books, including New York Times bestsellers Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008) and The End of Poverty (2005).

Sachs is a member of the Institute of Medicine and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He has received many honorary degrees. Prior to joining Columbia, he spent over twenty years at Harvard University; his last position there was Director of the Center for International Development. He received his BA, MA, and PhD degrees at Harvard.

Rohit Aggarwala

Rohit Aggarwala, PhD

New York City Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability
e-mail | web site

Rohit T. Aggarwala is Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability. This office was charged with the creation of PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York, a comprehensive sustainability plan consisting of 127 initiatives to green the city. Aggarwala is charged with implementing the plan and supporting other efforts related to the city’s sustainability. Under his leadership the City has begun implementing over 90% of the 127 initiatives in PlaNYC, including regulations to make the City’s taxicabs and black car fleets clean, planting a million trees throughout the five boroughs, and overseeing the investment of $80 million a year to reduce City government’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A native of Manhattan, Aggarwala holds BA, MBA, and PhD degrees from Columbia University, as well as a Master’s from Queens University in Ontario. Prior to joining the Bloomberg administration for the City, Aggarwala was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. During the Clinton Administration, he worked at the Federal Railroad Administration. He is the author of several articles on transportation policy and on the history of New York City.

Henriette Bersee

Henriëtte Bersee

Royal Netherlands Embassy, Washington, DC
e-mail | web site

Henriëtte Bersee is Counselor for Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C., a position she has held since January 2008. From 1999 through December 2007 she served at the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment in the Hague, where she headed the International Energy and Climate Change unit. Ms. Bersee was the Netherlands’ chief negotiator on international climate change agreements until December 2007.

From 1983-1999 she worked for the Ministry of Economic Affairs, dealing with industry policy, international economic relations, and export promotion. Between 1992 and 1995 she was posted at the Netherlands Embassy in Mexico as head of the Economic Department. Ms. Bersee holds a degree in Public Administration.

How will the engineering community, regulators, and the insurance industry work through the monumental task of assessing and adapting the built environment’s vulnerability to changing climate stresses?

How quickly will academic curricula (engineering, law, business, public policy, etc.) reflect these advances?

Will the insurance industry, which prices risk on the basis of historical data and writes policies year-to-year, integrate climate change projections into its pricing?

As the work of adaptation moves forward, sector by sector, impact by impact, will acceptable levels of risk be redefined upwards or downwards?

How will emergency response capabilities evolve?

The UK’s newsmaker 2007 Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change termed climate change “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.” Will the pressures of climate change drive changes in mainstream economic theory and practice, so that what are now treated as externalities are fully accounted for?

How severely will a weak economy erode adaptation and mitigation efforts? How many jobs will adaptation and mitigation efforts generate? Displace?

How compliant will NYC building owners be with the mandates of the new Greener, Greater Buildings Plan? How will the City enforce it?

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process has been the template for environmental decisionmaking at all levels of government for four decades. How well can its conceptual framework accommodate climate change impacts?

How can decision makers be helped to integrate climate change considerations into routine planning and budgeting? To apply optimal-scheduling theory? To sell it to the public?

Will the need for government agencies to share common climate projections and coordinate decision making about adaptation drive closer coordination on other issues?

Speakers: Cynthia Rosenzweig & William Solecki, co-chairs, and members of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, including Gary Yohe, Robin Leichenko, Radley Horton, Vivien Gornitz, Malcolm Bowman, Rae Zimmerman, Craig Faris, David Major, Alice LeBlanc, Megan Linkin, Klaus Jacob, Reginald Blake, and Megan O’Grady; stakeholders from the NYC Climate Change Adaptation Task Force; Adam Freed and Aaron Koch, Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning & Sustainability, City of New York.

Presented by the NYC Panel on Climate Change, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, City University of New York, and the New York Academy of Sciences.

A science-driven mandate

What could climate change mean for New Yorkers? Among many potential impacts: sea-level rise, more-intense rain storms, more severe storm surges, and resultant flooding that could cause contaminant leaching from flooded wastewater treatment plants, more combined sewer overflows, and flooding of airports, shipping port facilities, aboveground rail lines, subways, tunnels, highways, and utility corridors. More potential impacts: longer, hotter, and more frequent heat waves that create thermal conditions that could put additional strain on engineered structures and that boost demand for air conditioning, producing more power outages.

The potential for those and many other impacts is the driver for the NYC Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) and the NYC Climate Change Adaptation Task Force. Comprising approximately 20 climate change and impact scientists, legal, insurance, and risk management experts, the Panel serves as the technical advisory body for the Task Force, which comprises 40 City, State, and federal agencies, regional public authorities, and private firms that operate, maintain, or regulate critical local infrastructure. The NPCC's mandate is to provide climate change projections and tools that the Task Force and the City can use to fashion adaptation strategies to protect the city's critical infrastructure. Impacts sketched above and projected climate changes summarized in the table below reflect just some of the NPCC's work. (A long list of potential infrastructure impacts can be found on page 27 of the NPCC's Climate Risk Information workbook.)


That table should command wide attention, and at the Academy its significance was illuminated in a climate change knowledge network event that examined how New York City is preparing to adapt to climate change. Titled "Climate Change and New York City: Creating Flexible Adaptation Pathways," the event was guided by NPCC Co-chairs Cynthia Rosenzweig and William Solecki, and Adam Freed, chair of the Adaptation Task Force.

In opening remarks, Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio of the Rockefeller Foundation, which funds the NPCC, highlighted the significance of the City's efforts. While the foundation's climate change work is primarily focused abroad, where vulnerabilities are greatest, it chose to invest in New York, she explained, for many reasons. Among them: the City's leadership "in confronting these challenges head on, by assembling [in the NPCC and Task Force] the best scientific resources, technical information, and a diverse set of stakeholders to create an evidence base" that can inform policy making. Del Rio stated that only a handful of cities have taken similar steps, "and none ...have leveraged science so effectively and transparently." New York is an important example to other cities across the globe, she said, and it shares its lessons learned widely. This makes it even more important, of course, that New York City "get it right."


Design Integrative Process

It certainly is trying hard. The NPCC and Task Force coordinate closely. The NPCC released its Climate Risk Information workbook in February 2009; the Task Force has been relying on it as it develops its adaptation plan. The NPCC report previewed at the Academy is designed to serve the Task Force. It places NYC adaptation efforts in context, develops the rationale for a risk-based approach, summarizes climate observations and projections, identifies potential climate impacts on infrastructure and sketches adaptation challenges, offers a preliminary examination of how law and regulation could be adapted to facilitate adaptation to climate change, presents the insurance industry's perspective, and urges a long-term program of monitoring.

The report includes an Adaptation Assessment Guidebook that stakeholders—not only in NYC but elsewhere—can use to develop and implement adaptation plans, and a Climate Protection Levels workbook that assesses NYC policies and regulations relevant to infrastructure in light of climate change. The report's Executive Summary will be must-reading for all New Yorkers who care about their city's future.

The Task Force will produce a plan of its own in 2010. It may well be enriched by what Task Force members heard at the Academy in December 2009.

Focus: protecting critical infrastructure

The subject of climate change is vast. The NPCC and Task Force focus is necessarily narrow. As Solecki stated flatly, "We're looking explicitly at adaptation, not mitigation. What can we propose as a framework for action in adapting?" But this quickly gets complicated. As NPCC member Gary Yohe said in describing the graph below, "There's a complementarity of adaptation and mitigation: the two work together to make themselves more productive." And as NPCC member Alice LeBlanc said, "Without mitigation, adaptation is a losing proposition." Indeed, the two can overlap.


Conceptual illustration of how types of response to climate risk affect levels of risk.

The City's initial adaptation focus is critical infrastructure, primarily communications systems, transportation (rail, shipping ports, airports, bridges, tunnels, roads), energy, and water and wastewater systems. Significantly, while "infrastructure" commonly connotes hard, physical structures like bridges and power plants, adapting infrastructure to climate change encompasses operations, management practices, policies, emergency management capabilities—whatever can be exploited to minimize or avoid adverse impacts.

As Freed stressed, the City thus aims at something deeper than adaptation: it aims at long-term climate resilience—the institutional and physical capacity to absorb the long-term trends and near-term vagaries of climate while maintaining risk at socially acceptable levels.

As Solecki explained, those levels are embedded in building codes, zoning regulations, and engineering and design performance standards, all tailored to historical climate conditions. All must now be reviewed; some must be revised. That is, "institutional infrastructure" must be adapted, too. Examining "the enormous corpus of law and regulation at all levels—federal, state, and local—relevant to New York City" to determine their applicability to adaptation efforts is "just the first step in this enormous process," one that "is urgently needed," reflected David Major, a member of the Science Planning Team that supports the NPCC.

What's the City's timeframe? NPCC climate projections focus on this century and extend to 2100. They encourage consideration of potential climate changes even beyond that date in planning for infrastructure with long lifespans, such as subway tunnels. But as Yohe said, "Climate change is already happening; impacts are being observed." Therefore the NPCC and the Task Force stress that adaptation measures and planning are needed now.

Hallmarks of the City's approach to adaptation

Because consequential decisions about infrastructure will be informed by NPCC projections and Task Force strategies, how those bodies are designed and how they approach their work is a subject of great interest.

The NPCC is modeled on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An independent, science-based, multidisciplinary body, it comprises climate scientists, experts on climate change impacts, and legal, insurance, and risk management experts. Mindful of the recent controversy surrounding publication of climate scientists' private emails, Rosenzweig pointedly stressed that NPCC members

...take our role as honest broker very seriously. The NPCC is dedicated to transparent presentation of both the certainties ...and the uncertainties ...surrounding this enormously complex issue. We are dedicated to open discussion of the full range of climate change topics.

Given uncertainties, probabalistic risk management governs the NPCC's approach to climate projections, and it is formally recommending that the City pursue a risk-based approach to adaptation, coupled with continuous monitoring of climate effects, and learning. The NPCC and Task Force both aim to create a framework for a process that is itself flexible and adaptive. Climate projections will evolve as climate changes and as research yields new data; better and more fine-grained, downscaled climate models; and better understanding of historical variability.

Assessing adaptation efforts will yield lessons too. Yohe observed that "midcourse corrections are going to be as essential in the future as recognizing this was a risk-based problem was in the past." But, he remarked, "What is really difficult . . . is this iterative business. Exactly how do you keep going back to this problem? How do you monitor [and] incorporate new science?" For a city to learn how to be adaptive is a challenge.

For a city to learn how to be adaptive is a challenge.

The Task Force's diversity is a great strength: members represent multiple levels of government and, Freed stressed, the private sector. Indeed, he speculated, it may be the first such body to include the private sector. Those representatives are the majority.

To serve the Task Force, the NPCC has developed and advocates a "tool-based process." Beyond producing workbooks for Task Force use, it has identified existing tools that can facilitate adaptation—that body of existing laws, regulations, codes, and standards, along with capabilities like the Office of Emergency Management. Aaron Koch, who works with the Task Force, termed that office "one of the best in the country," and he pointed to other strengths: climate initiatives under way in the private sector and PlaNYC. The NPCC applauds the City, Rosenzweig said, for developing "an evolving dynamic process" and for integrating climate change adaptation with a broad range of sustainability activities, so it's not siloed.

The ultimate goal of the NPCC and Task Force is to put themselves out of business. As Freed stated, "Ideally, we don't need a special task force or plan because it is internalized ...everyone in every planning process takes into account climate change from the get go."

Working on a frontier

Relying on climate projections rife with uncertainties, the Task Force must identify infrastructure vulnerabilities, determine which risks are likeliest and which could have the biggest impacts, develop adaptation strategies, and prioritize them. And it must devise decision pathways for those strategies and place them on a time line running far into the future.


Future Climate Projections

As indicated by the graph above, some climate projections entail large uncertainties, and sorting matters out can be devilishly hard. A dramatic example is whether to construct storm surge barriers in New York Harbor to protect the city from flooding—a subject that arose a number of times during the day. NPCC member Klaus Jacob termed it the "big elephant in the room," and he presented both the case for barriers and sobering cautions against erecting "hard structures."

Major observed that the issue is one to which the theory of optimal scheduling applies: in some instances, deferring a near-term investment may be beneficial in the long term. In this instance, Major suggested, improving evacuation plans now and adopting other interim measures could buy time that would favor a more robust decision later. But, Yohe pointed out,

The storm-surge barrier question ...raises spectacularly the need for integrated assessments of adaptation options and climate risks, because the governor of Connecticut is not going to be happy with damming the East River when most of the storms that affect the coastline of Connecticut are nor'easters and drive huge amounts of water into Long Island Sound. If it can't go down the East River, it's going to go into Bridgeport.

Another fiendish complication: nonlinear tipping points and triggers, characterized by Rosenzweig as "extremely important, very challenging, very hard to study." Rapid ice melt, which could raise sea level and thus aggravate storm surges, is one example.

Major stressed that optimally integrating adaptation measures into capital investment cycles and rehab plans could yield substantial savings, and that studies are needed to better understand this. Engineers should design to a range of climate projections, he suggested, so that optimal scheduling is linked to robust designs.

The fact that the insurance industry—characterized by LeBlanc as "the canary in the coal mine"—prices risk on the basis of historical data and writes policies year to year prompted discussion. Its catastrophe modeling tools can help the City gain insight into the potential for financial damage caused by climate change, LeBlanc said. NPCC member Megan Linkin, of Swiss Re, reported that New York City ranks high on indices of weather-related risks. A current worst-case scenario hurricane could inflict roughly $150 billion in insured losses on the metro area; double that for economic losses.

Beyond infrastructure impacts

Although the stated focus of the NPCC and Task Force is the impact of climate change on critical infrastructure, it seems certain the City will broaden its focus over time, and not surprisingly members of the audience raised concerns about other matters. Kim Knowlton of the Natural Resources Defense Council asked if the NPCC report updates projections of heat-related mortality and illness. NPCC member Vivien Gornitz explained that the report does not consider health issues but that a statewide project does. That project is NYSERDA's ClimAID. Health impacts are also within scope for a NYS Sea Level Rise Task Force.

Strong concerns were raised about protecting vulnerable populations from climate change impacts. Agreeing that those concerns are important, NPCC member Jacob reflected that "with all extreme events, the most vulnerable people are those who have the least resources ...Natural hazards and disasters are simply an amplifier of those social disparities." NPCC member Robin Leichenko said the ClimAID project, which she participates in, is "explicitly looking at vulnerability ...and equity and environmental justice issues."

Similarly, consideration of ecosystem services and the potential for "green infrastructure" to mitigate climate change were urged. Ecosystem services are within the scope of the City's Adaptation Task Force, but Kristin Marcell of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation said the NYS Sea Level Rise Task Force is focusing heavily on how ecosystems and ecosystem services will be affected by climate change. Unfortunately, while that task force is "in theory ...comparable to what NYC has done practice we don't have funding to undertake our work," she said. "So we are hoping to build on everything that has been done in New York City."

Coordination issues

ClimAID and the Sea Level Rise Task Force are just two of many initiatives under way in New York State, and as Freed remarked, more and more are "popping up every day." Coordination among multiple levels of government and other entities is crucial, to avoid overlap and ensure common climate projections and methodologies, and consistency through time. Some individuals do serve on two or more bodies. But as Freed stated, "coordination is difficult"; Rosenzweig termed it "a key challenge."

NPCC climate projections are regional, covering a 150-mile radius from the city. Rosenzweig underscored the importance and difficulty of coordinating and unifying climate scenarios in a field in which new findings are reported weekly. NOAA is "developing the potential for a climate services program for the nation," she reported. One goal would be overall national consistency, so scenarios and science projections for climate change could be coordinated. She reflected that, "in a way, the NPCC effort stems from lack of that program over past years."

Critical interdependencies among stakeholders

Interdependencies among stakeholders who are responsible for critical infrastructure were a recurrent theme. In his presentation, NPCC member Craig Faris had termed them "critical," saying the NPCC believes that understanding them "will provide much more robust solutions and a much broader and more implementable approach." In commenting on public health as an issue beyond the scope of the NPCC, Task Force member Tom Matte of the NYC Department of Health & Public Hygiene took that point deep:

[I]t's pretty clear that failures of our public infrastructure—like our electrical grid, our communication system, our transportation system—have enormous public health impacts . . . At the Public Health Department, we're a major stakeholder in having a secure infrastructure in NYC and preparing for climate change.

Task Force member Mike Hainzl of Ericsson Services Inc. emphasized interdependencies too, noting that, for example, repairing a damaged communications network requires that energy and transportation sectors be functioning. He added this pragmatic point:

From a business-continuity planning standpoint, you need those relationships with other infrastructure providers at a local level ...When things go horribly wrong you've got to be able to pick up the phone and say, 'How bad is it really?' and get an honest answer ...[The Task Force] is great for that. And that all lends to enhanced reliability and robustness, which is what this is all about.

Similarly, Solecki noted the value of the "dynamic interplay" between the NPCC, an independent body of experts, and Task Force stakeholders. Increased communication among "representatives of city agencies who rarely speak with one another on a daily basis [has been] a tremendous product of the process," he said.

Sampling of other stakeholder views

Stakeholders on the Task Force, representing communications, transportation, energy, and water and wastewater sectors, were uniformly enthusiastic about the value of the City's efforts—not least, about the new NPCC maps displaying projected impacts. Task Force member Hainzl urged that they be offered in digital form, so they can be geo-queried. Esther Siskind of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, which created a Climate Change Task Force in 2004, emphasized the need for better and updated flood maps and for updated definitions of, for example, a 10-year storm, as well as the need "to stay on top of the science ...and to downscale it to the region." That, she said, is "what we appreciate most about the NPCC."

Victoria Simon of the New York Power Authority reported that because NYPA's paramount concern is reliability, it focuses on reducing risks to assets and personnel. The Task Force's approach "will continue to help us, whether it's climate change, or emergency situations, or just basic risk reductions." Working on climate adaptation is prompting a more holistic approach to planning, she added. As part of its sustainability planning, NYPA is developing a climate adaptation strategy for all its facilities.

Susanne DesRoches of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey remarked that simply bringing climate change information in-house in accessible form was valuable. "I work in the Engineering Department and referencing the IPCC report is not something that anybody on the staff is doing on a regular basis." But everyone is really curious, she said. It wasn't that change was seen as an impediment; rather, the information about what to do was not readily available. The department now evaluates all projects based on NPCC climate risk information.

Recommendations, suggestions, and concerns

The NPCC's formal findings and recommendations are presented in its report. Among other critical issues and needs raised in the course of the day, by stakeholders, the audience, and NPCC members themselves were the following:

  • Vulnerable populations
    • Monitoring changes in human vulnerability to climate change.
    • Much more effective outreach to vulnerable populations and the general public.
  • Broader outreach concerns
    • Visual modes of communication that are more appealing than graphs and a barrage of arcane technical data.
    • Continuing to build broad public understanding of, and support for, adaptation efforts.
    • Greatly expanding programs that involve community groups and students in gathering data to monitor climate change—efforts that yield multiple benefits.
    • Devising visible markers of near-term progress to bring the reality of climate change and adaptation home.
  • Vested interests
    • Figuring out how to overcome vested interests that resist change.
    • Employing incentives and regulations to motivate changes in behavior.
    • Developing regulations that do not impose unreasonable costs or other burdens.
  • Learning
    • Coordinated, continued monitoring and reassessment of climate, impacts, and related data, so planning reflects the latest climate change science.
    • Case studies of actual responses to severe weather events.
    • Institutionalizing a quick-response system that documents responses before information decays.
    • Factoring qualitative as well as quantitative values into economic analyses and considering 2009 Nobel Prize Laureate Elinor Ostrom's work on managing common-pool natural resources.
  • Adaptation Task Force
    • A Task Force focused on the built environment could include social scientists, architects, planners, engineers, and landscape architects.
    • The Task Force could be expanded and institutionalized, to create long-term participatory mechanisms for a broader array of stakeholders and communities.
  • An interventionist, environmental engineering approach to adaptation may have to be reconciled with an approach favoring restoration of ecosystems.
  • How climate change could impact the city's food supply should be examined.
  • Regional collaborations in the federal regulatory arena would be advantageous.
  • Leading by example is one of the best ways to get other people to act.

Speakers: Rohit Aggarwala (New York City Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability), Henriëtte Bersee (Netherlands Ministry of Environment), and Jeffrey Sachs (the Earth Institute at Columbia University).

Presented by the New York City Panel on Climate Change and the Green Science & Environmental Policy Discussion Group.

New York City’s head start

Rohit Aggarwala directs the NYC Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, which is responsible for PlaNYC 2030, the City’s comprehensive long-term sustainability plan. It’s the framework for the City’s response to climate change, including the NPCC’s and Task Force’s work. This gives Aggarwala an insider’s strategic vantage point from which to survey the subject.

“We have a very big task ahead of us,” he declared. It “requires us all to be realistic and engage intellectually with the challenge of transforming knowledge into action, and particularly widespread action, because that’s the difference.” Doing things on a mass scale is very difficult.

Happily, New York is “already the most environmentally efficient economy and society in the United States,” he reported, and he reviewed some indices. Of all the nation’s transit riders, 55% are in the tri-state region. The average NYC household uses one-third to one-half the electricity of the average American household. Only 6% of the city’s electricity comes from coal. Its carbon footprint is close to a third of the average American’s.

Aggarwala suggested that, because New York has a head start, perhaps “we can in some ways show the way”—demonstrating that a city can enjoy a high quality of life even though most residents don’t own cars, live in large homes, or rely heavily on coal. But, he acknowledged, if you live in parts of the country where 90% of your electricity comes from coal, “you have a very big hill to climb” before you reach New York’s level of performance.

A pragmatic approach

Building on the city’s existing advantages was an obvious initial strategy for PlaNYC. For example, Aggarwala explained, it makes logical sense to direct growth around transit centers, to expand the transit system rather than build more highways, and to rely on energy efficiency to meet growing energy demand.

The City has embraced some counterintuitive moves. As an environmental initiative, it signed a long-term contract to expand a fossil fuel-powered electricity generating station in Queens. Because a state-of-the-art natural gas turbine is twice as efficient as a 30-year-old turbine, the new plant will reduce the city’s total carbon footprint by around 3.5%. “So going carbon neutral not always the right way forward,” he observed. Similarly, “we’re not going straight to electric vehicles; we have to go to hybrids first.” The theme, he said, is starting with what’s most easily justified.

As an environmental initiative, the City signed a long-term contract to expand a fossil fuel-powered electricity generating station.

That pragmatism informs the City’s approach to climate adaptation. In the face of climate risks, “while in the long term public investments can pay off the short term we do often face zero sum games ...and we have to think very carefully about the investments we choose to make,” Aggarwala cautioned. He recounted the City’s 2008 launch of the NYC Panel on Climate Change and NYC Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, and predicted that the plan the Task Force issues in early 2010 will be “state-of-the-art.” It will inform capital planning and adaptation measures.

A significant feature of the City’s approach is that “adaptation does not mean protection,” Aggarwala pointed out. Rather, resilience, including the ability to quickly recover from a severe climate-related event, is the goal.

Weighing tradeoffs

The work of responding to climate change abounds with tradeoffs. Aggarwala illustrated this by discussing a legislative package then pending before the City Council, the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, which had been introduced by the Mayor and the Council Speaker. He characterized it as “commonsense” and “the most important single set of initiatives in PlaNYC.” The plan required owners of existing buildings—responsible for nearly 80% of the city’s carbon footprint—to undertake systematic energy benchmarking and auditing, and upgrades to reduce energy consumption, such as installing more energy-efficient light bulbs or tuning a boiler.

Objections arose. Retrofits might inconvenience tenants. Benchmarking might affect property values. Rent stabilization laws might constrain capital investments. Payback periods of even just a few years might be too long. Etc. Aggarwala said his office was working with stakeholders to try to figure out how to make it easier for them to comply.

(On December 3, the Mayor withdrew the most controversial provision in the package. On December 7 The New York Times published a letter about this cosigned by Aggarwala. On December 9 the Council passed remaining provisions. The Mayor proclaimed the new law “the biggest step the city could take” to reduce carbon emissions. The Times said, it “put the city at the forefront of efforts nationwide to improve the energy efficiency of buildings.”)

Optimizing for one variable is dangerous, particularly in a place like New York City, which is a finely balanced machine.

Many people of good will find themselves thinking about tradeoffs, Aggarwala said, and he cautioned that a short-term tradeoff that optimizes for one thing, like zero carbon, could lead you to unpopular solutions, like relying only on nuclear power. “So optimizing for one variable is a very dangerous thing, particularly a place like New York City,” which is “a finely balanced machine.” If regulations drive the cost of living and working in the city too high, and residents move to less sustainable locales, “the planet’s overall environmental performance is not helped,” he reflected.

Circling back to his initial point, Aggarwala amplified it. Translating knowledge into action on a mass scale is inherently complex, so progress takes time–“whether we’re trying to implement a local sustainability plan or going off to Copenhagen and trying to make a global strategy work. And perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised that after 17 years we don’t have an answer,” he suggested. “But perhaps the good news is, we’re all still trying.”

The Netherlands mobilizes its response

Henriëtte Bersee is Attaché for the Netherlands Ministry of Environment. Previously she was the Netherlands’ chief negotiator on international climate change agreements. With the December Copenhagen talks looming, in her opening remarks she pointed to a sign of progress: “We have never [before] seen countries like China, India, South Africa, Brazil before really wanting to take responsibility on the issue.”

The Netherlands has been taking responsibility for quite a while. It’s easy to see why: 26% of the country is below sea level, another 29% is susceptible to river flooding, and the catastrophic flood of 1953, which killed some 1,800 people, is an indelible traumatic national memory. It prompted creation of the Delta Commission, which has masterminded decades of investment in protective measures, the Delta Works.


Bersee opened her account of the Netherlands’ response to climate change with the chart above. It’s taken from the UK’s 2007 news-making Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, which concludes that mitigation is less expensive than adaptation. “For the Netherlands especially,” she pointed out with quiet understatement, “the water is a problem.” The country is surrounded by water; one-quarter of it is below sea level; 70% of its gross national product is produced below sea level, making it “incredibly vulnerable to climate change.” Small in area, and with a population of 16.5 million people, the country is the most densely populated in Europe, and most of its population is urban.


Climate change and the Dutch policy agenda

The Netherlands is on track to meet its Kyoto Protocol target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It now aims to reduce its emissions by 30% by 2020 from 1990 levels. “Whether Copenhagen fails or succeeds we will have to adapt because we want to keep our feet dry,” Bersee said. “Even if we stop emitting altogether today, we will have consequences of climate change.”

Consequently, in 2007 the government appointed a Delta Committee to develop recommendations for protecting the Netherlands from climate change. The basic assumption is that government is responsible for human safety and the integrity of the dikes, but the Commission’s charge goes beyond “water safety” to keeping the country livable. And it entails “a combination of spatial planning and fighting the water,” Bersee said.

Spatial planning” is a crucial concept. As a New York Times article puts it (emphasis added), it’s “a new policy aimed at giving more space to water through solutions that seek not only to increase safety levels, but also to garner social, environmental, and economic benefits.” Bersee explained, “We hope not to be forced to build a lot of dikes, because ...when the sea level rises 5 meters, how high is your dike? We don’t want to build walls.”

The Delta Committee estimates maximum sea level rise for the end of this century at 1.3 meters (4.27 feet). The country is threatened by its many rivers, too: in the summer, they’re lower, permitting more saltwater intrusion; in the winter, heavier rain makes them swell.

Bersee reviewed a dozen recommendations made by the Delta Committee. Among them: try not to build in vulnerable areas (not easy in a small, densely populated country). Add lots of sand to the vulnerable North Sea coast. Where major rivers from Germany and France converge, construct more room to accommodate water. Protect Rotterdam from flooding from the Rhine, sea level rise, and saltwater intrusion into drinking water. To the extent possible, keep the mouth of the Rhine open for transport and harbor activity; close it when necessary. More dams and dikes will probably have to be built there.

"We will have to adapt because we want to keep our feet dry."

The Committee also recommended that a Delta fund be established. Annual costs for water management were estimated at 1.2 to 1.6 billion euros from 2010-2050 and 0.9 to 1.5 billion from 2050 to 2100. "Is it worth it to keep The Netherlands livable?" Bersee asked. In light of its 600 billion-euro GNP, the answer is yes.

But, Bersee observed, this is a “very cynical” question. “At climate change negotiations [there are] so many vulnerable countries; for instance, islands in the Pacific whose existence is threatened by climate change. And when you make the calculation, probably it’s not worth saving it. And that’s really a very big responsibility that we all have when we look at conferences like Copenhagen.”

Dutch cities act

Rotterdam and Amsterdam are very active on climate change issues, Bersee reported. “There are lots of contacts between New York, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam about mitigation, reducing emissions, and making a city climate proof. Climate-proofing includes trying to avoid building in vulnerable areas; designing buildings in ways that limit heat absorption; exploiting shade and cooling, and “green and blue” construction (using trees, vegetation, and water for a cooling effect); temporarily storing rainfall from intense rain events; increasing disaster preparedness; and building “waterhouses”—literally, floating houses.


Water houses in Rotterdam

The Delta Committee is planning for 100 years, “but we are not certain how fast sea level will rise, how much rain we will have to accommodate ...So the plan is very flexible,” Bersee explained. “But at least we are prepared and we are working on it to keep our people safe.”

All that said, “local adaptation has its limits,” she stated. “We really need an international agreement ...where developed countries agree to reduction targets; developing countries also take a responsibility. And we need finance to support developing countries. The Netherlands is a relatively rich country. We still think we are able to live with the water, live with climate change.” But already, many countries around the world don’t, she added, “and they need our support.”

The world’s cities in peril

As his titles suggest, Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations, has a global perspective. He brought it to bear at the Academy, praising New York City’s leadership on sustainability and climate issues, and speculating that the new NYC Panel of Climate Change report “will be not only of enormous value to the city but a template for cities around the world.”

Cities around the world are in peril, he warned. Many are located near coasts and on rivers for trade and sustenance, “but those turn out to be very dangerous places in a world of climate change.” Yet people are streaming to the cities in unprecedented numbers as urbanization proceeds apace. More than half the world’s population is now urban.


Referring to the map above, Sachs described worsening hazards: rising sea level, storm surges, extreme weather events including heat waves and prolonged drought, destruction of coastal infrastructure, threats to coastal aquifers, loss of snowmelt and glacier melt. In crowded urban environments, pollutants from transport and energy use interact with warming to intensify health hazards. Infrastructure is vulnerable to massive failures like blackouts.

Alarmingly, climate change is suppressing crops, at the same that demand for food is rising as population grows. Last year’s spike in food prices resulted in “probably a hundred to two hundred million additional deeply hungry people in the world’s cities as the food crisis unfolded alongside the financial crisis,” he reported. In Bangladesh alone, tens of millions of people are at risk of sea level rise, massive storm surges, and increasingly intense typhoons.

Losing ground

“How are we going to deal with all of this?” Sachs asked. “The range of skills ...needed to even understand these challenges and the interconnection among these skills the profound new challenge.” Sustainable development is the greatest source of challenges, but it’s not widely recognized as such. Many crises, such as Somalia and Darfur, are packaged “as crises of politics and ideology,” whereas they’re really the leading edge of environmental catastrophes. We don't talk about hunger and climate. “It’s therefore all the more important that the scientific community help to explain, to document, to teach, and to design the new set of tools that will be needed for this new ...unique age.”

Looking ahead to climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Sachs expressed profound skepticism that a meaningful agreement would be reached, and exasperation that negotiations have been underway for 17 years. At the international level, we’ve failed, he insisted, “to get these processes right.” Observing matters at close range at the UN has persuaded him that we don’t have the right strategy: we deal with climate issues as political issues more than as technical issues; we take a negotiating rather a problem-solving approach. “The negotiators are diplomats, and the experts are nowhere around.”

Closer to home, in 17 years the U.S. Congress “has not voted one piece of legislation to mitigate or even to adapt to climate change.” That the United States now has a president who believes climate change is important is “a great breakthrough,” Sachs acknowledged, and he’s announced target reductions in carbon emissions: 17% by 2020, and 83% by 2050. But no feasible plan exists for achieving them, and we have a political system completely dominated by special interests, with no systematic scientific rationale for decisions, Sachs charged. All that matters is getting to 60 votes, he added, and the timetable for enacting legislation is ever deferred.

“We are not winning this battle. That’s our most inconvenient truth.”

The fact is, Sachs stated flatly, “We are not winning this battle ...That’s our most inconvenient truth of all.” Despite Al Gore’s Nobel Prize, massive public education effort, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, and climate shocks around the world, “maybe the financial crisis has made it even more inconvenient to believe this is real,” he speculated. A recent Pew survey found that one-third of Americans believe in human-induced climate change; two years ago roughly one-half did. That, along with powerful vested interests, is preventing political action, Sachs believes.

An “extraordinarily dangerous” historical moment

But another, deeply troubling factor is at work, as well. It concerns the role of science and society. Sachs dismissed the recent controversy surrounding the publication of climate scientists’ private emails as a minor event. Far more serious is that we’ve been living “in a society that is to a significant extent not just unscientific but antiscientific. And we’re living in a very peculiar time where that anti-science is aggressively manipulated by powerful organizations and powerful interests.” He cited the example of Exxon Mobil, then turned to The Wall Street Journal. Its editorials distort climate science, he charged. They’re not arguing about climate science; instead, they’re saying climate science is a global conspiracy driven by money-hungry scientists. The Journal matters, he explained, because it has the largest circulation in the country; it’s read by the entire business community every day; it influences lobbyists and Congress. His critique was scorching:

What is written day by day is the most egregious, irresponsible, unfounded, ignorant attack on science that I can remember in my lifetime . . . it’s flagrantly false, and it’s extremely dangerous.

His plea for a remedy was heartfelt:

We have a responsibility that our country not fall into a rabid, antiscientific mob. We’re getting close. If we don’t find ways together to respect the science, to promote the science, to understand the incredibly difficult and ingenious and brilliant effort that has gone for decades now into helping us save ourselves by the most intricate, clever, difficult process of deciphering the paleoclimate, understanding atmospheric and ocean physics and dynamics, reading satellite data ...If we can’t defend this now, I believe that we and especially our children will pay a fearsome price.

Sachs recounted his efforts, over seven years, to engage Journal editors in a discussion of climate change. All failed. “So while they editorialize about scientific accountability,” they’re not accountable, he contended. He asked for help in finding ways to reach a measure of civil discussion and scientific debate, “rather than the kind of anti-science baiting that can do our society in.”

A question from the audience prompted a less pessimistic view. “We’ve lost a basic compass,” Sachs reflected, but Scandinavian nations demonstrate it’s possible “to have capitalism, a social conscience, and an environmental commitment.” They prove there’s a way forward. “We don’t have to dream of a system that doesn’t exist ...It’s a matter of getting back to basic values.”

Right now, we’re in “an extraordinarily dangerous” moment, he repeated, but we can’t afford to lose hope. And in fact around the world the quality of political leadership on average is high, and concern about these issues is very high, particularly among young people. “And there’s nothing impossible about this challenge. It’s actually in some ways surprisingly modest if we direct ourselves in the right way.” But we must overcome divisions and restore our social contract.