Thursday, November 15, 2012
Following the immense challenges of providing emergency assistance in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, government officials face a new set of challenges in the subsequent weeks and months: they must respond to the difficult questions regarding whether, where, and how to rebuild. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) thus far effectively has answered "yes," "everywhere," and "immune from existing permitting requirements," all to the chagrin of many professional planning experts and environmental advocates. New York, however, appears to be taking a decidedly different, more precautionary approach.
Last week, with the backing of New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie, NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin signed an administrative order authorizing local governments to replace public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and bulkheads, for up to six months in the same vulnerable areas in which they were destroyed without having to secure environmental permits aimed at protecting flood zones, coastal areas, and freshwater wetlands. In issuing the order, Commissioner Martin stated that “for emergency repairs, we cannot let bureaucracy get in the way,” emphasizing that “red tape should not and will not hold up this vital work.’’
The Commissioner’s order has generated harsh criticism. According to Bill Wolfe, the director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “The order amounts to a total abdication of DEP’s responsibility to supervise responsible planning and environmentally sound permitting of critical public infrastructure.” Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, has suggested that the order “sends a message of rebuilding quickly and rebuilding like it was previously ... when there are programs and processes that can be brought to bear on all of those kinds of infrastructure to make them more safe and resilient.” Jeffrey Tittel, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, lamented that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes.”
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has offered a starkly different vision. In an op-ed published in the Daily News, Governor Cuomo wrote that “Extreme weather is the new normal….We need to act, not simply react…. [W]e must begin by thinking about where and how we rebuild. The next generation’s infrastructure must be able to withstand another storm.”
It remains to be seen what role state environmental agencies ultimately will play as the larger recovery plans take shape in New Jersey and New York moving forward.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Cross-posted from CPRBlog.
Last weekend my son took part in a set of Boy Scout activities with his local Delhi scout troop. On the grounds of the former residence of the U.S. ambassador, the boys prepared a kabob lunch, practiced fire making, and even built a Medieval-style trebuchet. But all I could think about were the little striped mosquitoes that seemed to follow the kids everywhere—Asian Tiger mosquitoes, to be exact, the kind that carry dengue fever.
In New Delhi, dengue (DEN-gay) has reached epidemic proportions. The scouts, I’m happy to say, completed their tour without infection, thanks to lots of lotion, spray, and smoky coils. But not everyone was so lucky. I know at least five people who have been confined to bed for two weeks of fever, headaches, and joint pain. (My medical traveler’s guide says it feels as if “knitting needles have been driven into every joint of [your] body.”) The New York Times reported last week that Delhi hospitals “are overrun and feverish patients are sharing beds and languishing in hallways.” The illness, which in extreme forms can require blood transfusions and even kill, is breaking out all over the country. Official reports say that this year 30,002 people in India have fallen ill with dengue through October. But experts believe the real number is around 37 million.
And last week, we had what I call the “Monster Smog,” a week-long haze of smoke and diesel fumes that the Financial Times described as “the worst occurrence of air pollution in a city long accustomed to dirty air, with the density of dust particles in some places reaching 30 times the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.” City hospitals were once again overrun. Three Supreme Court Justices pledged to investigate the affair. The cause of the Monster Smog apparently involved some mix of tailpipe emissions, field burning in neighboring states, a lack of wind, and an unusual amount of moisture in the air.
Now with events like these, my “climate” radar goes up. I think of the mounting concern among health experts that warmer temperatures could broaden the reach and lengthen the season of mosquito-borne illnesses in some parts of India. Or the possibility that changes in air temperature and wind patterns will thicken India’s urban smog. (For examples of both, see this report.) And I think of how cities like New Delhi must begin to adapt to a changing climate.
I know such thinking just adds to the moral and logistical complexity of modern life. In this way, I am only slightly less annoying than that guy at the seafood restaurant who consults his “Seafood Watch” phone app at the table and warns his guests about the Chilean Seabass. (O.K., I did that once, but never again.)
Causing annoyance is one thing. But in my conversations on climate policy in India, I have sometimes felt that climate adaptation strikes people as tedious and boring. For instance, at a recent gathering of development experts here in New Delhi, I asked one of the speakers how global development strategies in Asia might change as interest in climate adaptation grows.
After expressing skepticism toward the international adaptation agenda (“code,” he said, for relieving rich nations of their duty to curb emissions), he explained that in developing countries increasing climate resilience was not that different from ordinary development. It was important, yes, but not conceptually challenging. As a policy, adaption was “just not that interesting.”
I can appreciate the point. Development has always been about insulating society from the vagaries of nature. That’s what air conditioning and insurance polices are for. Why burden basic development efforts with extra tweaking? It’s one thing for New York City to wonder how to protect its subways from higher seas in 2050. But many cities in India don’t even have public transportation. Or sewage treatment plants, or sufficient air quality monitoring, or available hospital beds, or any number of basic services Americans taken for granted. Isn’t any improvement in water management or air quality or health care also, at this stage in the game, a step toward climate resilience?
Yes, but it’s not nearly enough. In order to cope with climatic change, developing nations need to some idea of what the vulnerabilities are and what regions are more at risk. That requires huge investments in regional climate modeling, ecosystem evaluation, and public health monitoring. Few countries in the developing world have adequate resources in these areas. Understanding the possible effects of climate change on the spread of dengue in India, to take one example, would require regionalized information about trends in temperature, humidity, rain patterns, land surface hydrology, insect life-cycles, and human behavior. Experts now studying the issue are still in only the beginning stages.
In addition to assessing vulnerability, developing countries will also require decision-making tools that allow citizens and their representatives to manage climate-based risk in the face of uncertainty. They will need strategies, appropriate to their regions and cultures, for evaluating performance and revising their plans when new information arises.
My fear is that many in the halls of power and finance will see fancy computer models and special decision-making tools as “luxuries” that only cities like New York and London can afford. That would be a shame. Remember the motto: Be Prepared.
Robert Verchick is the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
IEA has released its annual World Enery Outlook. Where are we heading? Here are some highlights:
1. The United States is projected to overtake Saudi Arabia as major oil producer by 2020 and become a net exporter of oil by 2030, because of measures to increase fuel efficiency in the transportation sector. Net fossil fuel production will increase because of increase in production of unconventional oil such as tight oil, oil sands and natural gas.
2. Oil consumption is projected to increase in emerging nations such as China and India, as well as in the Middle East. Iraq is projected to become a major supplier.
3. Global price fluctuations will continue to influence the energy mix of countries. E.g. cheap U.S. natural gas has translated into higher coal imports into Europe, where natural gas is expensive.
4. Energy efficiency measures in place are not optimal; the WEO provides some strategies for increasing energy efficiency.
5. Natural gas will continue to grow, even though it is fuelling environmental concerns. Coal use is projected to grow in India, and to level off in China by 2020. The predictions, however, are limited because of uncertainties in the growth of unconventional fuels.
6. Nuclear power is slated to decline in all countries except China, India, Korea and Russia. In other places, renewable energy are projected to emerge as major sources for power production, even though they will trail behind coal.
7. Energy production and consumption is projected to grow considerably and to put a strain on water, since several of the resources will require water for their production.
From a climate perspective, is this business as usual or thriving business of emissions?
An executive summary of the IEA report is available here.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
In addition to re-electing President Obama, enlarging the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, narrowing the Republicans’ majority in the House, and determining the make-up of state governments, voters decided 174 ballot initiatives across 38 states on November 6. Several of these initiatives directly involved environmental issues, including these select examples (for a state-by-state list, click here):
• Voters approved bond issues for land conservation in Maine and water projects in Maine, Rhode Island, and Oklahoma.
• In Oregon, voters rejected an initiative that would have banned gill nets in inland waters.
• In Arizona, voters passed a proposition that allows the state to exchange public lands to manage development, while they rejected one that would have declared state sovereignty over the natural resources within the state’s borders.
• In California, voters rejected a proposition that would have required mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.
While recovery from Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, New York and other northeastern states continued (and original damage estimates appeared to significantly underestimate conditions on the ground), U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined a mounting chorus renewing the push for international action on climate change.