Summary

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing examining the current and projected impacts of climate change in the Northeast and regional efforts to manage these risks. The Northeast is home to approximately 64 million people and is one of the most built-up environments in the world. Since much of the population and infrastructure is located along the coast, this region is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as was most clearly seen when Hurricanes Irene and Sandy struck in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast experienced a 70 percent increase in the amount of precipitation falling during very heavy events.

  • Radley Horton, Associate Research Scientist, Columbia University; Convening Lead Author, National Climate Assessment Chapter on the Northeast, confirmed that climate change is “already happening,” with clear impacts in the northeastern region of the United States.
  • Currently observed effects in the Northeast include: sea level rises of as much as a foot, a 40 percent increase in the frequency of coastal flooding since the 1900s, a 70 percent increase in the frequency of heavy rainfall events since 1958, and a 2-degree Fahrenheit average increase in temperatures across the region since 1895.
  • According to Horton, additional global warming of 4.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit is predicted by the 2080s, but this could fall to 3-6 degrees if effective action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In either scenario, the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme heat waves in the Northeast are expected to increase. Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and southwestern Virginia, in particular, are expected to experience an increase in the frequency of days above 90 degrees by the middle of the century.
  • According to the Third National Climate Assessment, certain areas of New England are expected to experience days over 90 degrees more than 15 times per year by 2050—compared to less than five previously.
  • All of these phenomena combined pose an increasing risk to the economic, social, and environmental systems in the Northeast, and make disadvantaged populations (especially children and the elderly) more vulnerable. More extreme heat will lead to decreased air quality, with all the broader health impacts that implies for heart and lung diseases, etc…
  • According to Horton, all but one of the Northeast region’s states have begun to plan mitigation and adaptation programs to decrease the vulnerabilities associated with climate change, but these measures are still “at their early stages.”
  • For example, the Northeast’s agriculture and fishery programs are especially vulnerable to the changing climate. Farmers can explore adaptive techniques and crop options, but these may need further adjusting as the region’s climate continues to change.
  • Scott Davis, Senior Advisor, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), mentioned “Rebuild by Design,” a HUD competition that seeks to identify innovative solutions to rebuild communities after disasters that will make them more resilient.
  • In New York and New Jersey, 2.5 million people currently live in floodplains identified by the government—and that does not factor in sea level rise. Sixty-six percent of the most vulnerable communities live within a half mile of the flood zone, including 29,000 public housing units in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (the nation’s greatest concentration of public housing).
  • The region’s electrical infrastructure is particularly vulnerable: 75 percent of power generation lies in flood plains with a 1 percent annual chance of flooding. Power grids are mostly underground, and at risk from flooding.
  • Alternative solutions to flood protection are necessary, as relocation is not always possible.
  • Dan Zarrilli, Director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency, New York City, explained that New York City’s efforts to combat climate change and increase sustainability and resilience began in 2007 with the PlaNYC program. Without the initial PlaNYC efforts, the impacts and recovery from Superstorm Sandy would have been even more difficult.
  • After Superstorm Sandy, NYC set up a Climate Resiliency Task Force to focus on rebuilding the city’s neighborhoods “better than they were” and to better prepare them for future extreme weather events.
  • During Superstorm Sandy, NYC experienced 40 percent higher floods than previous records, despite relatively little wind and rain being involved.
  • The NYC Panel on Climate Change predicts that by 2050, New York will most likely experience a 4.1 to 5.7 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature, a 4 to 11 percent increase in average annual precipitation, and an estimated sea level rise of 1 to 2.5 feet.
  • The panel also forecasts a tripling of the number of 90 degree days per year (which will make New York feel like Birmingham, Alabama), and a 17-mile (or 50 percent) citywide expansion of the 100-year floodplain. This would affect 800,000 citizens.
  • NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio released the 257-initiative One City, Rebuilding Together plan in March of this year to accelerate “housing recovery programs” and expand the city’s resilience program. This will be achieved over the next decade, according to Zarrilli. As of April 2014, 202 of the 257 initiatives are underway, and 29 have already been completed, according to the city’s report card. He made clear that this is an ever evolving exercise, as the plan must be updated every four years to address changing conditions and new information.
  • Debra Knopman, Vice-President, RAND Corporation; Director, RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment, said uncertainty underlies every aspect of climate change adaptation, making a “predict then act” approach (the conventional one) difficult.
  • A ‘Robust Decision-making (RDM) Process’ would allow for a better focus on the overall strategy and on vulnerability management, rather than trying to keep up with predictions under a standard approach.
  • According to Knopman, the RDM process works to highlight assumptions, project benefits, costs, and tradeoffs; support integrated adaptation planning; expand the range of options being considered; and develop adaptive plans from new information and insights.
  • The RDM process has proven successful for water management programs, flood risk management programs, and energy resource management programs.
  • RAND used the RDM process to help Louisiana’s recovery efforts from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. With the process, Louisiana created a 2012 ‘Master Plan’ to better understand and plan for future coastal conditions. It was able to assess hundreds of restoration and risk reduction projects to determine which ones would be the most effective. The plan was adopted unanimously by the Louisiana State legislature.

The Third National Climate Assessment (NCA), which was released on May 6, projects that climate change will further threaten the region’s environmental, social, and economic systems. While many of the states and municipalities in the Northeast have developed plans to mitigate and adapt to the threats of climate change, implementation is still in the early stages. How have federal, state, and local government initiatives acted to increase resiliency against current and future impacts of climate change? What more can and should be done to reduce these risks?

The NCA defines the Northeast as the “high-density urban coastal corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston,” and includes the 12 states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia. The NCA states that private and public infrastructure will be increasingly compromised by sea level rise, coastal flooding, and intense precipitation events. Infrastructure at significant risk includes networks for energy supply, transportation, communications, water supply, and wastewater treatment. The potential regional and national economic impacts—absent investment for adaptation—are staggering. The direct effects of more frequent flooding and extreme heat events, compounded by infrastructure failures, could lead to increased health risks and death rates for the region’s residents, especially its most disadvantaged populations (i.e., the elderly, children, low-income individuals). Warmer weather may result in a longer growing season, which has mixed implications for the region’s agricultural sector.