The Burning Question: Can Obama deliver on climate change?

Where were you when Obama finally announced ambitious plans to tackle climate change yesterday, some five years after promising to do so as a presidential candidate? I found myself sitting in the offices of the Hub; a pioneering shared work and event space in Islington, North London, listening to Duncan Clark co-author of “The Burning Question”. Clarke eloquently argued, with the support of copious graphs, that “energy begets energy” and that it is only by addressing the fundamental issue of how do we leave carbon locked in the ground that we can succeed in addressing climate change. “We need to take on fossil fuels directly”, he says. Meanwhile in Georgetown University, President Obama is making a speech that many Republicans interpreted as a “war on coal”.

Perhaps the headline policy announced by the US President was the intention to empower the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control carbon emissions from existing coal and gas power plants. These generating stations account for a third of all US greenhouse gas emissions. “Power plants can still dump limitless carbon pollution into the air for free,” he said. “That’s not right, that’s not safe and it needs to stop.” But it will be 2015 before these targets are even set and by that time the Republicans could be back in power leaving the policy to go up in smoke. No doubt that legal challenges will follow and as the clock ticks, Obama’s exhortation that “we don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society”, will become a time bomb with a rather short fuse. Any progress that Obama might make in office has already been undermined by a Republican vow to unwind any policies waged in the “war on coal”. A flawed political, electoral and judiciary system that expends vast amounts of energy pushing the machinery of progress in one direction and then the other, reflects the state of the global energy market and broader world economy all too well.

Con Ed power plant in Queens, New York City © 2012 Colin Cafferty

Power plant on the East River in New York City

The other big story was Obama’s announcement that he would approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline (from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico) only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.” But who’s definition of harm are we going by? The State Department has indicated that a pipeline is more environmentally friendly than transporting the crude oil by rail. And so the debate appears to be glossing over the fundamental question that is glaring us all (rather too warmly) in the face. Should the US facilitate the development of an energy source that unquestionably carries a higher carbon footprint than even conventional fossil fuels? This reframing of the debate on Keystone is an affront to our collective intelligence and must surely infuriate large swathes of American and Canadian folk alike.

Back in North London, Clark is talking about the pressing need to take on the fossil fuel industry. “The Burning Question” author sensibly advocates engaging the industry in the quest to address climate change. “What will it take to leave billions of dollars of fossil fuels in the ground?” he challenges. Do we realistically think we can persuade mining and energy companies to write off their fossil fuel reserves or for investors in the global markets to write down the value of their assets? One approach he advocates would be the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a hitherto underfunded technology that would allow us to pump the CO2 from power plants into underground reservoirs where it can no longer warm the atmosphere. “Without CCS, the political will to leave fossil fuels in the ground will be that much harder” he points out soberly. Using all the tools at our disposal and converting the naysayers into “aye-sayers” are all sensible approaches but take a look at the position Obama now finds himself in. There is no stick long enough, no carrot sweet enough for a thick-skinned elephant and a stubborn donkey. He may be bypassing Congress now but just how far can he go with this approach?

So much of the wider political debate in the US is fuelled by fear – terrorism, gun control, loss of freedom and privacy. The US President’s proposals to build resilience towards climate change through strengthening of flood defences and soft infrastructure is the one policy announced yesterday that is most likely to succeed. And it is driven by fear. But most other proposed actions on climate change fuel fear in exactly the opposite way. The perceived attack on the fossil fuel industry and the angst over loss of jobs and quality of life in the US (even if unsubstantiated) needs greater reassurance from the left. A stronger business case needs to be made that can appease the concerns of those who stand to lose most from climate change legislation. Let’s hope that action on climate change will succeed because people believe it is the right thing to do rather than out of fear of averting another natural disaster such as the droughts in the American Midwest or hurricanes along the East coast.

Obama’s speech demonstrated that he definitely ‘gets’ climate change. He understands the moral obligation and he recognizes the sense of urgency. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he told the audience at Georgetown University. Actions and not words are what we need and it’s a telling sign when a person of such influence on the world stage cannot make a significant dint on an issue that he directly connects with the very future of his own children. But for now, there is still hope; as long as the debate is kept alive and the belief that the next generation deserves better than what we are currently prepared to offer them.

Can Obama deliver on climate change in his second term in office?


Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

President Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday gave some well-needed hope to the environmental movement by signaling that he is prepared to take action on climate change during his second term in office. It’s fair to say that many commentators and the wider public were caught on the hop. Obama’s silence on the issue during re-election campaigning has been noteworthy. And yet he devoted an entire paragraph (13 lines) to climate change in yesterday’s speech compared to just a single line in his first term inaugural speech 4 years ago. Back then he pledged, “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” This sentence appears poetic, almost biblical as if he was prophesizing a future that could only be achieved by divine intervention. It also seems rather distant and disconnected from reality.

This time round, he spells out the consequences of inaction. On the squandered employment opportunities by failing to invest in renewable technology, he exhorts that, “We must claim its promise”. Indeed such inaction on the part of the US is allowing other nations such as Germany, South Korea and China to steal a march. Despite some pragmatism, his speech still carries religious undertones as he talks about “how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”. In this regard, it appears that he is attempting to reach out to Republicans by reframing the debate on climate change as a duty to God and country to protect “our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks”. However, if someone refuses to believe that man-made climate change is even real, then this new narrative is something of a dead-end. Instead, we could be listening to Obama’s own personal convictions. Obama knows only too well that just four years remain to make history and to be remembered not just for the colour of his skin but also for the legacy he leaves behind. As a family man with two young daughters, there is little doubt that they are a driving force and inspiration that reinforces his personal conviction to tackle climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”. Fine words indeed but is he actually able to deliver on them?

The President of the United States may be billed as the most powerful man in the world but if Obama really does possess superpowers, then the Republican Party is surely his kryptonite.  The GOP controls the House of Representatives and has vowed to frustrate any attempts to pass legislation that harms the fossil fuel industry and other backers of the party. Even some within his own party have yet to be convinced of the need for action on climate change. A Cap-and-Trade bill proposed during his first term was defeated even at a time when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress.  Perhaps this was for the better, as European attempts to control carbon emissions using the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) have failed miserably so far. The current price of carbon is trading at a measly five euros with carbon allowances flooding the markets. Hardly a meaningful incentive for power plants and heavy industry to curb their carbon emissions.

It would appear that Obama is ready to take a new tack on climate change this time round. The American political system has become so polarized in recent years that attempts at seeking consensus are futile. So rather than trying to take such a radical measure as creating a carbon market in the US, the President is likely to take a more measured approach that allows him to make full use of his executive powers that do not require congressional approval. Rather than aiming high and making little or no progress, he will most likely set his sights lower at a more modest but achievable set of targets. No doubt he and his advisors know only too well the limits of their power after four years in office. This approach obviously has a very real downside in that tinkering at the edges will not achieve the change necessary to reduce carbon emissions in time. Options already on the table are the regulation of carbon as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act and a tightening of energy efficiency measures such as the automotive fuel-efficiency standards, which are due to increase to more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025. One way of exploiting his executive decree and thereby circumventing Congress would be to veto the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposed to deliver oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the heartlands of America. Pressure exerted by Canadian conservatives and US states with oil refineries is likely to be intense. Tar sands have a much greater carbon footprint than even the dirtiest of fossil fuels (coal) and extraction methods scar huge swathes of virgin landscape, polluting rivers in the process. Energy security will most likely be cited as justification to support the project in a similar vein to fracking, which has also exploded onto the scene in recent years.

Obama will need to pick his battles carefully and so tighter regulation of fracking may be an alternative battleground to make a stand on climate change. The Washington Post proposes that EPA powers could be extended to regulate methane leaks from the burgeoning fracking industry. Fracking is a process whereby a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into fissures in shale rock to force natural gas up to the surface. Fracking technology has been one of the saving graces for the American economy in recent years, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the barren plains of North Dakota where lights from the local fracking industry are now visible from space. Methane is 24 times more polluting than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change. Any methane that escapes is therefore likely to undo much of the benefit associated with burning natural gas that is “cleaner” than coal.  Equally any attempt to impose additional costs on “frackers” that could make the industry less competitive are likely to result in stalemate. The EPA already has the authority to regulate CO2 thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision. However, this only applies to future power plants and not the existing ones, which are responsible for a whopping 40% of the nation’s carbon emissions. Any action to clamp down on power utilities and the fossil fuel industry will no doubt be vigorously contested in the courts. As an outsider, I’m always amazed by the apparent injustice of the American legal system in the hands of obscenely well-paid lawyers who can defeat legislation on some obscure technicality.

One concern is about how many concessions the EPA will be forced to make as it seeks to implement the Clean Air Act. The New York Times reported last week that the Navajo Generating station in Arizona secured a further 5-year extension from the EPA meaning that it now doesn’t have to implement controls on nitrogen oxides until 2023. I was fortunate to visit the US Southwest last March and as I approached the spectacular Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, I was greeted by the sight of three towering chimney stacks belching smoke high into the blue skies above pristine red-rock country. The 2,200MW plant provides electricity for customers in California, Nevada and Arizona and provides valuable employment for many Native Americans belonging to the Navajo Nation. But the owners will need to invest in the region of $1 billion to install new catalytic reduction technology to render nitrogen oxides harmless. Are they any more likely to be able to afford the costly upgrade in 10 years time than they are today? And will they be able to afford to meet new and separate requirements on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Here is a clear example of the true cost associated with fossil fuels, which are largely externalized. Nitrogen oxides not only have health impacts but also contribute to much of the haze that hangs over the Grand Canyon, obscuring breath-taking views. Similarly carbon emissions are directly responsible for the far greater (and as yet unknown) costs of adapting to future climate change and responding to the impacts of extreme weather today.

For now we can only cling to the US President’s every word in hope and attempt to read deeper meaning into those solitary 13 lines of his inaugural speech. We will need to wait until the State of the Union address in February to get a better indication of what real and meaningful action Obama plans to take and whether he is serious about creating a legacy for himself on this issue. In 2009, the President pledged to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. Many experts think this is far too little, too late from the world’s second largest polluter. Right now, there’s probably more than a few concerned environmentalists who would settle for second prize.

Using wetlands to protect New York City from future flooding disasters

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York

For those looking for solitude and a slice of beach-life within the confines of New York City, Breezy Point is without doubt an attractive proposition. Located near the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, it faces onto the Atlantic Ocean on two sides with the Rockaway Point Boulevard as the only access route, unless you have a boat that is. The wooden bungalows follow a tightly packed street grid shaped like a wedge and with no natural firebreaks. Both factors contributed to be the most devastating fire in New York City for 150 years when more than 111 properties were destroyed in a single night exactly one month today (October 29, 2012).

Sandwiched between Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park to the North-east and Breezy Point Tip to the South-west, the largely summertime settlement of Breezy Point interrupts what would otherwise be a 4.5 mile long stretch of relatively undeveloped parkland, beach and strangely enough a parking lot for 5,000 cars. Lax planning laws and subsidized insurance premiums that neglected to price the true risk from flooding and other disasters allowed the birth of a new middle-class community at Breezy Point in the 1960s. A cooperative was formed with its own private security force and no fewer than 3 volunteer fire departments, which ironically were of little use when Hurricane Sandy struck land. Today it is home to the 2nd highest concentration of Irish-Americans in the US comprising 60.3% of the local population. Sandy has not only burned their homes to a cinder but has also potentially ripped apart an entire community. As an Irishman in exile myself, I could also have been easily lured to the shores of what is affectionately referred to as the Irish Riviera or “Cois Farraige” (Gaelic for “by the seaside”).

Breezy Point is the more affordable alternative to the well-healed communities further along the Atlantic coast in places like the Hamptons on Long Island. However, this is likely to change due to stricter planning requirements in newly mapped flood hazard zones making it affordable only for the rich. Insurance premiums are likely to increase by 20% per year according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with the National Flood Insurance Programme already mired in debt to the tune of $18 billion in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Building urban resilience is not just about investing in the right kinds of infrastructure but also about building sustainable communities that can afford to support themselves now and into the future, based on the true cost of potential natural disasters due to climate change.

One alternative, albeit a controversial one, is the notion that the entire neighbourhood of Breezy Point should be allowed to revert to Nature as part of a strategic withdrawal. Replacing residential and commercial land uses with spaces safe to be flooded is a technique called “managed retreat”. Brooklyn Bridge Park is one good example. However, this is unlikely to appeal to the fighting spirit of those who are instilled with the belief that it is unpatriotic to submit to an enemy. A recent headline in USA Today exclaimed “Breezy Point: Drowned, burned, but unbowed”. Breezy Point is largely a community of retirees with a population that triples during the summer months. Relocation with compensation could be possible but that is unlikely to pay for the break up of an entire community and a lost paradise. This only serves to underline the importance of getting planning laws in order so that homes such as those at Breezy Point are never built in the first place. President Obama has pledged to rebuild storm-torn neighbourhoods in Queens and Staten Island – but is this really the best way forward?

I was fortunate to visit New York for the month of July when I fought hard not to succumb to the seductive lights of Manhattan and instead took a path less travelled in search of urban nature lying within the city boundaries. Two of the sites I happened to visit, Jamaica Bay and Great Kills Park, reopened to the public only recently. These are part of a network of eleven parks that comprise the Gateway National Recreation Area visited by 10 million people annually and managed by the National Park Service. Fort Tilden, Jacob Riis Park and Breezy Point Tip on the Rockaway Peninsula are other outposts of this network. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Brooklyn is just a stone’s throw from the busy skies of JFK International Airport – an unlikely location for a birdlife haven in the US North-east. I took a stroll around the park in the searing summer heat through extensive salt marshes, spotting white egrets, Canadian geese and an abundance of horseshoe crabs along the way. The freshwater West Pond I walked along has since been breached by the sea in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, leaving local wildlife in a precarious position. I entered the visitor’s centre, which is housed in an energy efficient Gold LEED certified building, and asked one of the rangers about climate change adaptation in the park. He described how the island marshes in Jamaica Bay are disappearing due to sea-level rise and erosion. Now he has a whole new set of problems to address as the impacts of climate change are felt on an entirely new scale.

But although New York’s wetlands have taken a battering by Sandy, they are actually a key defence for the protection of the city’s citizens against future flooding disasters. Wetlands provide natural flood control by temporarily holding and absorbing floodwater, reducing the energy of storm surges and helping to control erosion of the shoreline. They also provide critical habitat for fish and birdlife, as well as unique opportunities for recreation and education within the confines of a bustling metropolis. They even sequester some of the CO2 in the atmosphere that causes climate change and the resultant predisposition to severe weather. In 2009, PlaNYC published a report entitled “New York City Wetlands: Regulatory Gaps and Other Threats”. Although the NYC Park System includes more than 10,000 aces of undeveloped forest, tidal and freshwater wetlands, the city has only 1% of its historic freshwater wetlands and 10% of its historic tidal wetlands. The Wetlands Transfer Task Force (WTTF) found that the extent of smaller wetlands, which are outside the protection of the State and Federal Law, is unknown. Detailed mapping of these small wetlands is a critical next step using satellite imagery and aerial photography.  Another key step they proposed was to identify areas where natural expansion of tidal wetlands is likely and possible. Leading New York architectural firm, Architecture Research Office (ARO), who proposed enhancing soft infrastructure along New York’s waterfront, lends further weight to this argument. Impacts to New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina were in part due to development decisions that reduced wetlands and the natural protections from storm surge that they provide.

Soft infrastructure comprises initiatives such as the restoring and building of wetlands, porous pavements and offshore natural reefs as opposed to hard infrastructure, which includes building levees, dykes and sea-walls. For instance, ARO propose creating a “soft edge” around Lower Manhattan where the borders between land and water are blurred by an artificial wetland. The terms “hard” and “soft” can also be extended to personalities – confrontation versus collaboration – the US Army Corps of Engineers on one side facing a coalition of landscape architects, ecologists and creative-thinkers. Governor Andrew M Cuomo recently declared his support for building a seawall to protect New Yorkers, whereas Mayor Michael R Bloomberg is predisposed towards investment in soft infrastructure. But the cost of building storm surge gates at key-points such as the Verrazano Narrows and the Arthur Kill could cost a staggering $23 billion. Building a seawall is an all-or-nothing approach – potentially lulling people into a false sense of security until they are one day breached. Sea level rise due to climate change is based on a set of predictions based on different scenarios that err of the side of caution. What if the scientists have underestimated the extent of melting polar ice and sea levels rise even further than predicted? Building new wetlands and restoring existing ones, which are allowed to flood and cushion residential areas and offices, is potentially a far more affordable approach.

Returning to the 500-acre Breezy Point, it is perhaps more obvious than ever that this small community, which is surrounded on two sides by the Gateway National Recreation Area, is no longer sustainable in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Maybe it is time to not only extend the Gateway National Recreation Area on Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, but to also consider expanding the network of soft infrastructure for flood defense across all New York boroughs? Hurricane Sandy may have hit Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn and Great Kills Park on Staten Island hard but they are reopening and will recover with time. Nature has a way of healing itself.

Useful Links –

USA Today –  Breezy Point: Drowned, burned, but unbowed

Architecture Research Office – Soft waterfront infrastructure

PlaNYC – New York City Wetlands report

Gateway National Recreation Area website

Urban resilience and climate change adaptation in New York

A volunteer picks litter along a sandy beach in Great Kills Park, Staten Island one year after Hurricane Irene paid a visit

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend 3 weeks in New York City this July, staying at my cousin’s place in mid-town Manhattan. I first visited New York back in the early 1990’s on a J1 visa from Ireland. As a teenager, I travelled alone on my first trip out of the country leaving behind the familiarity of rural West of Ireland for the most exciting and fast-moving city in the world. Incredibly I hadn’t been back since then although I’ve dreamt about it many times. I’m a firm believer that it’s rarely possible to relive the experiences and emotions evoked by a place no matter how long you wait. Expectations are meant to be broken. But this time I had a clear sense of purpose to justify revisiting the Big Apple. I wasn’t just another tourist with a photo album to fill with smiling pictures next to iconic city landmarks. I was an ever so slightly advanced version – a photographer with an empty leather-bound portfolio to fill. Views of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building were replaced by those of power stations and litter-strewn beaches.

Rather ominously, the mercury tipped 100F on the day I arrived as large parts of the US Mid-west suffered from an epic drought causing crops to fail. New York is not the kind of city that you want to be lugging a heavy camera bag and tripod across. Heat, humidity, crowds, noise, traffic and air pollution all conspire to beat the most driven of photographers into submission. It was pretty clear to me after a couple of days that the most striking feature of New York was not the height of gleaming skyscrapers nor the bustle of grand avenues but rather how the man-made city interacted with it’s natural surroundings. Most dramatic of all is the spectacular view across a verdant Central Park hemmed in on all sides by towering blocks of concrete and glass.  But take a walk or subway ride far enough in any direction and sooner or later you will encounter water. Strutting bridges, cavernous tunnels and chugging ferries criss-cross the city’s harbour and rivers connecting all five boroughs and the rest of the mainland. I found myself spending a disproportionate amount of time along the waterfront visiting places that many native New Yorkers have never taken time to see. From marshes on wildlife reserves to beaches on the city fringes, from industrial landscapes to desirable riverside residences, I tried to get a sense of the city’s relationship with the water from a landlubber’s perspective.

Walking along Battery Park and the southern tip of Manhattan really brings home just how close one of the global centres of finance is to sea-level. Battery Park City, juts vulnerably into the Hudson on land reclaimed using earth excavated from the original World Trade Centre site. Housing the World Financial Center and a population of more than 10,000 living in high spec condominiums, it takes some stretch of the imagination on a sunny July day to picture this affluent neighbourhood under water.  But that is what happened earlier this week when the boardwalk was flooded by the tidal surge caused by Superstorm Sandy. Is this a waterfront development gone one step too far? This is not to say that city officials are guilty of ignoring the need to plan for the future sustainable growth and resilience of the city. After all, it’s rather hard to hide the fact that more than 200,000 New Yorkers live less than 4 feet above high tide – second only to New Orleans in the US.

PlaNYC was launched by the Mayor in 2007 “to prepare the city for one million more residents, strengthen our economy, combat climate change and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers” This is a rather grand plan that has now clearly been exposed as lacking teeth and real action on the ground. Enhancing and protecting wetlands, planning for sustainable storm-water management, adapting to climate change – there is certainly no lack of strategy at PlaNYC, although many of the reports are not freely available to the public. One such report prepared by a panel of leading science, legal and insurance experts with the backing of the Mayor’s office is entitled “Climate Change Adaptation in NYC: Building a risk management response”. Amongst the key findings, it says that “NYC should begin to adapt to climate change today…temperature increases and sea level rise are already occurring”.  And so this leads me on to question whether these leading experts are going to revise their assessment of the risks posed by climate change to the future resilience of NYC and whether the politicians are going to sit up and put concrete measures in place. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for New York in the same vein as other global cities such as London. The Thames Barrier is London’s main flood protection against tidal surges that make their way up the estuary from the North Sea. New York has no such luxury. A sea barrier would need to be constructed at multiple points across the waterscape at an estimated cost of $10 billion. But if the city takes a hit of $20 billion on the current superstorm disaster as widely reported in the media, would that not be money well spent? Earlier this year, Climate Central, a non-profit organization that conducts research on climate change and communicates findings to the public, launched an interactive map called “Surging Seas”.  Anyone can select their neighbourhood in the US and use a slider to adjust sea levels to see the impact on local population, homes etc. When I used the tool for The Battery in New York, I was told that there is more than a 1 in 6 chance that a combined sea level rise, storm surge and tide would exceed 10 feet on or after the year 2100. And yet floodwaters reached almost 14 feet this week – many decades before the end of the century. To my mind, this shows that far from scaremongering, our scientists are being over-conservative in their judgments.

New Yorkers and fellow Americans along the East Coast are still dealing with the more pressing issues of restoring power, pumping water from subways and repairing damaged property in the aftermath of the storm’s destruction. But it won’t be long before the American public begins to ask questions of its political, business and community leaders about why their neighbourhoods were so unprepared for an event such as this. You may say that there hasn’t been a precedent but that isn’t entirely true. Hurricane Irene came dangerously close to flooding the subway last year. Not to mention Hurricane Katrina – lessons learnt in one city apparently but the same logic has not been extended to other coastal communities. Comparisons with the single greatest destructive event in the history of New York will inevitably be made. Is this latest superstorm another 9/11 moment in the history of the city (and the nation) where general consensus is swayed into taking action against another rather undefined and unforeseen threat to the city? A so-called “tipping point”. I fully understand that making any comparison with such a momentous occasion that is ingrained in the nation’s psyche is controversial. Ground Zero is hallowed ground not just in a physical sense but in a metaphysical sense also. But equally, it would be irresponsible to ignore the many similarities between both events.

Climate change and environmental issues have largely been ignored in equal measure by the Obama and Romney camps in the current presidential race. The political future of America has been framed in such a way that leaves no room for discussion on a topic that we are told will not create jobs and will only become an unnecessary financial burden on an already debt-stricken economy. A fallacy of course, but not one that I intend to debate here and now. US politicians have always succeeded in rallying support by confronting real or imaginary enemies. A struggling economy as a threat to the American way of life or a terrorist-led Jihad as a threat to the nation’s security.  Perhaps now a new threat will be added to that list – the threat to the future resilience and indeed the very existence of major cities such as New York. Neither of the main political parties has seized upon man-made pollution as a threat to the nation’s health and future sustainability in this election campaign. It is probably too late with barely a week to go until polls close. Recent events are too fresh and too raw in the minds of citizens along the East Coast to make it a campaigning issue. Nevertheless, no matter which administration makes it into the White House, it will ignore the lessons of the past few days at its peril.

Taking the Staten Island Ferry across New York Harbour, one of the world’s great natural harbours, is an exhilarating (and gratifyingly free) experience. I made the extra journey down to Great Kills Park in the southeast of the island on a sweltering July day, past the hoards of beachgoers along FDR boardwalk and beach. I walked along a narrow deserted spit of land until I could go no further. There I met a bronzed and greying volunteer picking litter along the beach. Joe talked about the debris washed ashore when the tail-end of Hurricane Irene swept through the region in 2011. Back then the beach was strewn with great big hunks of driftwood. Today, the scene in nearby Great Kills Marina is rather more sobering. Boats are flung at odd angles onto Mansion Avenue and neighbouring streets wreaking havoc on the local community. Elsewhere on the island, helicopters pluck stranded residents from the roofs of homes as flood-waters swirl below. Perhaps a new frontline has just been drawn in the battle to protect America’s citizens from the ravages of an enemy (climate change) that too many people would rather believe did not exist.

Links –

Climate Central Sea Surge website

PlaNYC website

Climate Change Adaptation in NYC summary report

Staten Island live news story