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Climate-proofing Cities

3/27/2013, 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM | German House, New York

Climate-proofing Cities

• German Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany in New York
• German Center for Research and Innovation
• American Friends of Bucerius

Superstorm “Sandy” served as a wake-up call in New York and beyond. Residents and officials are now wondering how to make our cities smart, sustainable, and resilient — hopefully before the next storm hits.

To help answer this question, the German Center for Research and Innovation invited Dr. Klaus H. Jacob, one of the most requested experts in his field, to participate in a panel at the German House. Dr. Jacob, a Special Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, was joined by David Armour, Chief City Executive for New York City, Siemens Corporation; James T. Gallagher, Senior Manager, New York Independent System Operator and Robert D. Yaro, President of the Regional Plan Association.

Deputy Consul General Oliver Schnakenberg opened the discussion with an observation of the practical effects of climate change: “You may question man-made global warming but you don’t question what your postman delivers,” namely, higher water and energy bills and higher insurance and mortgage rates due to more violently unpredictable weather. Schnakenberg encouraged audience members to consider investment in climate change mitigating infrastructure and technology as an opportunity and natural growth market: “Let’s be smart and climate-proof our cities.”

Serving on the Mayor’s Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Jacob recalled this panel’s prediction of a sea level rise of 1 foot by 2020, 2 feet by 2050, 4 feet by 2080, and 5 feet by the end of the century. While these figures did not take the effects of climate change on Greenland and Antarctica into account, the real problem, according to Jacob, are the storms combined with rising sea levels: “Mitigating the greenhouse effect is a global necessity, adaptation is a local necessity." He pointed to Hamburg as an example of successful adaptation. The Hanseatic city invites and accommodates the water instead of trying to keep it out by raising dykes higher and higher. Lower Manhattan could follow Hamburg’s strategy by expanding a flood-proof transit system like the Highline. Pedestrians would “look down on the ducks on Wall Street" from an elevated position. But this, Jacob added, would be just one adaptation of the infrastructure that “can be done and has to be done.” He emphasized the need to think beyond sea barriers, since rising levels will likely overtake them in the long run.

Agreeing to the necessity of adaptation, James Gallagher warned listeners about the city’s aging power system and the time required to develop and build new technologies. An increasingly plausible flood of 14 feet, he said, would lead to a shutdown of the power system affecting around seven million residents. While New York boasts 631 miles of coastline, there are only two transmission lines from the Hudson valley, a situation which he called a "recipe for disaster".

On a more optimistic note, David Armour from Siemens noted that there is infrastructure to build on and that the technology to adapt it is available. It just needs analysis and investment from both the public and the private sector. He mentioned in particular the lighting system which can be used as a redundant network when the cell phone systems shut down. Sandy may also have taught a hard lesson to developers who skimped on anti-flooding measures because they were looking for a return on investment after two years. Why not extend this period to eight or nine years, he asked, when the buyers can be guaranteed a flood-proof building? He also lauded decentralized power systems like the one in a 60,000 resident Bronx co-op which was able to maintain power even when Sandy hit.

RPA President Bob Yaro shared the other panelists’ views and urged the audience to face the responsibility of coping with rising sea levels: “We all live on islands like Indonesians, but unlike Indonesians, New Yorkers seem to forget that." Yaro warned against complacency and called upon politicians to look at strategies to get things moving, not least to avoid the budgetary disaster another total shutdown of the MTA would cause. Though Yaro is also aware of the impermanent nature of sea barriers, he argued that they could help to buy time until a more sustainable adaptation strategy is implemented.


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  • Featured Speakers

    • Dr. Klaus H. Jacob

      Special Research Scientist, Seismology, Geology, and Tectonophysics Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University Earth Institute, Adjunct Professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

    • David Armour

      Chief City Executive for New York City, Siemens Corporation

    • James T. Gallagher (Moderator)

      Senior Manager for Strategic and Business Planning, New York Independent System Operator