The events of the past few days emphasize that the challenges posed by climate change – from extreme weather to rising seas – are a matter of both regional and national security. The unprecedented damage Hurricane Sandy inflicted on the New York City area should be an urgent reminder to our elected officials that the local impacts of global climate change – whatever you believe is causing them – are real. It’s also an important opportunity to reflect on the general lack of leadership from the federal government on this critical issue and a renewed chance to demand that Congress take strategic, systemic, and long-term remedial action with appropriate input from states and municipalities.
That action must include funding comprehensive improvements to the tunnels, power conduits, wastewater systems, and other physical networks that are essential to a functioning built environment. For example, much of New York City’s infrastructure that Sandy’s unprecedented storm surge swallowed dates from the early 20th century – some of it from even as far back as the 19th century. And much of it is also underground. So the threats to it from coastal flooding and rising sea levels are particularly acute. But if extreme weather’s ability to completely shut down the country’s largest metropolitan area and disrupt the lives of millions of people isn’t an issue of national security then what is? At the very least, the scenes of devastation across the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, and Breezy Point make adapting our cities and supporting built environment for more extreme weather patterns a moral one.
But what’s most important to consider is that – in this era of shrinking budgets – state and local governments cannot do it alone. Sandy’s crippling impact on our region’s bridges, tunnels, and power systems underscores why the federal government must step up and help fund the crucial, large-scale infrastructure projects needed not only in New York City – where Moynihan Station and the Mass Transit Tunnel are essentially collecting dust – but across the rest of the country too. Rather than reactively spending billions cleaning up after disasters like Katrina, Irene, and Sandy, proactively funding key projects will not only help to protect the public from future extreme weather events but also provide incalculable economic benefits – including jobs – and an improved quality of life for millions of people.
One way for the federal government to do this while avoiding the politically charged atmosphere surrounding climate change is to present its threats in the context of insufficient and aging infrastructure as a matter of national security, directing funds to the states for important projects accordingly. Simultaneously, cities like New York can continue to be laboratories of leadership for the types of sustainability and climate change policies that the federal government has to date eschewed. For example, PlaNYC 2030 is an important and impressive piece of climate change-focused policy leadership that Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has deftly implemented. Other state and local governments should follow New York City’s lead by crafting sensible legislation that makes sense for their particular geographic locations.
The alternative? The tired trickle-down policies being proposed and pursued by our right-leaning political leaders will do nothing but guarantee that scenes from the past few days across the New York City metropolitan area become the rule rather than the exception. Instead, increased tax revenues, a national infrastructure bank, and renewed commitment in Washington towards America’s tunnels, bridges, and rails could go a long way towards changing attitudes about funding for large-scale public projects.
But Nero is about to start fiddling: with public borrowing costs at historic lows, it is a crime against future generations that politicians prefer to bicker than build, gridlocking government while critical urban infrastructure needs are ignored, compromising our future, our economy, and our national security.