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For several months, until it disintegrated, I carried a napkin with a sketch of a Venn diagram that had two intersecting circles. One circle said “Adapt”, the other “Solve.” An arrow, pointing to the overlap, said “Resilience.” I drew that sketch as I was thinking about my neighborhood in downtown Manhattan, my profession, my city and my family in the days during and after Hurricane Sandy.
It feels like there used to be two worlds within the community of people who cared about climate. One camp focused on adapting to impacts of climate change -- think sea walls, generators, "go" bags, insurance rates. The other was focused on how to solve climate change -- think carbon footprints, emissions targets, international negotiations. One group was a bit fatalistic, the other maybe a touch optimistic. But all of that, in truth, probably seemed kind of abstract to many people outside the environmental community.
Sandy changed that. It brought the fatalism and the optimism crashing together in the form of some very basic choices facing families, businesses and neighborhoods about how and where to rebuild. Kitchen table issues like safety and security suddenly meant dealing with extreme weather now. And if, as Scientific American reports, climate change is going to increase the frequency of damaging storms, we’re going to have a lot to deal with.
It turns out that a lot of the steps we can take to keep the lights on in a crisis also cut the pollution that causes extreme weather in the first place. That's the sweet, overlapping spot on the Venn diagram, and that's where we should spend our time and dollars in rebuilding after Sandy.
For every step, we should ask: Can we do something that will keep the lights on and cut carbon emissions. Buying a generator? Get the one that pollutes the least. Better yet, add solar panels to your house and wire them to be able to provide power directly if the grid goes down. Work with nature, not against it – wetlands and landscapes absorb flood waters much better than paved surfaces. Using natural berms, dunes and other features (which also create wildlife habitat), waterfront parks can be designed to absorb and slow floodwaters.
Overall, the potential resilience holds for helping society adapt to, and slow, climate change is huge. Some $50 billion in tax dollars is ready to flow to the region affected by Sandy. It’s great that government can respond so quickly. But can it cut through the red tape and spend that money on rebuilding in a smarter way? Will the government pay for buyouts for people who live in flood-prone areas, so they can move elsewhere? Will it pay the extra cost of rebuilding damaged structures in ways that protect them when the next storm hits? Will the government pay for solar panels that work after the grid goes down, and wetland restoration where it will do the most good?
As the rebuilding effort gets underway, and as the whole country starts to look at how best to protect itself against extreme weather, here are some basic principles to keep in mind.
Resilience is a smart investment: Rebuilding in a resilient way can cost more up front than just putting things back the way they were. But the investment pays back – in energy savings, in safety, in peace of mind. The challenge is to help people tap into the information, skills and financing they need at the time they are facing the decision about how to build.
Information must be available and comprehensible: FEMA is rewriting the flood maps for New York City, recognizing the basic reality that over 35,000 more buildings stand in harm’s way in this new era of extreme weather. Building codes are being reworked. Everyone must be able to see clearly the difference in impact between places designed for resilience and the ones that weren’t.
Getting the right people with the right skills on the job: New York City is a hotbed of innovation in finance, design, policy, real estate and technology. The challenge is basically one of project management – to assemble all the needed skills at the moment when decisions about investment and resources are happening. Getting this right calls for unprecedented collaboration across neighborhoods and levels of government, businesses and civic organizations with the skills to respond.
And finally, everyone needs to take a look out at the water every now and then, the better to keep in mind the new realities of extreme weather and climate change. The view, whether from Manhattan, Long Beach, the Rockaways, Hong Kong, Cape Town or Singapore is the same: rising water. If New York and New Jersey, by rebuilding for safety and for climate, can become more resilient, we'll be creating a power model for millions of people in harm’s way around the globe.