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So it happened — that inevitable wayward superstorm, straying just a bit too far north, fueled by a warmer ocean and unhinged climate patterns. It found New York City, and now it’s time for our public officials in Albany and Washington to get ready for the next one.
Hurricane Sandy was neither the first nor last hurricane to strike the Northeast, nor is this the beginning or the end of the debate on climate change. The difference is that this time, it was real — and real bad: This wasn’t a climatological projection or a worst-case weather model.
Sandy and storms like it are fueled by a new environment — one generating more “freak” weather events, and making the ones generated more intense than they otherwise would be.
Some of us like to snub the science, and by extension snub reality. But New York is now suffering the consequences based on our society’s willful ignorance. With sea levels set to rise sharply in the next few decades, future storms will have a head start as compared to now.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo wisely called for a return to reality once Sandy had passed over us: “I said kiddingly the other day, ‘We have a 100-year flood every two years now.’ These situations never happened or if they happened, they were never going to happen again. . . . I think at this point it’s undeniable that we have a higher frequency of these extreme weather situations, and we’re going to have to deal with it.”
He’s right. Let’s discard the face-palmingly silly debate on whether people are causing climate change or whether we can stop it. It’s here, it’s happening and we probably could have stopped it, but the fact is this is a taste of what’s to come.
This new world means a new politics. So it’s clear now: The fiscally conservative thing to do is engage in massive spending.
What?! That’s right. This is only counterintuitive in the sense that today’s self-proclaimed “fiscal conservatives” aren’t actually fiscally conservative — they only look at today’s balance sheets, and only view long-term debt as an immediate political bludgeon against policies they don’t like. If you’re serious about budgetary matters, you have to look ahead, and see if there isn’t something we can do now to prevent worse outcomes down the road.
Storms like these are the best example of the virtue of proactivity: If we don’t prepare, it is certain we’ll be paying more for cleanup (and burial costs) each a storm like this hits. Hurricane Sandy took the lives of over a hundred Northeasterners and is estimated to cost upwards of $50 billion. Irene cost us $16.6 billion and killed 56. And these estimates don’t even take into account that every time we get knocked out by a large and not-really-freak hurricane, we lose millions — if not billions — of dollars in economic activity. More storms are likely on the way; Sandy may have been worst case for 2012, but worst case for 2017 or 2032 is going to be worse.
We can do this. We just have to start. And here are some things we can do, starting from least costly to most costly: First, we can increase pumping capacity at subway stations — or figure out a way to seal them off entirely if there’s a risk of flooding. We can make sure our emergency-management sector is well-staffed and well-funded — from the local levels all the way on up to FEMA. We can invest in an updated power grid, weatherizing our transformers and making solar panels for home use more commercially viable. More ambitiously, we can build seawalls in the areas where water got in, and construct sea gates to block dual north-south storm surges pouring in from the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic.
That could cost a lot. But that’s the pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into. I know, I know. We have no money. Though Mitt Romney lost the election on Tuesday, his rhetoric still reflects the primary electorate he pandered to back in 2011 — that it’s immoral to spend money on things if we don’t “have” the money, and thereby steal from the next generation.
Never mind that we live in a world of negative-interest U.S. Treasury bonds and debt-driven economic development. It was already immoral to steal the next generation’s future by refusing to go “green” as soon as possible. It’s immoral to steal our own future now by sitting on our hands when there’s serious prep work to be done. And speaking of the now, it’s immoral to keep being so anti-intellectual and laissez-faire about our verifiably real problems. It keeps millions unnecessarily vulnerable, or underwater.
This isn’t an overstatement; more than a few characters actually voted to slash FEMA funding — or, as Mitt Romney did, advocated scrapping FEMA entirely and giving it to the states (or free market!) I, for one, wait eagerly the day when public safety is decided based on profit projections rather than, well, public safety!
Of course, it’s no surprise that conservatives would rather downsize government/society than uplift it: If government can respond to this — or be proactive about it, people might start to question whether it can solve some other problems too and revive the quintessentially American idea of a public-private partnership. (Hint: It can.) It bears reminding that a climate-change-spurred development project will also create jobs and “rev up” the economy, much like most spending does.
Unfortunately, progressives should have been making these arguments before it was fashionable to call oneself progressive. But now that climate change is on its way toward becoming irreversible, it’s even more imperative to take up the mantle of fiscal conservatism on climate change before it’s too late.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.