Global Warming: Is it beginning to sink in?

20 Nov

The New York Times has recognized global warming for some time. So it’s not surprising that, post-Sandy, it’s been running a variety of articles on the theme: WTF do we do? Then thing is, the damage from Sandy has been so extensive that, one way or the other, billions upon billions of dollars will have to be spent. Even if the body politic decides to do nothing, that is, go back the way things were before Sandy, it’s going to cost billions and billions of dollars.

And that’s billions and billions of dollars in one of the most visible cities in the world, a city that has long prided itself on being the world’s de facto financial and artistic capital and, in a sense, the world’s premier city. After all, New York is where the United Nations in headquartered, no? New York is not some exotic quasi-tropical tourist destination like New Orleans. New York is, you know, the captial of the freakin’ world.

And it’s freakin’ because now it’s GOT spend billions and billions to do SOMETHING. But what?

In Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm Michael Kimmelman puts it like this:

Cost-benefit analyses, long overdue, should answer tough questions like whether it’s actually worth saving some neighborhoods in flood zones. Communities like Breezy Point should be given knowledge, power and choice about their options, then the responsibility to live by that choice.

This means embracing a policy of compassion and honest talk. It’s no good merely to try to go back to the way things were, because they are not
This sort of conversation is a third rail of American politics, so it’s no wonder all presidents promise to rebuild and stick taxpayers with the tab. That billions of dollars may end up being spent to protect businesses in Lower Manhattan while old, working-class communities on the waterfronts of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island most likely won’t get the same protection flies in the face of ideas about social justice, and about New York City, with its open-armed self-image as a capital of diversity.

But the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.

So the real test post-Sandy will be negotiating between the two.

There you have it: “Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.” Precisely. Principles and humanity. Just what principles are we talking about? Too big to fail? Humanity? In the scales of humanity do the 1% outweight the 99%?

Kimmelman looks to Australia:

The Australians have a mantra for battling climate change: Protect, Redesign, Rebuild, Elevate, Relocate and Retreat. Guy Nordenson, a New York engineer who has spent years researching the subject, talks about controlling floods and controlled flooding, accepting that the water will ultimately get in. This means thinking like the Australians, long term about evolving nature. Our election cycle tends to thwart infrastructural improvements that can take decades and don’t provide short-term ribbon-cutting payoffs for politicians, which is why it’s a wry commonplace among engineers and architects that autocratic regimes make the most aggressive builders of massive projects.

For New York sea gates alone won’t fix the city’s problems any more than will porous streets with catchment basins and waterproof vaults under sidewalks to secure electrical systems. At the same time this is a golden opportunity for the United States to leapfrog countries that have pioneered innovative architecture like garages doubling as floodwater containers and superdikes serving as parks and high-density housing complexes — a chance for designers, planners and engineers finally to get back, after so many decades, to the decision-making table.

It’s a very messy problem, conceptually, but above all, politically. Kimmelman weaves his tale of the decisions with the tale of Robert Moses, who ran roughshod over people to get Big Things done. Some of those big things were goode, some not so good. But in either case he had to trample people under foot:

The defeat of Westway, a Moses-scale proposal during the 1980s to bury the West Side Highway and cover it with parkland and new development, in a sense became the public’s epitaph for Moses. Whether that defeat was bad for the city is a question for another time. But New York became more attuned to community-based initiatives, to preservation, environmentalism and circumspection, all good things in ordinary circumstances.

At the same time it lost something of its nerve.

Will the city get its nerve back without continuing the erosion of democracy that has been proceding apace? But not just the city, because New York is not just any city. It has been, after all, the virtual capital of the world. The world is watching. What does the world want?


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