What Sandy Can Teach Us About Adapting to a Changing Climate

Malcolm Burson

We’re still counting the casualties and costs, but one thing is sure: after a second “hundred year” event in the last two years in New England (last year’s Hurricane Irene and this week’s Sandy), we need to pay some sober attention to building our region’s capacity to roll with the climate punches.

“Adaptation,” “adaptability,” “resilience,” “adaptive capacity,” and “vulnerability” are all part of the emerging vocabulary that seeks to describe a basic and simple question: what prudent steps should we be taking to ensure that we can lower the risks and minimize the effects of severe events linked to climate change even as we strive to lessen greenhouse gases? In the wake of this week’s destruction, it’s worth considering how best to engage our communities in the kind of thoughtful planning and action that can prevent or offset the worst effects of events like Irene and Sandy, and then enable us to bounce back.

As noted by my colleague Tricia K .Jedele in Rhode Island on this blog, many coastal communities like Matunuck sustained significant damage to their beaches, seawalls, and jetties. The storm surge temporarily returned Manhattan to being a real island, cut off from the mainland, and stranding millions without power and transportation. The economic cost of replacing damaged public infrastructure and people’s homes will certainly be in the billions of taxpayer, insurance, and private dollars, not to mention the economic damage done when a region is brought to a standstill.

Anticipating and planning for potential problems associated with climate change makes a difference. New York City, for example, has been working for several years already to implement a climate adaptation plan that will make its transportation system less vulnerable to precisely the kind of effects that Sandy brought about this week. Similarly, Groton, CT has engaged in a local effort to calculate how best to use its resources to minimize the local economic impact of sea-level rise and storm surge.

Protecting New England’s fresh and ocean waters has been a CLF program priority since the organization’s beginnings. Hurricane Sandy has caused wide-spread runoff of farmland and urban pollutants into our streams, as well as sewer overflows from inadequate and damaged urban treatment plants and systems. In some places, like Wells, Maine, local decision makers are including climate considerations into the kind of choices all towns face, in this case the replacement of an aging sewage treatment facility that will not function adequately as sea levels rise.

Deciding how repair, rebuilding and replacement take place can either repeat the mistakes that brought us here, like allowing houses to be rebuilt in shoreline flood zones, or make significant progress toward lessening the effects of future storms. For example, the coastal towns of New Hampshire, and five municipalities in southern Maine, are each working together to establish common regulatory standards that will protect lives and property as the shoreline reacts to climate change. Hurricane Irene’s destruction of stream and river banks in Vermont in 2001 resulted in wide-spread damage, but as we noted recently, also demonstrated the importance of preserving and enhancing wetlands as a way to mitigate some of those effects.

George Santayana’s dictum, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” together with Einstein’s definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” should lead us to consider what we can learn from these events, and then act with our elected leaders and communities to build resilience that can prevent or mitigate the effects of a changing climate on New England.

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