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As President Biden toured the sites of calamitous flooding in New York and New Jersey, flanked by every imaginable local elected official, he had plenty to say about climate change. That it is here, that it is awful, and that we must do our part to stop it from worsening. Having seen many parts of our city get soaked by Superstorm Sandy nine years ago, then helplessly watching the remnants of Hurricane Ida drown much of the rest of the five boroughs, we agree.
Yet, even assuming Congress does what is right and smart and passes Biden’s infrastructure plans, embracing cleaner power sources that belch less carbon into the air, developing nations will continue to develop. An energy-hungry, increasingly prosperous populace will demand being kept cool, and warm, and entertained, and traveling from point A to point Z. Climate change can and must be slowed, but there’s no realistic scenario in which, on a growing planet, it can be reversed.
Which is why the top priority of local leaders in a coastal city like New York must be to waste no time in engineering ourselves into a more resilient future. That means speeding the development of massive infrastructure projects like the sea walls that constitute the “The Big U,” designed to hold back the waves when the oceans rise and storms surge.
It means greatly increasing drainage capacity below ground by modernizing our sewers, and above ground investing in hundreds of smaller-scale projects to absorb water.
It means developing more sophisticated projections of the places susceptible to the worst flooding — and either mitigating that risk, or banning development in those areas altogether.
If climate change is here, the challenge for politicians on the ground in New York is to walk and chew gum. The gum-chewing, which might be satisfying but won’t save lives or livelihoods in the near term, is to rail against climate change and try moving the larger needle. The walking, which matters mightily, is assuming climate change will happen and preparing accordingly.