Katherine Bagley of Pulitzer Prize-winning web news site InsideClimate News has been closely watching the changing dialogue on climate in New York and around the nation. AdaptNY reporter Matt Surrusco recently spoke with Bagley, co-author of the e-book “Bloomberg’s Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City.” She spoke about what New Yorkers can, and perhaps should expect, from new Mayor Bill de Blasio when it comes to climate policy and the need to adapt to climate risks. She also addressed why she thinks states aren’t collaborating much on resiliency planning, and how the media has changed the way it talks about climate risks. The edited interview, along with select audio quotes, follows.
AdaptNY: What do you see as Bloomberg’s legacy on climate change?
Katherine Bagley: He was one of the only mayors in the country to make climate a key part of his agenda. There were other cities creating sustainability plans, like San Francisco, Chicago and LA, but none reached the same scale as New York’s PlaNYC report. That was a complete transformation, which not only looked at how to make the city greener, but how to reduce contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and protect residents. Bloomberg’s administration also pulled on the scientific community in New York and asked regional scientists to come up with climate projections that were specific to the city.
AdaptNY: What changes in climate policy can we expect from Mayor de Blasio?
KB: We haven’t seen anything so far, which is disappointing. When he was running for mayor, he said very clearly that he supported what the Bloomberg administration had done in terms of resiliency. But he’s been in office for three months now and he hasn’t really addressed it. Everyone from environmentalists to scientists to those who were involved in the previous administration are sitting there and wondering what will happen. There might be an announcement on Earth Day, but so far it’s been very quiet.
AdaptNY: Is there worry that some of the importance placed on resiliency by Bloomberg may be lost in the new mayoral administration?
KB: There’s always a transition period. I don’t necessarily think that de Blasio’s first three months is a good indication of what he’s going to do for the rest of his time in office, in terms of climate change. There are other issues that have come to the forefront, like the equality issue across the city. That was a big part of his campaign so that’s taking priority in his first few months.
AdaptNY: One of the issues raised at a AdaptNY climate panel last month was how climate risks disproportionately affect lower income communities. Do you see potential there for de Blasio to use his emphasis on the inequality issue to address climate change?
KB: I do. It’s a good way for him to get into this issue. I could see him using that avenue to take what Mayor Bloomberg has done and make it his own. Bloomberg’s last major climate report described these waterfront luxury communities that would be built to withstand stronger coastal storms, storm surges and higher sea levels. But de Blasio could easily take those plans and shift them slightly so instead of luxury communities they could be new, resilient public housing. De Blasio could make big adaptation changes and implement new construction and zoning laws.
AdaptNY: How much political pressure do you expect New York voters and interest groups will need to put on de Blasio to have him tackle this issue?
KB: The pressure is not going to come from voters. Climate change and environmental issues in general are so low on voters’ priority lists that the pressure won’t come from them unless another major storm like Sandy hits.
After Sandy hit New York, we saw a real awakening of New Yorkers realizing how vulnerable the city was and there was a little bit of push, but that’s died down drastically as the day-to-day challenges of living in New York have come to the forefront.
Most of the pressure that de Blasio will face will come from interest groups, like environmental groups.
AdaptNY: As a reporter, how do you make the public care about a topic that will likely have an impact on them, sooner or later? Do you make it more about personal impact or pocketbook issues?
KB: The money issue can be hard for Americans to grasp because you’re often talking about millions or billions of dollars. But if you have a coastal community, for example, in the Chesapeake Bay, you can show readers maps of where sea level rise is going to submerge neighborhoods in water in 30 to 50 years, based on certain estimates. Showing them how their family and property will be impacted is powerful. You’re also seeing a shift, not just in how the media covers climate change, but how scientists and policymakers approach it. They used to say, “This is what could happen by 2100.” Now they say, “This is what could happen in five, 10 or 20 years.”
AdaptNY: What are the major climate risks facing New York City, now and in the next decades, that most concern you?
KB: New York has already averaged 1.2 inches of sea level rise per decade in the last half century. Even if that sea level rise doesn’t mean that a neighborhood will be constantly flooded, it means that a much smaller storm than Sandy could cause as much damage as Sandy because it’s starting at a higher level.
You don’t need the same amount of storm surge to cause the same amount of damage. That’s really alarming and that’s something that not a lot of people grasp. But by mid-century, they’re also talking about a quarter of New York being in the flood plain.
The city in general was built where it is because of its amazing access to the water, but in the end that’s what makes it such a hot spot for climate change vulnerability.
AdaptNY: Since Superstorm Sandy, how well have neighboring states worked together to develop comprehensive resiliency plans?
KB: You have some interstate collaboration, but generally it’s been nonexistent. New York State and New Jersey are two communities that can literally see each other across a river, and yet have very different political systems, led by people with very different climate change beliefs. New York has really attempted to tackle climate change while New Jersey’s Governor Christie still won’t quite say whether or not he believes in climate change. When you look at all of New Jersey’s Sandy recovery efforts, there is almost no mention of rebuilding with climate change in mind.
AdaptNY: What type of comprehensive mitigation and resiliency plans do you think would benefit New York City and New Jersey?
KB: In terms of mitigation, there doesn’t need to be much collaboration. Both parties need to cut their emissions, but that’s definitely a state-to-state thing. The big thing is the adaptation issue because you’re talking about these big infrastructure projects. The biggest one is going to be a coastal defense system, because if you build this massive defense system around New York — and we’re not just talking about sea walls, but also soft protections, things like rebuilding the original wetlands that were in the area – the water, yes it gets stopped from going into New York, but the water has got to go somewhere. You’re talking about a huge multi-state network. It’s challenging.
If a storm does hit and, for example, New York has a protection system and New Jersey doesn’t, I think the political backlash and the devastation that’s going to be caused, it’s going to get ugly.
AdaptNY: Where do opportunities exist for policymakers, climate scientists and at-risk coastal communities to find common ground on solutions?
KB: You could look at the transportation system. The whole tri-state region, you have commuters going all across, and you’re not just talking about rail systems, but subways and roads and boat systems, ferries. This is one of those systems that is already a multi-state collaboration. When you have these multi-state collaborations already in place I think it’s a good opportunity for this kind of climate work to get done because you already have partnerships established. You already have people who are experts in evaluating a system on a larger-scale and thinking about how to balance all the different politics in each one of the communities.
AdaptNY: In your book “Bloomberg’s Hidden Legacy,” how did you balance telling the human stories of people who lost their homes to Sandy, and people working to address climate risks, like city officials and planners?
KB: We knew it was important to tell both sides, but we definitely leaned more heavily on the people working behind the scenes because part of the problem is their stories aren’t told. You have other communities that are wondering, “Well, even if we wanted to do something about climate change, we don’t even know how to start. We don’t know the type of people that we need or the type of commitment that we’re looking at.” That was one of the major drivers behind us writing the book.
AdaptNY: What’s surprised you most when reporting on climate change?
KB: Watching the transition of the American conversation about climate change in the last few years. When I started covering this topic [in 2008] people seemed much more split about the issue, including the media. They were still very much in the mode of giving both sides equal time, and that’s changed. If you have a story about climate change, the scientific consensus is more widely accepted. Now that you’re seeing the media talk about the issue more, and people are seeing the actual effects of climate change, you’re starting to see Americans have these conversations more often.
Editor’s Note: After speaking with Katherine Bagley last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Saturday the city would reallocate $100 million in funds to assist residents affected by Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times reported.