Water and Climate Change Essay

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In the Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that evidence on global warming is undisputable and that it was beginning to impact natural systems. It further noted that cities with increasingly growing populations and energy demands, are both increasingly vulnerable victims as well as culprits of climate change (IPCC, 2007; Bulkeley, 2013). As a result of changing climatic conditions, the IPCC identified North American cities to expect more, longer and higher intensity urban heatwaves, and increasing threats to coastal communities and habitats (IPCC, 2014 c). Yet, urban vulnerabilities differ with differing physical environments. Among urban areas, urban coastal area communities are those which are under most threat. According to Leverman et al., as a result of Climate Change, global sea levels are projected to rise at 2.3 m per 1°C increase in temperature over the next 2000 years (Leverman et al., 2013). However, with warming now predicted to increase over 2°C, a SLR of 1.2m within this century is predicted (IPCC, 2014)

With 80.7% of the American population residing in urban areas, 39% living directly on coastlines and a pattern of an increasing urbanising coasts, American coastal cities are facing multidimensional vulnerabilities and risks (Census, 2010; IPCC, 2014). This essay looks at the impacts of climate change in urban, coastal America with a focus on New York city and the - current and potential-adaptation measures to respond to climate change. It aims to establish the co-benefits of climate impact analysis, adaptation, action on sustainable development and long-term environment and social sustainability.

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The first section of the essay looks at the current and predicted impacts of climate change in at-risk coastal city of New York. New York is currently found vulnerable to a multiplicity of climate related issues which include- sea level rise (SLR) and related flooding, Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect and predicted increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes. We analyse the impacts and vulnerabilities of these climate change induced issues.

In the second section, the essay reviews the current and future institutional plans and policies of adaptation in such coastal urban hubs. This is done by analysing New York government’s programmes - ‘Adapt NY’, ‘PlaNYC’, NCHII; and their hurricane disaster risk reduction policies. In the third section, the essay discusses the vulnerabilities of these adaptation programmes by assessing their unequal implementation and access, along with impacts that have led to gentrification and increased sectional disparities.

Further, it looks at the need to mainstream inclusive adaptation to mitigate climate change induced vulnerabilities. The essay concludes by establishing the climate change induced risks coastal cities face- in particular New York- and need for comprehensive climate change impact analysis. It argues the existence of a need for mainstreaming multilevel adaptation framework and the importance of inclusive stakeholder analysis.

Cities are often blamed to be the main culprits of climate change. Being hubs of large populations, industry, transport, etc, cities have very high energy use and as a result GHG emissions. According to the IPCC and International Energy Agency, urban centres produce for over 70% of GHG emissions globally (IPCC, 2007; IEA, 2009). These have led to creation of climate change risks including- increasing temperatures and UHI effect, altered precipitation patterns, augmented air and water pollution in cities, etc. Among other cities, New York City is said to have the world’s highest GHG emissions at 10.5tCO2/capita for its 8.62 million population (Census, 2010; The World Bank, 2010; UNHabitat, 2011). However, it is essential to note that cities like NYC are not just responsible for, but also impacted by climate change. Urban vulnerabilities vary with varying geography. On an urban-coastal scale, Hunt and Watkiss regard Sea Level Rise, GHG emissions and UHI; extreme events: and water availability and quality as impacts of climate change significant (Hunt and Watkiss, 2011, p. 15).

Most of the present-day mega cities developed near rivers and oceans for the purpose of connectivity and easy transportation. However, this historical geographic advantage is exacerbating the vulnerability of these urban hubs to sea level rise, flooding, storm surges and hurricanes in present day (The World Bank, 2010). This holds true for the case New York as well. New York City lies in what is considered a ‘low elevation coastal zone’ – i.e. an area with a sea level of 0m to 20m. New York city has a coastal position on the Atlantic Sea and is built around a network of River Hudson, estuaries and islands. Most of the city’s stands between 5 to 16m-above sea level at present, making it increasingly susceptible to inland and coastal flooding with increasing sea level (The World Bank, 2010; Bulkeley, 2013).

Fig. 1 is a representation of the predicted flooding- based on National Elevation Dataset (NAVD8)- and at-risk population in all five boroughs. Based on current population and rate of SLR, around 200,000 New Yorker’s lives and even more livelihoods are threatened only by coastal and inland flooding (Wellington and Seibert, 2016). From this data set it can be noted that southern Brooklyn and Queens, Staten Island and the north-eastern extremities of Bronx are the most susceptible to the increasing sea level elevation. The increased urbanisation and the resultant increase in impervious surfaces in these areas also make for more floods.[image: ]

Sea level rise has both direct and indirect, economic and non-economic impacts. Strom surges and flooding due to SLR pose as the greatest threats to urban coastal cities. Physical infrastructures, their specialised nature (e.g. underground transport networks) and limited capacities (e.g. urban drainage systems), along with high density population of developed urban areas increases vulnerability potential to sea level rise related inland and coastal flooding (Hallegatte, Henriet and Corfee-Morlot, 2011; Hunt and Watkiss, 2011). According to Talke et al. out of the 25.4mm of SLR since 1900 around NYC, 40% is driven by subsidence, rest by global climatic changes, and the city has recorded 3 of the 9 highest water levels since 2010.

As stated by NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection, densely built and paved areas, reclaimed wetlands and sealed surfaces cover 72% of the city. Much of the drainage system too is old and not adapted to the ever-increasing population (Dahal, Depietri and McPhearson, 2018). These factors lead to a decreased drainage or ground absorption capacity, raising risks of inland flooding and worsening the effects of coastal flooding. In 2012, a large part of New York’s underground communication and internet cable network as well as parts of the subway submerged and were left inundated after storm surge flooding by Hurricane Sandy.

It must be noted that such phenomenon effect, not just the physical infrastructure, but also lives and livelihoods of residents and users (Maantay and Maroko, 2009). Flooding combined with sewer back-ups and runoffs expose the public to contaminated water raising health risks and are also sources of environmental pollution. A parallel can be drawn between the effects of such short-term storm surges versus long term SLR related coastal and inland flooding.

While increasing global temperatures are leading to newer kinds of climate risks, they are also exacerbating the severity, impact and frequency of atmospheric, hydro-meteorological hazards. Hurricanes, periodic high wind-rain-and-storm surge, droughts, flooding and other hazards are common occurrence on the American east coast (Emrich and Cutter, 2011). Northeast America has a geographical predisposition to hurricanes which form in tropical and subtropical latitudes of the Atlantic basin east of continental US, and move northwest, striking mainland around twice a year. The warmth from the Gulf Stream along with the east-west flow of the trade winds maintain the hurricanes and determine its severity. The ratio of scale and magnitude of such events outnumbers similar events in all other areas by 4:1 (Emrich and Cutter, 2011).

However, located on the East coast, New York has not always been viewed as a hazard-prone area. Nor’easters are the most frequent coastal storms that effect NYC, while hurricanes effect New York infrequently. According to Depietri and McPhearson’s study on climatic hazards in NYC, flooding and extreme weather have historically affected the city historically but are seeing an increasing trend in terms of average hazards per decade as well as in impact, especially since the 2000’s (Dahal, Depietri and McPhearson, 2018). A study by Aerts et al. predicts that NYC could see substantial storm-related flooding every-five years on average by 2030-45. Further they note that the impacts of these events is ever-more due to ‘increasing concentration of people and assets in this exposed area (Aerts aand Botzen, 2012 as cited in Dahal, Depietri and McPhearson, 2018, p. 3369).

While hurricanes are an infrequent phenomenon, SLR and increasing intensity of the hurricanes themselves have exacerbated the risks of such event. Between the years 1850-2015, New York has faced seven major category 3 hurricanes. The worst of these is considered Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Sandy arrived as a subtropical cyclone with sustained winds at 70kt and caused extensive damage across New Jersey and New York City. The damage from wind, rain and heavy snow extended as Sandy merged with a developing Nor’easter. It is said to have caused 19 billion USD worth of damages, it interrupted critical water and electrical services – for many weeks in some areas- and caused 159 deaths (72 direct, 87 indirect). (BBC News, 2012; Dahal, Depietri and McPhearson, 2018). The occurrence of such events with such consequences is expected to worsen (Gornitz, Couch and Hartig, 2002).

NPCC’s 2013 PlaNYC report, based on data from the National Climatic Data Centre, predicts an increase of 1-1.7% in annual chance of 100-year flood by 2020 and 1.5-5% by 2050, as well as flood heights increasing up to 15.8 feet by 2020 and 17.6 feet by 2050. They also estimate an increase of heatwave duration from 18 days to 24-33 days by 2020 and up to 57 days by 2050 estimate and a decadal increased occurrence of category 3 hurricanes to an average of 3. (NPCC, 2013).

According to According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 report, there has been an average increase of 4.4°F between 1900-2011 and a further 1.5-3 °F increase in temperature in the 2020’s and 3-6.5°F increase by the 2050’s is predicted (NPCC, 2013). However, there is a spatial variation in this temperature increase even within New York resulting from an Urban Heat Island[footnoteRef:1] (UHI) effect. The annual mean air temperature of a city with 1 million people or more can be 1.8–5.4°F warmer than its surroundings (US EPA, 2019). [1: UHI refers to the ‘warming of urban/metropolitan built-up areas compared to nearby rural areas.]

Heat islands lead to an increase in energy demand, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, heat-related health issues, and water availability. Changes in local environment in urban areas along with variability in building and vegetation concentration affect the microclimates and lead to such occurrences. Fig 2 is a thermal map that displays the variation in temperature between densely built environments and less dense, with higher vegetation neighbourhoods, and the subsequent disparate levels in risk (City of New York, 2017). This micr- climate temperature variation due to increased albedo effect further results in elevated emissions of air pollutants and GHG’s. Moreover, it also results in increased rate of ground-level, or ‘bad’, ozone formation that has negative effects on human and animal health (US EPA, 2019). It can be noted that North western and southern Queens and Bronx witness the maximum impact of UHI and albedo effects.

Being vulnerable to multi-dimensional climate risks and hazards, New York City as a global leader in city-led climate adaptation initiatives. Adaptation efforts have developed as a response to extreme events and built on existing knowledge from research by non-governmental and government organisations, scientists, environmental agencies, etc. A scientific awareness about an alarming increase in global temperatures and sea levels along with Rosenzweig and Solecki’s 2001 report titled Climate Change and a Global City: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change among others lay the foundations for a need to investigate and research on climate change impacts and adaptations in NYC (Rosenzweig et al., 2011).

Climate action efforts can be traced back to 2004, with the setting up of the Climate Change Task Force by the NYC Department of Environment Protection. Its mission was to ensure integration of GHG emissions management and, more importantly, assessing impacts of climate change on the city’s water supply and waste-water management systems. This was followed by Mayor Bloomberg setting up the Office for Long-Term Planning and Sustainability in 2006. Further, NYC saw the development of PlaNYC, a strategic plan to prepare the city in combatting climate change, and setting up of NPCC, New York City Panel on Climate Change, in 2007 and 2008 respectively (Rosenzweig and Solecki, 2010).

Under PLaNYC- the city authorities set up a goal of reducing their GHG emission by 30% from 2005 level till 2030 (NPCC, 2013). This was amongst the first actual long-term action plans in the city’s adaptation actions and policies. The need to work on both adaptation and mitigation was recognised under this plan (Rosenzweig and Solecki, 2010). Further, a need to develop coordinated adaptation strategies to address climate change risks and opportunities, especially with risks to critical infrastructure[footnoteRef:2], was highlighted by this programme’s Task Force. Another important concept in NYC’s adaptation planning called ‘Flexible Adaptation Pathways’ was established by the NPCC. It was based on the principle need for adaptation to be a constantly improving cycle of analysis, action, evaluation and refinement- one which improves with variabilities and impacts of climate change. (NPCC, 2013). [2: Critical infrastructure is defined as “systems and assets (excluding residential and commercial buildings, which are addressed by other efforts) that support activities that are vital to the city and for which the diminished functioning or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on public safety and/or economic security”. (NPCC CRI, 2009 as cited in Rosenzweig et al., 2011, p. 2)]

According to Boero et al., “vulnerability to climate change is the outcome of a complex interaction between climatic and socio-economic dynamics.” (Boero, Bianchini and Pasqualini, 2015, p. 1). These vulnerabilities exist not just with reference to impacts of climate change, but also in cases of adaptations. Questions on vulnerability with regard to equity and justice in adaptation are growing.

At present 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Most megacities have, historically due to geographical advantages, developed near rivers or on coasts. An increase in urbanisation with simultaneous in migration to these cities and the expansion of cities has led to increase built-tp environments, concentration of industries, transport networks, etc which increase human and infrastructural potential to risk.

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