City council members are ordering New York to make a plan for surviving climate change

New York is trying to protect against huge flooding events like Hurricane Ida, which left this park waterlogged.
New York is trying to protect against huge flooding events like Hurricane Ida, which left this park waterlogged.
Image: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
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New York City has long been a leader among cities when it comes to tackling climate change. Since the mid-2000s, it has issued climate plans with names like PLANYC2030 and ONENYC2050. These have been bold, forward-looking attempts to mitigate the human causes of climate change, but have focused less on ways to protect the city from the immediate effects of extreme climate events.

On Thursday, Oct. 7, the city council voted to hold the mayor’s office—and the entire city government—to a higher standard. The measure, which passed without opposition, requires the city government to come up with a plan to evaluate a variety of “climate hazards,” including extreme weather and heat, and identify strategies to make the city more resilient against them. It then requires this plan to be updated every 10 years.

“This bill is the epitome of overdue,” said council member Justin Brannan, who sponsored the bill. “The climate crisis is here and we can no longer treat it as some abstract future. In passing this bill we promise to take our new reality seriously. Resiliency is a requirement of our most fundamental responsibility in city government: the safety of all New Yorkers.”

It’s the first time the city has written such sweeping climate action into law; most policies have come from the mayor’s office (and thus may be changed with each new administration). Extreme weather is forcing the government’s hand. A summer of intense storms culminated in the death of at least 13 people after the remains of Hurricane Ida drenched the Eastern seaboard causing the city’s first flash flood emergency.

Over the past decade, as the threat of climate change grows, climate adaptation strategies have become a feature of local governance in the US. Climate resilience strategies are set to be the routine business of government, not just the initiative of a single administration.

New York City sets its climate resilience policy in stone

As far back as 2007, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg led the nation by committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions and protect vital city infrastructure from sea-level rise and storms. The city’s wake-up call came in 2012, when storm surges of up to 14-feet during Hurricane Sandy flooded much of the city, knocking out power for nearly a week, and leaving 44 people dead. The city then dedicated billions in federal and local dollars to its climate adaptation program: flood mitigation projects shielding vulnerable parts of the city from flooding and storm surges. Under mayor Bill de Blasio, the city developed a Coastal Resiliency Plan for the East Side and Lower Manhattan that involves extending part of the island into the water, and raising a park to serve as a natural barrier.

But those plans have not always translated into swift action. Progress on the coastal resiliency plan has been slow-moving, hampered at points by infighting between city officials and residents. The New York Times reported that by 2019, the city had used just over half of the $15 billion in federal dollars allocated for recovery in 2012.

New York’s city council is now taking a new tack. It’s assigning the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability with the responsibility to execute the plan regardless of who is in the mayor’s office. City agencies are required to publish a report identifying climate risks including extreme heat, wind, and even wildfire, as well as outlining the city’s response. The plan emphasizes a “non-structural risk reduction approach,” meaning resilience has to be more than just throwing up a wall between the city and the water. This could mean creating and restoring wetlands as natural flood barriers, or increasing housing density in inland areas less prone to coastal flooding. It also requires that resilience plans take special account for the impact on environmental justice areas, places with minority or low-income populations.

“This law goes quite a bit farther than New York City has gone in the past in terms of identifying adaptation and risk reduction measures that the city can take in response to the impacts of climate change,” says Amy Turner, a senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.  “It’s a way of enshrining [these goals] in law and therefore giving it heightened importance and long-term commitment.”

Climate resilience plans are hot in US cities

The leaders of America’s biggest cities increasingly see climate change as an existential threat. Yet a lot of individual policy decisions can get swept up under the heading of a “climate action plan.” Some places are more focused on taking steps to reduce their impact on the climate, while others are more preoccupied with addressing the climate’s impact on their city. For a coastal city like Miami, which faces sea-level rise of one to two inches per year, resilience has been central to climate action plans because it’s been central to the city’s survival. There, steps have been taken to rethink capital investments to account for future sea-level rise, protect the area’s water supply against saltwater intrusion, and improve insurance standards.

As changing climate risks mount, more cities are prioritizing resiliency. Boston, for example, created its “Climate Ready” plan in 2016, which includes efforts to manage coastal flooding and high heat. In 2020, Philadelphia hired its first chief resilience officer, whose role is to take a long-term approach to dealing with natural disasters. In doing so, Philadelphia joins at least 25 other US cities with public officers dedicated to resilience efforts.