02 November 2012

Mayor Bloomberg's Deft Climate Politics

Whatever the motivations behind Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to cite Sandy and climate change as a reason for his endorsement of President Obama, it has the effect of relocating responsibility for Sandy's devastation from NYC City Hall to Washington, DC.

As New Yorkers (and others) affected by Sandy's wrath pick themselves back up and recover, attention will soon focus on the broader reasons for the disaster. While some will continue to link Sandy with energy policy decisions, important questions will have to be asked about why NYC was not better prepared, and what can be done in the months and years ahead to fix that, before the next storm barrels up the coast.

To that end, a few excerpts from the New York City Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan (April, 2009, here in PDF) will indicate that absolutely nothing about Sandy and its impacts should have been a surprise to anyone. It would be fair to ask NY politicians why the city was not better prepared for a disaster that it saw coming.

The report is clear on the general characteristics that make the region susceptible to large storm surges:
Coastal storms, including nor'easters, tropical storms, and hurricanes, can and do affect New York City. New York’s densely populated and highly developed coastline makes the City among the most vulnerable to hurricane-related damage. . .

New York City is particularly vulnerable to storm surge because of a geographic characteristic called the New York Bight. A bight is a curve in the shoreline of an open coast that funnels and increases the speed and intensity of storm surge. The New York Bight is located at the point where New York and New Jersey meet, creating a right angle in the coastline.
The figure immediately above comes from the report and shows that New York is no stranger to hurricanes. The report notes:
According to hurricane probability models, there is a 2.6% chance a hurricane will impact the New York City area (New York City, Westchester, and Long Island) during any given hurricane season. During a 50-year period there is a 13.6% chance a hurricane will impact the New York City area and a 3.3% chance an intense hurricane (Category 3 or higher) will affect the City.
These numbers suggest that NYC had every reason to believe that it would be just a matter of time before a storm of Sandy's magnitude (with a surge equivalent to a Category 2 strength storm) hit the city (and indeed there are numerous experts who said as much). According to the report, a Category 3 strength storm could bring 25 feet or more to NYC -- Sandy plus 10 ft. -- and according to the report such a storm has 3.3% chance of striking over 50 years.

Mayor Bloomberg said in his endorsement of President Obama:
Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.
Deft politics. Note how responsibility for Sandy is subtlety shifted away.

Yet, Mayor Bloomberg is also an elected leader. What is he going to do about the fact that his city was less prepared than it should have been for a disaster that was expected and one of a sort will certainly recur, climate change or not?

If the media devotes 10% of the energy to this topic that it is devoting to the climate change connection, New Yorkers will be well served.


  1. Smart column. I like the alternative perspective on things.

  2. Confusing numbers. I wonder what the underlying model is

    The say
    According to hurricane probability models, there is a 2.6% chance a hurricane will impact the New York City area (New York City, Westchester, and Long Island) during any given hurricane season. During a 50-year period there is a 13.6% chance a hurricane will impact the New York City area

  3. Opps. Posted before finishing writing

    The numbers above seem funny.

    According to hurricane probability models, there is a 2.6% chance a hurricane will impact the New York City area (New York City, Westchester, and Long Island) during any given hurricane season. During a 50-year period there is a 13.6% chance a hurricane will impact the New York City area

    (1-0.026)^50 = 0.26.
    That's the probability of hurricanes missing 50 years in a row assuming that hurricane hits are independent from year to year. That means the chances of a hit are about 75%.

    How do they get 13.6?

    13.6% is about right for 5 years---I get 12.3% using the above independent trials from year to year


  4. -3-Chuck

    I agree, certainly confusing. However, for this post the exact details matter less than the fact that such storms are and will continue to be expected at a pretty high probability.

    I think that the number here are closer to the 75% (or higher, just looking at the color figure in this post) that you calculate rather than the 13.6%.


  5. Mr. Bloomberg's politics are poorly timed. Climate change leadership may play well in New York, but it doesn't in the battleground states like Ohio. Mr. Bloomberg has flushed out the Democratic party's energy policy stance to a state that's likely to see a lot of costs rise if those policies are implemented. Remember, while is was raining in blowing on the mid-Atlantic coast, the same storm was causing snow in parts of Ohio in October.

  6. Roger -

    Has it occurred to you that perhaps Bloomberg's statement actually reflects his views accurately on the issue. He said that any one event cannot be attributed to climate change but that Sandy should serve as a wakeup call.

    Sure, this might have been anticipated - but as you know people don't always assess risk logically. This storm was of historic proportions. The failure to build sufficient infrastructure is certainly not only Bloomberg's responsibility, but that of many other public officials - including federal officials, and a long line of officials who preceded him. It doesn't help that there are folks out there who have continued to lobby that there is no reason to expect global warming to increase the likelihood of this king of event, or to increase the likelihood on any timescale that will affect any of use directly. It doesn't help that there are many folks out there who constantly decry warnings about these kinds of events as being "alarmist." It doesn't help that people advocate for adaptation but diminish the very real political and logistical obstacles in the way of effective adaptation.

    Maybe you're right about Bloomberg - certainly I'm not one to particularly trust the transparency of what politician says. But the confidence expressed in your post about your interpretation of someone else's motives seems strikingly unskeptical for a scientists, IMO.

  7. I agree with Sean that Bloomberg's endorsement won't help Obama. I was wondering if was secretly endorsing Romney using reverse psychology. Alas, I'll take him at his word.

  8. Pielke, it seems you're misleading your readers.

    (1) NYC's Climate Task Force convened in 2008, 4 years ago. What, specifically, should have Bloomberg done in those years? (agreed, many researchers made recommendations earlier than 2008 [e.g. Cynthia Rosenzweig], but the city acted on that science in 2008, so again, what should it have done differently specifically? By whom? And who pays?).

    (2) The report you cited was published in 2009. Again, what should have city officials have done in three years? Consider #s 4 and 5) below.

    (3) Why ignore the hundreds of other east coastal cities that have *yet to plan at all*? (indeed North Carolina barred city officials from using climate science for 3 years. So, again, in light of everything NYC has done, why ignore cities that have done nothing or even regressed? Why?!).

    (4) Why do you completely ignore - not even a hint - what NYC has done to adapt within the past few years? To help you along, millions were set aside for adaptation projects: developers must include climate risk in their land permits(!); update to building codes and standards; training and educating the entire NYCDEP on climate science and project screening; massive land acquisitions to protect watershed and the water supply based on climate impact scenarios; CSO drain upgrades based on projected SLR; relocation/elevation of key electrical equipment based on new flood projections; new pumps, again based on climate projections; NY state MANDATES insurers to disclose climate risks; agreement to upgrade protection of fiber optic wireless communications networks with wireless cos (both as a climate impact and security issue, so the FCC and Military are assisting with the upgrades, which include climate projections); federal grant on climate change security risk reduction(!); renegotiating contracts with flood insurers and engineers; and low hanging fruit: 16% reduction in emissions; planting of 1 million(!) trees; hundreds of miles of bike lanes; etc...

    (5)You conveniently "forgot" to mention the plethora of NY City and state supported groups that have bubbled up since Bloomberg took office. Dozens are analyzing and changing policy to adjust for climate change impacts: Hudson-Raritan Estuary program; ClimAID; NY State Climate Action Council; NY State Sea Level Rise Task Force; Michael Gerrard's astonishing Center for Climate and Law; Columbia's Earth Institute, which works with NOAA and NASA to create world respected climate models; State DEC's climate actions http://www.dec.ny.gov/regulations/65034.html ; and at least a half-dozen other state-spurned programs.

    (6) I'm going to stop short of accusing you of deliberately lying to your readers - perhaps you really are ignorant of these actions. But, no researcher of your caliber could possibly be this ignorant of NYC's climate actions - they're models for cities around the world.

    So, please (sans ad hominem), explain why you chose to ignore these.

    Thank you,

    Michael Cote

    * Some google searches to help readers: 'nyc climate adaptation filetype:pdf' and also 'ny state climate change policy'
    ** Disclosure, I gave a climate adaptation conf talk with NYCDEP's Gary Heath in 2010.

  9. Roger,

    Thanks for including a link to NY's 2009 Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan. I wasn't aware that Topical Storm Floyd (1999) "flooded subway tunnels across the city causing service disruptions".

    I concur that it would be a good idea to update the plan to take into account multivalent risks for planning purposes. For example a Topical storm surge of 10 feet combined with a full moon high tide (3 to 5 feet surge) makes a Tropical storm look like a CAT 3 hurricane. I wonder what preventative measures are in the action plan for a CAT 3 storm ? I assume sandbagging the entrances to the low laying subway entrances, tunnels etc. are the recommended actions. Living in the mountains I personally don't worry about the additive effects of different determinates of flood risks.

  10. It doesn't help that there are folks out there who have continued to lobby that there is no reason to expect global warming to increase the likelihood of this king of event,

    Oh, I see. Instead of pushing responsibility onto Obama – who at least has some actual powers – the fault is those evil denialists – who have almost no sway at any level.

    I was wondering how anyone could be so idiotic, and then I read who wrote it. Glad to see that you don't ever let us down Joshua with your ability to take a real matter – New York's lack of preparedness – and blame it on a group with no responsibility for that at all.

  11. -8-mike

    Thanks much for your comments.

    It may indeed be the case that NYC was as well prepared as possible. A formal assessment would sure help determine that, has one been empaneled?

    A sizable number of concerns raised that NYC was not as prepared as it might have/ought to have been, for instance:

    Did Mayor Bloomberg accurately convey warnings before the storm? Maybe not:

    "Although we're expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge. With this storm, we'll likely see a slow pileup of water rather than a sudden surge, which is what you would expect with a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago," he said during the briefing. "So it will be less dangerous - but make no mistake about it, there will be a lot of water and low-lying areas will experience flooding."

    See this critique:

    Obviously, Bloomberg;s statements were proved wrong. The surge was at record levels.

    Was the massive power outage preventable?

    Should hospitals have been more prepared?

    Should Wall Street have been more prepared? Maybe:

    Should more have been done on city infrastructure?

    These questions, and others like them, are appropriately asked primarily at the local and state level -- and have nothing to do with climate change.

    If Mayor Bloomberg is addressing these issues post-Sandy, please do point me to them ...


  12. Mike-

    For many disasters we will never know if they were caused by climate at all. So, to me, the correct preparation efforts are not specifically "climate change" efforts and hence that is not the correct timeframe.

    Hurricanes have come to that area since humans have been around. How prepared are they? It's that simple. Really.

    Sometimes it seems like people who are hired to deal with climate change think that other professions like agriculture and disaster preparation need to be fundamentally redone (with the help of climate scientists). But really, it's just another thing in a long list of things we have to consider.

  13. Mark - I didn't say anything about evil denialists. Never have.

    It is simply a fact that appropriate adaptation is complicated by myriad political, economic, and logistical obstacles. Attributing a lack of adaptation more or less simply as failure of Bloomberg is facile. Please read mike's post above.

    One of the difficulties that connects the political and logistical difficulties is certainly a political constituency that would: (1) object on ideological grounds to a "statist" approach entailing government spending on infrastructure and (2) argue that it is alarmist to spend the amount of money required to prepare for storms of historic proportions. It is unrealistic to think that lobbying for such efforts would take place w/o concerns about connections to climate change - whether you feel that those concerns about those connections is scientifically valid.

    These are simply realities. It is not as if we haven't both seen many examples of the phenomena I just described.

  14. The vulnerability of New York to a high tide-direct hit hurricane was clearly stated back in the early 1990s before the issue was connected to climate change. See, for example, the 1995 report from the US Corps of Engineers.

  15. From "Hurricane Hazzards Along the Northeast Coast of the United States", Nicholas Coch, Journal of Coastal Research, 1994:

    "This article describes the potential damage from the next great northeastern hurricane by considering archive accounts of the regional devastation caused by the 1821 New York City, the 1815 New England, and the 1938 Long Island—New England hurricanes in light of detailed field studies carried out at the sites of Hurricane Hugo (1989) in South Carolina and Hurricane Andrew (1992) in South Florida. A major hurricane striking the northeastern United States has potential for catastrophic damage, unless remedial measures are taken now. These measures include promoting natural beach and dune growth, examining existing building and zoning policies, developing adequate evacuation and sheltering procedures and increasing hurricane awareness in a region that has not experienced a major storm in over 55 years."


  16. I just caught a bit of public radio's On Point talk show. The guest sounded like a journalist. He certainly didn't sound like a climate change activist - just a guy. He said, to paraphrase "I don't want to talk about climate change, but... you know, these 100 year storms are happening more often now, and if we're going to get them every other year now..."

    No doubt this gentleman considers himself an informed, intelligent person. This is what climate change activism has done to a significant portion of our population. Hundred year storms every other year. Now. Apparently, this early middle aged man has forgotten every other storm that has affected the country during his life. Sandy was 'unprecedented.'

  17. Mark B.- Maybe there's an age thing going on..I am an early senior, and was taught by people who had experienced the hurricane of '38 and learned how to read its marks still on the landscape in the 70's, 40 years later. We have two forces- perhaps elders do not tell the stories, or are drowned out by the deluge of internet (questionable) information, and many never learned to read the landscape.

  18. Listening to reports from Staten Island, it appears that the people there feel abandoned by both Bloomberg and FEMA. They're still finding bodies (and it's been nearly a week).

  19. Bloomberg's endorsement may have been deft politics, but pinning it on Obama's purported ability to handle "climate change" strikes me as being considerably more daft than deft.

  20. Thanks to Tom K, error fixed above (3.3% chance was over 50 years).

    Eagle eyes always appreciated.

  21. It seems obvious that the sea-level rise and the size of the storm are related to the energy humans are adding to the system by burning fuel and releasing millions of tons of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases into the atmosphere. That’s highschool science and as obvious as plate tectonics. Remember when that was a controversy? Or that seat belts in cars, or helmets for bikes save lives? Asking if climate change has something to do with Sandy is like asking if smoking has something to do with lung cancer. Remember when people could say with a straight face that it didn’t?

    Having said that, there is a very large story that isn't being reported which has litte to do with climate change although it derives from the same processes.

    What is being ignored in this storm (and Irene as well) is the real source of the massive power outages that are so disruptive - which is all the trees that are falling on the lines. Trees didn't used to fall with regularity on power lines - or people, cars and houses. The winds in both those storms were not extraordinary, nothing that a healthy tree shouldn't be able to withstand. Why are they falling now?

    The answer is pretty obvious if you trouble to actually LOOK at them. They are all dying. Every species, every age, every location. They have obvious symptoms - broken branches, cankers, splitting bark, holes, thin crowns, early leaf drop, lack of autumn color, yellowing needles, bark covered with lichens and fungus. You can't find a healthy tree anymore.

    So the question becomes, why are they dying? Most foresters and scientists will say, climate change and/or invasive pests. But those explanations don't fit the empirical evidence which is that even native pests and diseases have run amuck, and even young trees grown and watered and fertilized in nurseries exhibit the identical symptoms of decline. Even annual, tropical ornamentals in enriched soil in pots that like heat, and aquatic plants in ponds have injured foliage and stunted growth. So what do all of these plants have in common?

    The answer is, the composition of the atmosphere. Most people don't realize it, because it's invisible, but the background level of tropospheric ozone is inexorably increasing. Precursors from Asia travel across oceans and continents, and the persistent concentration has reached a threshold that is intolerable to the plants that absorb it when they photosynthesize. Agricultural yield and quality are reduced, and especially trees that are exposed to cumulative damage season after season are universally - around the world - in decline.

    This process has been well known to foresters and agronomists for decades, and demonstrated in field observations and controlled fumigation experiments. They just don't want to publicize it, or even admit it, because the source is the emissions from industrial civilization itself. They would rather point to drought, insects, fungus and disease EVEN THOUGH it is well known that ozone debilitates plants causing their root systems to shrink as they allocate more energy to repairing damaged foliage, rendering them more vulnerable to drought and wind...AND impinges on their natural immunity to attacks from insects, disease and fungus, which exist precisely to break down dying trees, not destroy healthy trees.

    Most of the trees that fell during Sandy were rotted inside. Photos here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com

  22. Joshua

    It is unrealistic to think that lobbying for such efforts would take place w/o concerns about connections to climate change - whether you feel that those concerns about those connections is scientifically valid.

    It is only unrealistic to think that way if, like you, everything focuses on climate change.

    The rate of hurricane fall in the US, and recent losses, suggests that preparedness should be salable without any need to resort to future trends. Past rates are good enough on their own.

    The only reason to bring climate change into it is in order to politicise it. It's the equivalent of the evangelists telling us that it's God's punishment – it adds nothing useful and antagonises a lot of people.

    The real problem is that the US is too fractured politically and socially to have a functioning civil defence system worth the name. The rest of the rich world can only look on in wonder as you persist in thinking yet another aircraft carrier or foreign adventure is more important than protecting your major cities.

    No amount of bleating about climate change will affect that at all.

  23. Long before Katrina, we who live in hurricane country knew how to prepare for storms. Keep lots of water and food on hand. Food that doesn't need energy, electric or gas, to be cooked. We know to prepare ahead. Communities, local and state governments should have water and ice stockpiled to be used at those times. Why did anyone, and in particular FEMA, not have at least water ready to distribute. It doesn't take a study to tell you these will be needed.
    For all of you who are arguing climate change or not, these are the important questions to ask. Then next time be prepared, STARTING NOW.

  24. It seems human nature never changes. The Salem Witch Trials were over "bad weather" that caused crop failures. Humans have tried for thousands of years to "placate the Gods" when bad things happened, because of something humans supposedly did. Most often, like today with climate change, it is just some people manipulating others to gain political power and control.

  25. As far as hurricane (natural disaster) preparedness is concerned, two words: Goldman Sachs.

    Tidal surge, two more words: The Netherlands

    Being prepared allows you to help others.


  26. You got one thing wrong here. Bloomberg is an elected figure, but he is NOT up for reelection. Not unless he stages a second coup d'etat and circumvents term limits again, for himself.

    This question of human geography and Nature has been around for a long time. It was debated by Voltaire and Rousseau, and I think that Rousseau, for once, got it right:

    "Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature who assembled there twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all...
    You would have liked—and who would not have liked—the earthquake to have happened in the middle of some desert, rather than in Lisbon. Can we doubt that they also happen in deserts? But no one talks about those, because they have no ill effects for city gentlemen (the only men about whom anyone cares anything about."

  27. As an engineer I have seen tide surge data published by the Corps of Engineers for a long, long time. I believe that the design elevation for NY surges in the 100 year event category are pretty near what they say they are now.

    The public needs to decide to what level we protect things, individual houses have one standard, critical projects need a higher standard. The building codes right now do snow at a 50 year event, rainfall at 50 year events, wind 100 year, and seismic 500 years. Note that often a 100 year event is usually not much more than a 50 year event.

    Whether or not we follow climate change, we do need to build or retrofit our infrastructure to handle events appropriately. Right now NY has had 5 events in 20 years that have caused flooding in the subways, hence they are inadequate.

    NY has 2 major water aqueducts to supply water with a 3rd under construction or possibly finished. A failure of 1 of the 2 would have had years long implications, but it took decades to get the 3rd going. But we tend to choose granite lobbies in the subway terminals instead of back up power for the pumps.

  28. to those who think that "rising oceans" have anything to do with NYC flooding I would ask a simple question. How much has the Atlantic ocean risen in the last 30 years ?

    Now, go look up the answer ... and compare that amount to the 12+ foot storm surge and tell me what difference a zero rise in the ocean would have done to reduce the flooding ?

    Yeah, none at all ... so please take your tiny rise in the ocean and peddle your nonsense somewhere else ...

  29. What will Bloomberg do about the lack of preparation? Nothing, of course. He has more important things on his mind. Soda, cigarettes, etc.

  30. Gail,

    > It seems obvious that the sea-level rise and the size of the storm are related to the energy humans are adding to the system by burning fuel and releasing millions of tons of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases into the atmosphere. That’s highschool science and as obvious as plate tectonics.

    The whole point of science is that it enables us to distinguish facts from things that seem obvious to us even though they're not true. So it is particularly ironic that you cite science as the reason why these particular things that are not true are "obvious".

    For anyone who's interested, here's what serious climatologists have to say on the matter:

    "telling people that Sandy was caused by climate change, or that Sandy is the “new normal” as a result of global warming, or that Sandy is “global warming, stupid,” is, well, stupid. The science does not support any of these positions. Science, in fact, indicates there will be considerably fewer Sandy-like storms in a warmer world."

    And this from a man who insists that global warming is happening and is caused by man.

    As others have already said above, New York is at risk regardless. You simply don't need to bring cilmate change into it to believe that preparing for major storms in an area at risk of major storms is sensible.

  31. No disrespect but guys, you are missing the point here.

    One of the advantages to being a little older is being able to span history. I get so tired with the "acceptance" of AGW as a fact- and man made, when we have discovered the intentional disinformation pushed out by these people. This is all about taxing energy usage, not saving the planet. There are hundreds and hundreds of billions to be siphoned off by a taxing authority world wide.

    James Hansen swore up and down that we were were going to be in an ice age back in 1971. I remember the magazine covers showing snow and ice, as everybody jumped all over his theories and called them fact. Ten years was it? Then we had celebrities scream up and down the world would end within a decade and cities would be underwater (and not from storm surges).

    That to has passed. Then it got hotter and Hansen switched his tune, and his computer models. Suddenly it was AGW and we had to buy mercury filled lightbulbs and watch Gore try to organize a Carbon credit market out of Chicago. We were all going to burn up!

    But then it stopped getting warmer around 1995-7ish? Suddenly, the emails, then the admissions by "experts" they were wrong. Now it "Climate Change" because the scammers figure they have run out of names people will buy into, and well CC covers it all doesn't it.

    The whole time Mother Earth and solar radiation levels keep right on trucking, being the real cause for the changes we see.

    Yes we need to be good stewards of the earth, but not at the cost of our society crashing into a third world status.

    Check out the 1950's. You'll see the same weather pattern we are experiencing now, which means this time next year NY is going to get it again.

    It should learn its lesson and not build entire neighborhoods on a sandbar. We in Florida learned that lesson well, and have stronger building codes.

    Just saying....

  32. Roger, you may be interested in the work my colleagues did on flood risk reduction options for NYC:


    A particular focus was on the vulnerable subway system.

    Interestingly, it was supported by the NY transport authority. So it seems that the knowledge is there, and also the willingness to support studies, but that real action to reduce risk has been slow.

  33. archer52 has it exactly right. I am 76 and have lived through a lot of climate propaganda. I, too, remember the magazine cover with the ice covered earth; the scare theories changing from ice age to burning planet; the extreme politicization of climate science and the money mad Gore and money mad scientists who used the scare tactics to enrich themselves and control the populace. I also have a scientist husband who advances the theory to me that we are reliving the climate of the 50's. I'm happy to see he has a like minded individual reading this blog.

  34. Archer -

    ===]] James Hansen swore up and down that we were were going to be in an ice age back in 1971. [[[===

    Would you happen to have a link for that?