How Do We Plan for Climate Change?

Lisa MooreThis post is by Lisa Moore, Ph.D., a scientist in the Climate and Air program at Environmental Defense Fund.

How do we plan for climate change? Unfortunately, many groups don’t even ask that question, much less begin to answer it.

I’m happy to report that there are exceptions. Yesterday, I testified before the New York City Council’s Infrastructure Task Force, which held a forum on how climate change and flooding will affect the city’s infrastructure. It was an interesting experience. I left feeling cautiously optimistic that the city really is trying to tackle the problem.

The session included speakers from state and city agencies, universities, engineering firms, and non-profit organizations. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Several professors and engineers described how rising sea levels, stronger storms, and greater storm surges could devastate the city’s transportation and energy infrastructure. One speaker estimated that damage from a major hurricane hitting New York City could be as high as $1.9 trillion.
  • I was pleased to learn that the state and city are already discussing how to adapt water and sewer systems to climate change. Their priorities include updating projections for sea-level rise and probable flood areas, and identifying the additional data and monitoring stations they’ll need. They’re also working to diversify the city’s water supply, and increase conservation and watershed protection programs.
  • Disaster managers, relief organizations and health specialists described how the city could improve its evacuation and response plans. They urged the city to consider "intangible infrastructure" such as health services.
  • A Dutch engineering firm talked about storm surge barriers and other ways to protect urban areas from flooding. The Dutch have centuries of experience with this, because large parts of their country are below sea level. Prevention is their primary strategy. Holland is prepared for a "10,000 year storm" (a storm extreme enough to have only a 1 in 10,000 chance of occurring in any given year). In contrast, New York City is incredibly vulnerable to flooding from current storms, never mind the monster storm surges we could see in the future.

In my testimony, I highlighted the city’s vulnerability to climate change and flooding, and recommended two important steps:

  • Build resilience. With thoughtful leadership, New York City can lessen the risks and costs of climate change. For example, the city should revisit zoning and building codes with climate change in mind. Right now there is rapid development in low-lying areas that will be increasingly vulnerable to flooding. (Andy Darrell, Vice President for Living Cities at EDF, was only half kidding when he told me "the city should be issuing snorkels along with building permits".)
  • Lead on solutions. New York City can set an example that influences national action on climate change. Some key steps will be adopting clean energy where possible, and making buildings more energy-efficient.

In my closing remarks, I urged the task force to move beyond the discussion and planning stages and into action. I’ll be following their progress with interest.

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  1. Posted May 8, 2008 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    This is much better than we see in Sacramento, a place that’s more vulnerable to flooding than New Orleans. They are still approving construction in flood plains — thanks to donations from developers. Read more here:

  2. steveshoap
    Posted May 9, 2008 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    I am working on an invention to fight wildfires.
    This is adaptation. I need help from the wildfire fighting community to make sure the invention will fill their needs.

    It has been very difficult to get anyone to engage with me.
    If you know anyone with this kind of knowledge, please have them contact me via my website.

    Please see my website at

  3. Posted May 9, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Hey folks,

    Here’s an interactive map that shows the effects of sea level rise on NYC. Several studies have indicated that we could see 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of this century.

    Sea level rise will have a big impact just by itself, but it also makes the city more vulnerable to storm surges, which will reach further inland.

  4. johnmashey
    Posted May 12, 2008 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    A few weeks ago, we had a day-long session on Preparing for Sea Level Rise in the Bay Area, run by SFBCDC and ABAG for local governments around the SF Bay.

    and for materials used in the session itself:

    Although it’s nowhere near as precise as the USGS maps, the following general tool is useful, if not as pretty as the NYC maps of Lisa’s:,-121.8494&z=8&m=1

    and one can see why there is concern over here as well. As davidzet notes, Sacramento itself still doesn’t seem too worried.

  5. scullens
    Posted July 19, 2008 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I am currently working on a plan that will map out a way for urban cities to adapt for the upcoming change in climate. the problems that NY is facing are the same as many of the coastal cities in the world and i believe that the solution can be duplicated and repeated all over. my main focus right now is working on a way for cities to be proactive in combating the rise in temperatures seeing that the majority of people will not be able to adapt fast enough on their own. i have requested data from nasa and other climate institutes to better understand the situation.

    if you have any advice on what cities are doing right now to prepare for climate change, i can be reached at

  6. Posted November 5, 2008 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Lisa, Have you had any follow up with NYC on this matter?

    “Right now there is rapid development in low-lying areas that will be increasingly vulnerable to flooding.”

    Our community in Gowanus Brooklyn is presently confronted with a spot rezoning, put forth by Toll Brothers Inc, asking to allow 447 units of housing to be built along the Gowanus Canal FEMA flood zone AE (a flood way, if the that status were not dismis for all of th city).

    Now we know that the city has been backed up against the wall with Toll spending more than $365,000 on lobbying city officials and agencies to get thei zoning change; but what of the initiatives the city has been speaking about that will address sea level raise and storm surge problems in areas like Brooklyn’sGowanus Canal? Is the city so busy with their plicy making studies that they can’t address the reality of what is before them now?

    So do you have any further info you may have on how the NYC policy development and implementation is being played out? Is there sincerity here on the part of the city or are they just doing this to say to us all that yes they have looked at all these matters under their land use revew process?

    Note: The Toll EIS planning for storm, rainfall, is still based on assumption no longer supported by climate science—that is they used rainfall data from 1988 at JFK for their planning (40” anyal rainfall). All cliamate data points to rainfall to be more like that of the past 5 years (50-65”).

  7. Posted November 11, 2008 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi frogg,

    Thanks for your message. I have attended various meetings about how we can build resilience to climate change. All of the participants (including those from local and state government agencies) take it very seriously.

    However, as your story illustrates, implementing the relevant knowledge and recommendations into worthwhile policy is a huge challenge, especially when policymakers are under pressure from so many sides.

    One group I recommend that you visit/contact is the New York Sea Level Rise Task Force. Their most recent meeting was on Friday (Nov 7), and they are definitely interested in public and stakeholder involvement.

  8. Posted January 17, 2010 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    Great post, I love this blog.