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Climate catastrophe, dark money, and the cost of inaction

Last week, biblical rains devastated the tri-state area. Flooding in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York were fresh evidence that the costs of adapting infrastructure to the world climate’s "new abnormal" will be staggering. 

The Friday storm dumped an incredible amount of water on the metropolitan area. Nowhere got more rain than southwestern Nassau County on Long Island. Over nine inches of rain reportedly fell on the Nassau County town of Valley Stream, the area around Kennedy Airport was hit with nearly the same amount. The amount that hit Kennedy Airport was a new record in September rainfalls – including those from hurricanes. 

New York City’s mass transit systems – particularly its underground subways – got hammered and had to largely shut down. As a result, Governor Hochul issued a state of emergency for Long Island, New York City and the Hudson Valley, allowing her to suspend laws, deploy resources, and seek reimbursement from the federal government for the staggering costs of the cleanup. 

The storm that triggered this flooding was not from a hurricane, but instead came from a severe rainstorm. How could a mere rainstorm cause so much havoc? 

The most probable explanation for why the Northeast has been so wet, according to the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center is that “Low-pressure systems like nor’easters now have greater amounts of water vapor available to them. And with a warmer Atlantic Ocean combining with warmer air, the atmosphere is primed to produce more rainfall.” 

Urban infrastructures were designed for a pre-climate change world, according to experts at the Columbia Climate School at Columbia University. New York City’s sewer system, for example, was largely designed over a century ago. New York’s aging sewer system was designed to handle no more than 1.75 inches of rain in a one-hour rainstorm. Heavy rainfall of 2.5 inches fell in one hour in Brooklyn. 

Upgrading that system to handle the world’s increasingly hotter and wetter climate will cost big bucks: New York City estimates as much as $100-billion will be needed to upgrade its sewers for more intense storms. And those costs are on top of the $52 billion that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated it will cost to protect New York Harbor from rising sea levels and storms. 

Of course, it’s not only New York City that is facing these rising costs. It was recently estimated that Long Island faces up to $100 billion in climate costs. A study from NYS Comptroller DiNapoli found that over a ten-year period (the last five and next five years), 55% of New York localities' municipal spending outside of NYC was or will be related to climate change. Not counting the damage from last week, Governor Hochul has spent a good chunk of her past year responding to this state’s climate catastrophes. Since last summer, the governor has unveiled at least $1.8 billion in state money for climate related projects – either responding to disasters or spending to help protect from future ones. 

Those costs – like the temperature of the planet – are expected to keep increasing. New Yorkers could see those costs rise to as much as $10 billion annually by the middle of the century. 

So, what should policymakers do? Two important steps should be taken. First, make those responsible for climate costs bear at least some of the burden for adapting to this new reality. And second, rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels, which are driving the heating of the planet. 

When it comes to the question of climate costs, there is no doubt that they will be massive. The only question is: Who should pay? Right now, the financial hit will be borne by the taxpayers. All of it.

The clear answer is that the oil companies should pay: They have known for decades that burning fossil fuels warms the planet, yet they waged a campaign to block climate protection while continuing to be fabulously profitable. It’s time for them to pony up – big time. 

Governor Hochul and the state Assembly should embrace the Senate's legislation and make the oil companies – not taxpayers – pay for the problems they have caused and do it in a manner that will stop them from passing the costs on to consumers. 

New York has established science-based greenhouse gas emission-reduction goals in response to the growing threat posed by climate changes. Also last week, the Business Council of New York, The Partnership for New York City and local chambers of commerce announced a million dollar “dark money” campaign to undermine New York’s climate goals. Their campaign will likely mimic the strategy of the oil companies’ use of “front groups” to advance its agenda without the public knowing who was funding the effort. One can only wonder how the New York City Partnership and Long Island chambers of commerce can defend their actions to their members and the communities they serve – which are suffering from flooding and staggering costs. 

Public policy should be designed to protect the public and not Big Oil. Make Big Oil pay.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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