New York — At a news conference in 2009, New York City billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that “planning for climate change today is less expensive than rebuilding an entire network after a catastrophe. We cannot wait until after our infrastructure has been compromised to begin to plan for the effects of climate change now.” (nyc.gov, Feb. 17, 2009)
For the survivors and victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York, the most populous city in the U.S., Bloomberg’s words are bitterly ironic. More than 40 people paid for the city’s lack of infrastructure planning with their lives.
The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) held the 2009 news conference to release a report predicting higher temperatures, more rapidly rising sea levels, and more frequent and intense extreme weather events — such as Hurricane Sandy — over the next century as a result of climate change. The report stressed that “awareness is growing that some impacts from climate change are inevitable” and concluded that “these changes suggest a need for the City to rethink the way it operates and adapts to its evolving environment.”
While it is notable that New York City is one of the few U.S. cities attempting to grapple with the issue of climate change at all, a lack of action in regard to infrastructure improvement reveals the inability of capitalism to mobilize urgently and deal with the mounting environmental crisis.
The 2009 report was designed to inform the actions of a newly convened Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which was to enact a response to the growing threat of climate change. It listed a slew of potentially negative implications for New York City’s infrastructure, including an “increase in risk of low-elevation transportation, energy and communications infrastructure flooding and water damage” and “encroachment of saltwater on freshwater sources and ecosystems, increasing damage to infrastructure not manufactured to withstand saltwater exposure.” The task force was part of a larger PlaNYC, which set about to create a “greener” New York through a number of projects.
Two years later, the city’s subsequent efforts on climate change were described in an April 2011 update on PlaNYC. The update notes several actions taken in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the creation of contingency plans to deal with extreme weather events.
However, the infrastructure updates in the report are attached to the words “we will” — as in, they have yet to be enacted. According to the 2011 report, “The Task Force identified more than 100 types of transportation, energy, water and sewer, solid waste, telecommunications, and natural infrastructure that climate change could impact. The Task Force will use this initial assessment to develop coordinated strategies to increase the resilience of the region’s infrastructure. … We will work with the Task Force to complete its assessment and begin to implement its recommendations.”
City inaction has devastating consequences
The devastating consequences of Hurricane Sandy result from the city’s stalling in these vitally important updates. For instance, had the city taken steps to protect its equipment and infrastructure from salt water erosion — which was clearly indicated by the NPCC as an area of concern — electricity could have been restored much sooner to the city, as well as subway operation. Instead, some families continue to linger in powerless homes — as winter approaches and temperatures drop to near-freezing conditions. The subway system, used by millions of workers to get to their jobs each day, took an entire week to become fully operational again.
The NPCC, a group created by Mayor Bloomberg and made up of academics, scientists and private corporations, is notably bereft of those with the biggest stake in the city’s plans — the workers in the communities that will be hardest hit.
In April of this year, Sabrina Terry, an environmental justice planner for Uprose, a Latino/a community-based organization in the Sunset Park community of Brooklyn, testified before the City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection. She noted that the NPCC’s reports do not explicitly address the needs of low-income communities of color, which “are often more at risk because they live in geographically susceptible areas in close proximity to noxious fumes, which become public health threats in the context of extreme weather.” Terry urged a “more inclusive model [that] would help encourage communities to leverage their own resources, thus becoming more self-sufficient and resilient.” (City Council hearing transcript, April 25)
If anything, Hurricane Sandy has proven that the government, set up under capitalism to protect profits over the lives and safety of working people, cannot adequately respond to the environmental crises that capitalism itself has created.
More and more, a people’s response — from preventive measures to emergency actions — is emerging as the best and only solution to the crises working people face on every level.