“Climate Change Adaption”: Smart, Misguided or Just Plain Stupid?

“Climate change adaption” is the latest buzzword among those who see global warming’s long-predicted effects hitting, but don’t want to make any changes to doing business as usual — especially by reducing fossil-fuel use. Their underlying argument is that global warming has gone so far that we can’t do anything to slow or prevent it, so we should formulate climate change adaption policies that involve spending huge sums on projects to protect people — at least some people — from the coming superstorms, droughts, massive forest fires and so on. As if we could.

I wrote this column as a follow up to my recent post on superstorms and Hurricane Sandy. It first appeared as one of my Your Ecological House syndicated newspaper columns.

Is “Climate Change Adaption” Stupid?

Stupid is as stupid does. 
— Forrest Gump

“Does it get any stupider?”

That was my “readers comment” response to a New York Times post that appeared a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit.

Now in my defense, I seldom write comments like that; I strive for a more even-keeled tone. But this particular blog post, which explored ways to protect New York City against storm surges and flooding from future superstorms, proposed a “solution” — a $6.5 billion floodgate across the Verrazano Narrows entrance to New York’s upper harbor — that was just, well…stupid.


Because the floodgate (1) won’t solve the problem of flooding due to storm surges enhanced by rising sea levels, and (2) won’t address global warming, the underlying cause of the problem. On the other hand said floodgate, like many of the other proposals that have been floated to “protect New York from the effects of climate change,” would be an expensive boondoggle that uses precious resources which could be spent on real solutions.

It is perfectly understandable, of course, that the millions of shaken and frightened victims of Sandy’s wrath want protection from the next superstorm — which, everyone now realizes, could arrive much sooner than “sometime in the next generation.” It’s also understandable that their political leaders want to offer them solutions, or at least offer them hope. That’s exactly why it’s so important to get a clear understanding of our situation, and base any proposals on reality, not false hopes.

Scientists and others who study global warming have argued for several years about whether we should continue using our resources to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — by converting to renewable energy — or to “adapt” to the realities of climate change — by beefing up flood controls, building desalinization plants and so on. But while the seemingly obvious answer is “both,” adapting, especially without a strong emphasis on reducing emissions, is likely to prove futile as the planet’s climate becomes increasingly destabilized.

Climate Change Adaption Boondoggle Proposed

New York’s predicament is a case in point. The Verrazano Narrows, a straight between the outlying boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, is the main outlet for the Hudson River.

About 6,000 feet wide at its narrowest point, the Narrows separates the city’s outer and inner harbors, and, as its primary shipping lane, is known as New York’s “gate to the sea.” It is also the gate through which Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge reached Manhattan, flooding some of the world’s most valuable property and putting the stock market on hold for a couple of days.

It comes as no surprise, then, that one “climate change adaption” strategy, initially proposed in 2009 by the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis, is the aforementioned floodgate. Why won’t it work?

There are two obvious technical issues: (1) the same barrier that would keep storm surges out of the upper harbor would dam the rain-swollen flow of the mighty Hudson, flooding Brooklyn and New Jersey communities above the floodgate, and (2) the higher the floodgate, the more it will cost to build. So its design would be optimized to protect against predicted sea-level rise. But the average prediction of a three-foot rise in sea level by century’s end could easily be doubled. What then?

There are also sociopolitical issues. When moving water hits a barrier it can’t flow over, it flows around it. A Sandy-sized storm surge would hit the sea gate and be pushed to the side, causing far more flooding in the areas adjacent to the gate.  Author Mckenzie Funk framed the issue succinctly in a post-Sandy NY Times op-ed: “But as New York begins considering coastal defenses, it should also consider the uncomfortable truth that Wall Street is worth vastly more, in dollar terms, than certain [highly populated] low-lying neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens — and that to save Manhattan, planners may decide to flood some other part of the city.”


These embarrassments have engendered a counterproposal to protect NYC’s wide outer harbor with a series of manmade islands and floodgates — at a cost of perhaps $150 billion. And what about the remaining 1,500 miles of the East Coast?

When treating our sick planet perhaps we should address the disease — climate change — before treating the symptoms: storms, floods and droughts. One-hundred-fifty billion dollars would develop a lot of renewable energy at our ecological house.




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