Confronting climate change

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Throughout the New York and New Jersey region, we’re inching toward recovery. In Riverdale, the lights are back on, the Henry Hudson Bridge is open and the buses, subways and trains are running again.  But the reality is that everyone in this region will have a long way to go before we rebound from Hurricane Sandy. Tens of thousands are without heat and water and many remain without homes as winter approaches.  And as we begin to piece their lives back together, it’s important that we start to ask the hard questions about extreme weather events and climate change and find the real solutions for all of our futures. 

Climate change was originally discussed in terms of computer models and scientific forecasts. Now Americans are talking about it in its most urgent terms: peoples’ lives. When climate change intensifies extreme weather like hurricanes and droughts, our families — and our homes, jobs, neighborhoods — feel the brunt.

The human toll of climate change is mounting and we must act. America must wake up and advance clean energy solutions that will curb climate change. Our elected officials need to make this a top priority, and we at the Natural Resource Defense Council will do everything in our power to make that happen.

Many leaders are beginning to point the way forward. Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that Hurricane Sandy and other extreme storms reveal the need for local and national leadership on climate change.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, “I think part of learning from [Hurricane Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.” 

They aren’t working some political angle. This isn’t about Democrats, Independents or Republicans. It’s about all New Yorkers.

And it’s about all Americans. We were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, but the Mid Atlantic wasn’t the only place that experienced extreme weather this year. 

Thousands in Western states had to evacuate their homes this summer during one of the worst fire seasons in years.  The National Weather Service’s Drought Monitor said more than half the country was in the grip of the worst drought in 50 years.  Nearly 1,300 counties were designated disaster areas because of the drought. And as many as 131 million people were under heat advisories during the hottest July on record. More than 70 people died due to extreme heat. 

We can start to tackle climate change by making sure local communities have the resources necessary to prepare for its affects. 

They need to develop preparedness plans to address the threats that rising seas, more frequent floods, prolonged droughts and extreme heat can have on public health, transportation, sewage, water supply and other infrastructure.

Here in New York, we need to retrofit our buildings to make them energy efficient. We need to revamp aging infrastructure to withstand increased storm surges and shield transit tunnels from flooding. We need to invest in green infrastructure, like marshes, wetlands, oyster reefs that can act as buffers. We need to improve the power grid’s reliability and diversify our power generation. This is a smart investment that will save money in the long term.

But even as we address the symptoms of the problem, we must also fight the underlying disease. We have to reduce the carbon pollution that is fueling climate change. We do this by using energy more efficiently, cleaning up our power plants, rejecting dirty fuels like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and increasing our use of renewable energy.

We have already made progress. The Obama administration issued fuel economy standards that will cut carbon pollution from new cars in half. It also proposed the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new coal-fired power plants. And nearly 35 percent of all new power plant capacity built in the U.S. in the last four years came from wind. A new set of energy efficiency standards NRDC helped develop for refrigerators, dishwashers and other products will reduce carbon pollution by 100 million metric tons a year by 2035 — approximately equivalent to emissions from 25 coal-fired power plants.

This is a good start but we must do more. We must set national carbon limits on existing power plants, spur investment in clean energy here in New York and across the country. And we must promote energy efficiency.

These are the kind of concrete steps we can take to protect our communities from further ravages of climate change. We owe it to the people on the frontlines of climate change: all of us.

This guest editorial was written by Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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