Climate Action Must Also Mean Adaptation

Sunset over Long Island Sound. Photo by Sailn1, 2008. Flickr Creative Commons
I was born and raised in southern Connecticut, about 20 minutes from the beaches of Long Island Sound. My grandparents would say how polluted the waters were when they were kids, and how entire stretches of beach had to be avoided, lest you encounter large swaths of sewage or other unspeakables. While much work remains to be done, the Sound has seen some improvement thanks to the Clean Water Act and a number of restoration initiatives. Yet every step forward is met with two steps back if climate change is not addressed.

When Superstorm Sandy hit the region last year, sewage treatment plants along the coast, from New Jersey to Connecticut, could not manage the increased water outflows. The response? billions of gallons of untreated sewage was discharged straight into the Sound and the Atlantic. Needless to say, raw sewage is not exactly healthy for fish, wildlife, and the people that rely on these waters. Unless we take action to adapt to future climate impacts such as this, our restoration efforts to date will be undone.

Climate Change Hits the Atlantic Coast

On June 25th, President Obama announced his plan to lead the fight in addressing climate change. Among the many great initiatives he laid out, he conceited that regardless of how much carbon we cut today, the impacts of climate change will be felt for decades to come. National Wildlife Federation acknowledged this in Wildlife in a Warming World, released earlier this year. Among the impacts, scientists project that the global mean sea level could rise as much as 6.6 feet by the end of the century. Extreme weather events are also expected to increase in intensity, and wildlife from the Florida Keys to the Gulf of Maine are threatened by warming water, ocean acidification, and the constant threat of human development and pollution.
But climate change does not just bring doom and gloom. It brings opportunity. During his speech on his administration’s plan to address climate change, President Obama spoke about communities across the nation already adapting to the threats of climate change.

States and cities across the country are already taking it upon themselves to get ready. Miami Beach is hardening its water supply against seeping salt water. We’re partnering with the state of Florida to restore Florida’s natural clean water delivery system, the Everglades….

New York City is fortifying its 520 miles of coastline as an insurance policy against more frequent and costly storms. And what we’ve learned from Hurricane Sandy and other disasters is that we’ve got to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure that can protect our homes and businesses and withstand more powerful storms. That means stronger seawalls, natural barriers, hardened power grids, hardened water systems, hardened fuel supplies.

-President Obama, June 25th 2013

Climate Smart Communities

Jamica Bay with the backdrop of NYC. Nature is not far away.
Jamica Bay with the backdrop of NYC. Photo by Don Riepe, American Littoral Society.
The President merely hinted at the great work communities around the country are doing. By using nature to protect themselves from the impacts of climate change, these cities are also providing havens for wildlife. In New England, fresh and saltwater wetlands serve as a transition zone between land and sea, acting as buffers against storm surges and sea level rise, while providing critical habitat to diverse wildlife. Communities such as Seabrook, NH have acknowledged the importance of wetlands to protecting coastal development, and have thus updated maps and development guidelines to protect these ecosystems.

Annapolis, MD recognized that more intense storms will contribute to more frequent and severe instances of urban flooding. Their Stormwater Utility Fee can now be discounted for residential and community properties that install stormwater management structures on their property, including green roofs, rain gardens, and infiltration trenches. Natural structures such as these allow for infiltration of stormwater into the ground, preventing or slowing the flow of runoff into waterways where it may impact water quality and the health of fish and wildlife.

Trees along a Manhattan street
Trees along a Manhattan street. Photo by tnboriqua, Flickr Creative Commons.
In addition to preparing for rising seas and bigger storms, cities from New York to Miami are improving their green spaces and fostering robust urban forests. With a goal of planting a million trees within the city, New York will improve air quality, combat the urban heat island effect, and provide a natural method of stormwater management.

Investments Today Will Save Us Tomorrow

Less than a year after Hurricane Sandy, New York City released a progress report on its sustainability plan, PlaNYC. Among the many successes the report highlights, resilience against the impacts of Sandy were among the most significant. Despite $19 billion in damages, projects such as the Brooklyn Bridge Park suffered little to no damage thanks to design standards to manage against sea level rise and coastal flooding. Recovery and reconstruction efforts have since been completed with climate adaptation in mind. By restoring coastal parks and planting additional trees, the city also promises to provide benefits for wildlife as well.

The reality, as President Obama explained in his speech, is that the impacts of climate change are already occurring. We cannot simply wait for the next storm and hope for the best, especially if that means dumping raw sewage into our waterways and waiting for another day to clean it up. Taking action on climate cannot just mean cutting carbon. It must mean investing in adaptation efforts and green infrastructure today, so that people and wildlife can coexist tomorrow.