Eight months after Superstorm Sandy slammed into New York City on October 29, 2012, launching a 14-foot storm surge that devastated the nation’s financial and cultural capital, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the world’s most ambitious climate-change adaptation plan.
“We can do nothing and expose ourselves to an increasing frequency of Sandy-like storms that do more and more damage,” said Bloomberg of the city’s $20 billion commitment to more than 250 preparedness initiatives. “Or we can make the investments necessary to build a stronger, more resilient New York.”
The announcement marked a major turning point in the regional effort for climate-change preparedness. For the first time in Westchester County, which Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated lost a combined $527.8 million in recovery and prevention costs as a result of Superstorm Sandy, climate change was more than an abstract problem.
“This is what happens when something really catches the attention of a leader,” says Mark Lowery, a climate policy analyst for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “In a way, what the storm did was give local leaders permission to talk about climate change as a reality.”
Building off that momentum, Westchester’s environmental advocates are preparing for their most direct appeal to those local leaders yet. On September 12, the Federated Conservationists of Westchester County (FCWC) and the Pace Univeristy Law School’s Center for Environmental Legal Studies will hold their inaugural Westchester Climate Change Summit at the Law School’s campus in White Plains.
Co-sponsored by Sustainable Westchester, a newly formed consortium of environmentally minded municipalities, the event is billed as a “must attend” for local officials and staff, where speakers will address “the threats of climate change to the county, and what solutions and/or strategies are available to our municipalities to address these formidable threats.”
Sandwiched between the Long Island Sound and the Hudson River Estuary, Westchester is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surges, so the impact of climate change has already been “profound,” according to Carolyn Cunningham, an FCWC board member and former executive director.
“[The County] doesn’t have the kind of plan New York City just put together,” she says, “so the local municipalities have to get serious about this, because it’s only going to get worse.”
Several critics of County Executive Rob Astorino, a small-government conservative, point to the demise of his predecessor Andrew Spano’s Global Warming Task Force as evidence of Astorino’s lack of concern for the issue, while supporters maintain that the task force merely “evolved” into several private-public partnerships, most notably the Westchester Green Business Challenge.
“We are committed to the environment,”
says Ned McCormack, a spokesman for Astorino, “and we take a very practical approach to starting initiatives that can have an impact on Westchester residents today.”
The State, meanwhile, is looking toward the future. Based on the latest modeling from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s ClimAID team, Lowery expects the water level to rise three to seven inches on the Hudson side and four to eight inches on the Sound side by 2020, with the possibility of a six-foot rise throughout the county’s entire coastal region by the end of the century.
Such a rise would threaten not only homes and businesses, but also critical infrastructure—railroads, sewer systems, power grids—so Lowery urges municipalities to conduct their own vulnerability assessments and incorporate climate change adaptation planning into their routine planning.
“What’s important to understand is that every storm in the future will be launched from a higher water level than at any point in history, so [the water] can get further inland and cause further damage,” Lowery says.