In New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) the Climate Action Council is required to prepare and approve a scoping plan outlining the recommendations for attaining the statewide greenhouse gas emissions limits in accordance with the schedule of the law. I predict that at their next meeting the recent flooding in lower New York State will be described as evidence that climate change is a reality and that the actions of the Council will fight these kinds of disasters. This post explains why the rationale is wrong and the proposed solution hurts rather than helps the flooding problems.
I have written extensively on implementation of the CLCPA because I believe the solutions proposed will adversely affect reliability and affordability, will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change, and cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Since the spring of 2020 the Climate Action Council has been developing a scoping plan outlining recommendations to implement the CLCPA. The goal is to make the recommendations by the end of 2021 and have the next state energy plan incorporate their recommendations. A key component of the process will be the integration analysis prepared by Energy & Environmental Economics (E3) that “combines a detailed accounting model of energy supplies and demands across the entire economy with an optimized capacity expansion model in the electric sector” to develop a mix of energy sources that will meet the CLCPA goals. The plan will also estimate total societal costs and benefits. For further background, I have summarized the schedule, implementation components, and provide links to the legislation itself at CLCPA Summary Implementation Requirements.
A common feature in the Climate Action Council meetings has been a “reflection” in the opening remarks by the co-chairs that brags about recent implementation actions and includes an argument that additional implementation is needed to address the latest extreme weather event. Given that history I have no doubt that the next meeting will describe the flooding effects of hurricane Henri and the remnants of hurricane Ida and imply that the CLCPA will reduce if not eliminate those effects in the future. That claim as well as all the other similar claims in the past is baloney.
New York Flooding
On August 22, 2021 tropical depression Henri made landfall in Rhode Island. Although it had weakened from a hurricane and skirted New York, it dumped heavy rains from New Jersey to New England. The region had a wet summer so the ground was already saturated. As a result, the main impact was flooding. Hurricane Ida struck the Louisiana coast on August 29, 2021 sixteen years to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Although there was widespread devastation, the levees in New Orleans held and the loss of life was much less in Louisiana.
I followed the forecasts of the remnants of Ida as it slogged north and the east out to sea. Every forecaster was warning that heavy rains were likely in the New York City area and coupled with already saturated grounds that flooding was likely. Cliff Mass described the weather as it hit the area and noting that New York’s Central Park had a record of 3.15 inches in an hour. He explains that hurricane remnants, known as extratropical cyclones, combine strong upward motions with large amounts of tropical moisture. This combination causes heavy rains and flooding. Tragically, dozens of people were killed in New York and New Jersey as a result of this flooding.
The immediate response from the usual suspects was that climate change was involved despite the fact that worse precipitation has been observed in the past. I believe that this will also be the response by the Climate Action Council co-chairs at the next meeting. This is such a common response that I have developed a page that explains the difference between weather and climate and includes article debunking similar claims. In this case however, I want to respond differently. In particular, I want to discuss what the best approach would be to prevent a reoccurrence of the deaths and devastation in New York City.
As I mentioned before this was a very well forecasted event with some caveats. Cliff Mass notes that there were warnings out for heavy precipitation but that there some issues with “intensity and position”. He goes on to argue that a larger number of finer resolution weather prediction ensembles could be used to develop better probabilistic/uncertainty predictions. I think those models could also be improved by incorporating higher density observations into the models. All those revisions could improve the forecasts if implemented.
However, the fact is that the forecasts were ignored. In my opinion, many New York City residents are so divorced from weather impacts (they simply are not outside for long periods that much) that they don’t pay attention to weather forecasts unless it is an extreme event. Consequently, the idea that a forecast for heavy rain means that they should monitor the weather situation, i.e., check the weather forecast frequently in that situation, is not common practice. As a result, communication practices have to be changed to ensure that people stay off the roads and get out of low-lying basement apartments when this kind of forecast is made.
The good news vis-à-vis Ida was that the levee resilience measures installed in Louisiana since Katrina worked well enough to prevent a re-occurrence of that disaster. If there were other levees that failed it is clear that additional strengthening is needed. The bigger problem there is the extensive damage to the electric system. Clearly more needs to be done to strengthen the resiliency of the electric transmission and distribution system.
After super storm Sandy In New York City extensive upgrades were made to prevent damage from storm surges. However, given that the subways still flooded, more still needs to be done to prevent water damage to that system. Given the extreme amount of rain it probably is not possible to engineer a system to prevent all the many water issues but it certainly is time to update what could be done. In addition to infrastructure improvements developing an improved warning system would be useful. For example, during such an event if people knew that the GPS driving direction systems were being updated with flooding information, they could use them to steer clear of problem areas.
All of the aforementioned resiliency measures require investments of time and money. However, they all can provide benefits to reduce impacts of future storms. One of the key points to understand about extreme weather and climate change is that climate change impacts are smaller than the effects of natural variability. As a result, it is ludicrous to expect that extreme weather will stop occurring even if climate change mitigation measures reduce global warming and the alleged effects on extreme weather. The most likely future scenario for weather is more extreme weather and that means that adapting to the effects of extreme weather is a no regrets approach.
More importantly the fact is that beyond New York and the United States fossil fuel emissions are increasing at a rate that is many times greater than New York’s emissions. Consequently, even if New York mitigation efforts do reduce emissions there will be no impacts on the world’s weather because of increased emissions elsewhere.
The next meeting of the Climate Action Council will be on Monday, September 13, 2021 at 2:00 p.m. ET. The meeting agenda includes a welcome item that I predict will mention the flooding in New York City as a sign that climate change is a reality and we need to fight it.
In actuality the observed heavy rainfall following a previous storm is much more an example of extreme weather than a climate change driven event. The need to do something about it as part of the CLCPA is mis-guided because it diverts resources from improvements to weather forecasting, extreme weather warning communications, and resiliency adaptation measures. Those improvements could provide tangible benefits in any event. On the other hand, expecting any extreme weather benefits from emission mitigation measures by New York State are doomed simply because world-wide emissions continue to increase at a greater pace than New York reductions can ever hope to slow down much less reverse.