Two climate experts on how New Yorkers can stay safe and healthy in our ever more scalding future
The climate is changing, threatening to make New York City’s already stifling summers less and less bearable. Vital City talked to two climate change experts to discuss pragmatic ways government can keep people — especially the most vulnerable — healthy and comfortable in the years to come.
We purposely brought two distinct voices around the table: a scientist, to speak to what’s likely to happen, and a public policy practitioner, to discuss what government can and should try to do about it and how.
Michael Oppenheimer, a specialist in what is happening to global temperatures and how governments and the private sector can adapt, is a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton and the director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at its School of Public and International Affairs. He joined the Princeton faculty after a long career at the Environmental Defense Fund, where he was chief scientist. He’s perhaps best known for being one of the researchers whose work in the late 1980s sparked the negotiations that yielded the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1992.
Mark Chambers, a policymaker and advocate, was director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability under Bill de Blasio, leading policy and programs to confront climate change; he earlier served as director of sustainability and energy for Washington, D.C., and as the first senior director of building emissions and community resilience at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. An architect by trade, he is now director of the Earth Alliance.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Josh Greenman: We have lots of climate hazards coming at us, including sea level rise, more and more intense hurricanes and inland flooding. Our focus today is going to be on extreme heat. What is New York City going to look and feel like in Julys and Augusts a generation from now?
Michael Oppenheimer: Extreme heat is the primary climate-related cause of death in the United States. We don’t actually have that good a picture of how many people die, because a lot of heat-related deaths are written off as due to preexisting conditions, when in fact, it’s the addition of the extra heat that kills people.
Between now and 2050, it doesn’t actually make a huge difference whether you’re looking at the high emissions curve or the low emissions curve implied by the Paris Agreement, because we’ve got all this heat hiding in the ocean that we’ve pumped down there by building up greenhouse gases over the last 150 years. Even a couple of degrees Fahrenheit higher on average translates to many more extremely hot days, but it’s hard for the climate models to precisely describe the frequency of what have been historically rare events.
Heat-related deaths in the United States have been going down as air conditioning has been introduced. But we live in a city where a lot of people don’t have air conditioning, and that’s an environmental justice issue. It’s not just a matter of race, it’s a matter of wealth, it’s a matter of age. So, we have to develop a better system for keeping safe as heat waves intensify.
JG: You said we can expect a future that’s “a couple of degrees” hotter. Can you be more specific about what this will mean in New York City?
MO: The most recent analysis of the effects of climate change on New York City is found in a series of articles published by the New York Academy of Sciences by members of the New York City Panel on Climate Change in 2019. The warming of the annual average between now and the period around 2050 is about 2.5 degrees. And there is a 50% chance that the number of 90-degree days will at least double from 18 in this decade to 35 in the 2050s.
‘Extreme heat is a pernicious killer in urban areas and it impacts Black and brown communities in a way that is particularly lethal.’
JG: Mark, you were overseeing a lot of these problems for New York City during the de Blasio administration. Talk about some of the programs you introduced and what the city should be doing to prepare for increased warming.
Mark Chambers: Everything Michael said is spot on, but it’s not just hotter days, it’s longer periods of hotter days and a smaller diurnal temperature difference between the day and nighttime. When you have these extreme heat events without a cooler night, your body is consistently in a state of stress, which is part of why heat ends up being this force multiplier for other health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Extreme heat is a pernicious killer in urban areas and it impacts Black and brown communities in a way that is particularly lethal. What we’ve tried to do in this city is not only create programs and building performance requirements that address physical safety but also make sure people know that heat is a threat. There is also important policy work to not just think about heat vulnerability in homes or offices, but for those who have to work outside in construction, utilities and agriculture.
MO: I wanted to ask you, Mark, about that city program to distribute air conditioners. Is that ongoing?
MC: We distributed 74,000 units during COVID, which was uniquely needed because there was no safe ability to congregate at cooling centers. The most vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly, were stuck in their hot apartments. We had to set up a new distribution model to identify folks at risk and quickly get air conditioners installed into their places. It was a one-time program, but it certainly proved that there is a real need out there.
JG: Can you drill down a little bit on that? 74,000 air conditioners distributed to people in need. Do we have a sense of what percentage of the need that answered?
MC: It was definitely a triage based on the availability of funds. It cost about $55 million, and if there had been more money, we could’ve reached more people.
JG: Can you distinguish a little bit between the importance of giving people the air conditioners, and then them actually being able to pay for the energy costs?
MC: I’m glad you mentioned that, because a key part of that distribution was also a successful petition to the New York State Public Service Commission that summer for a direct utility subsidy that helped offset increased electricity costs for nearly half a million New Yorkers, including those 74,000.
‘Defense against extreme heat is privatized in this country. That’s not a way to handle something where you have dynamic risk, which is going to get worse. We have to plan for the future.’
MO: The basic problem is that responses to extreme heat are not coordinated very well at the federal level. There’s a lot of attention on flooding because of the National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There is no analogous entity that deals with the risk of extreme heat, or the risk of wildfire for that matter. As a result, almost all the federal money for dealing with extreme heat comes after a disaster. It’s not planning in advance, it’s not adaptation.
Another thing that’s important is that defense against extreme heat is privatized in this country. That’s not a way to handle something where you have dynamic risk, which is going to get worse. We have to plan for the future.
Even in cities that have cooling centers, and not all of them do, they’re not located in ways that people can access. In Chicago, for instance, many of the cooling centers are located in police stations. There are a lot of people who don’t think they’re going to be protected if they wind up in a police station.
JG: Should we have a maximum indoor temperature? If it gets below 62 degrees indoors in the wintertime, there’s a legal obligation to warm that space up. Should we have the equivalent in the summertime?
MO: Without a doubt. Now, implementing it will not be simple. For instance, in old buildings, roofs have to be replaced periodically. Maybe there should be a code requirement that they have to insulate the roof when they replace it so that the cooling is more effective when families do get AC.
Between the price of the unit and installation, it’s around $1,000 just to get one air conditioner to every family that doesn’t have one. Multiplied by the 10% of families without ACs, that’s a lot of money. That’s where the federal government should be stepping in.
JG: Indoors, cooling centers and ACs are imperative. Outdoors, people need more shade. Trees can deliver it. What else can?
MC: Buildings! And awnings attached to buildings. We can also build more freestanding shade structures that allow for people to congregate, wait for transit and move safely throughout public space. Other cities accustomed to heat, like Abu Dhabi in the Middle East, or cities in Southeast Asia, do a lot more of this.
MO: Also, we are a coastal city, and there’s water running right through the middle of it. We ought to be doing the most we can to maximize access. We have these great beaches; they’re an hour or less subway ride away from most parts of the city. We’ve spent the last 30 years recovering the waterfront. That should be accelerated. We need more lifeguards and adequate budgeting for public swimming pools. We should expand public access to parks and the waterfront and make it easy for people to access them.
JG: We are a city that’s right on the water, as you mentioned, Michael. What are the other climate hazards that are the most threatening to New York City, whether it’s sea level rise or hurricane frequency, that are coming down the pike?
MO: You might remember that during Sandy, we barely saved the subway system, which has all this old wiring in it. I give all the credit in the world to the MTA workers and the workers who managed to get the water out of the system. Aside from that, there was a serious lack of planning. There had been nine storms before Sandy that had almost flooded the subway system, and we’d done nothing in response.
It’s not just the coastal flooding like we saw during Superstorm Sandy. We also have an old sewage system that has to be renovated to deal with much greater freshwater loads as rainstorms get more intense. I never thought I’d live to see the day when people would drown in their bedrooms. But that’s what happened a year and a half ago with Hurricane Ida.
JG: Mark, if it’s 50 years from now and we’re dealing with some serious sea level rise problems, what do you look back and say, “That is the project we really should have done, we really should have finished.” Is there one like that? Or do we just have to do it all?
MC: I think we have to do it all — there isn’t really one project winning over another. Now, there will be catastrophic events no matter what, and it’s partly our response to them that matters. This is also a story of recovery. It’s not just about having rigid physical protections. It’s about having more flexible social protections that allow us to be more responsive and recover quickly with less loss of life.
MO: That being said, we may have to make a decision, not too long in the future, about whether and where to build surge barriers to protect certain areas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has an ambitious plan for protecting Lower Manhattan, the part that was flooded during Sandy. There are also parts of Brooklyn and Queens that get flooded regularly at high tide that the Corps proposes to protect, but at great cost.
There’s a tension between tapping federal funding, which may or may not materialize for this project, and preserving state and local control over solutions. We’re going to need to be very forceful as citizens, or else I worry we’re going to get a city that’s just got a big wall of about 15 feet all over the place. You can forget about that waterfront I was talking about. You won’t see it anymore.
There was a community proposal to create a floodable park on the East Side of Manhattan that could take a substantial amount of water, but then, a few days later, become a usable park again. Instead, the City decided to raise the level of the park running inland from a high wall instead of letting the terrain slope downward to the coast. If you let it slope down, it’s a berm. People can use it, and see the river. If you build a wall, it’s not clear what people are going to see.
We can rise to this challenge and we have to do it intelligently. I’m an optimist.