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Pallone Says Congress Doing Nothing About Sea-Level Rise, Blames Tea Party

Nonprofit group releases survey showing NJ voters want state and federal governments to get more involved in planning for climate change

Frank Pallone
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone

New Jersey voters may want the government to do more to plan for rising sea levels and climate change, but the issue is dead in the water in Congress, according to U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th).

Speaking at a conference organized by the nonprofit Clean Ocean Action, Pallone told the audience that Tea Party members in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives refuse to discuss the matter.

“Congress is doing nothing,” the Democrat said. “They can’t bring this up -- if they do, they just get slapped down. We have to get this issue away from the ideology of the Tea Party and the right wing.”

Clean Ocean Action used the event -- which marked more than a year of post-Sandy cleanup by almost 14,000 volunteers across the state -- to release a survey showing that 96 percent of respondents believe climate change is at least a contributor to sea-level rise.

Some 52 percent believe the oceans will rise between one and five feet in the next 50 years.

The federal government should be focusing on long-term responses to rising seas such as buyouts of vulnerable coastal properties or setting higher requirements for homeowners to raise their houses above anticipated flood levels, Pallone said.

But he added that federal policy on the issue is driven more by short-term political agendas than any longer-term thinking. “I don’t think there is a lot being done in terms of long-term planning of alternatives,” he said. “Sea-level rise is getting worse, climate change is getting worse.”

The survey of 173 people between July and November also found that 70 percent of respondents think government at all levels should be developing a climate action plan, while more than 60 percent want government to establish a legislative authority to better regulate coastal development.

Sea-level rise along the mid-Atlantic coastline is occurring at about twice the global rate because the land in New Jersey, Delaware, and surrounding areas is sinking as waters rise. Climate scientists, including those at Rutgers University, estimate seas will rise by about three feet from current levels by 2100 in response to melting polar ice caps.

Pallone called for a permanent source of funding for climate-change planning that would not be subject to periodic spending cuts like the sequester. And he said there should be a “bill of rights” for holders of federal flood insurance that would protect homeowners as much as it does mortgage lenders.

Some two-thirds of survey respondents said the government should create a climate action plan, and about the same number said government should set stricter elevation limits for houses. Eighty-eight percent said they thought climate change was completely or mostly the result of human activity.

But respondents were about evenly split on whether the government should create a national fund to help homeowners and local authorities prepare for climate change and sea-level rise. Forty-nine percent supported such a fund while 47 percent opposed it.

Survey participants were an average of 44 years old; two-thirds were Democrats, while 14 percent were Republicans and the remainder were independent voters.

Although Republicans and Democrats differed on whether the government should create a national fund or set up a legislative authority to manage climate-change preparations, they were unanimous that government has a responsibility to act. Not a single respondent from any party agreed with the proposition that “There is no sea-level rise, the government does not need to act.”

At a community level, the most popular measures to prepare for sea-level rise were banning development in flood-prone areas, improving public education, and building sand dunes.

Asked what actions they would personally take to prepare for sea-level rise, about 90 percent favored staying off sand dunes, while 70 percent said they would be willing to use less energy and plant native species of vegetation.

“The survey of the people of the Jersey Shore led to one inescapable conclusion,” said Sean Dixon, an attorney for Clean Ocean Action, in a statement. “Nearly everyone agrees the climate is changing, the sea is rising, and that it’s up to us to make changes in our lives, communities, and laws.”

Despite calls for more government action, the event stressed the importance of volunteers from 125 organizations doing post-Sandy cleanup in more than 70 towns in New Jersey and New York.

Britta Wetzel, executive director of Save Barnegat Bay, said more than 500 volunteers cleared some 13,000 cubic yards of debris from Brick Township after the storm. “We did massive things that government couldn’t,” she said, in an emotional presentation.

Frank Lawrence, volunteer coordinator for Sea Bright, said volunteers are a critical part of the recovery in that hard-hit community, where 300-400 of the town’s approximately 1,400 residents are still not back in their homes.

While cleanup is continuing in communities like Sea Bright, they must also focus on preparing for higher seas and future storms, Lawrence said.

“We are only whatever time period away from the next big storm, and we need to take this thing seriously,” he said.

Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who covers energy, environmental, and general news for national and regional media.

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