Expert Panel Details Challenges of Adapting to Climate Change in New Jersey

NJ Spotlight roundtable brings together panelists from range of disciplines to analyze how state must adapt to global warming

Hoboken firehouse flooded by Hurricane Sandy.
With global warming already occurring, the state needs to adapt to its impact even as it takes steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, according to a panel of experts at a NJ Spotlight roundtable on preparing New Jersey for climate change.

Participants in the forum in Trenton on Friday predicted that climate change will have an adverse affect on a wide range of sectors in the state, from agriculture, coastal communities, infrastructure, public health, and natural and water resources.

Preparing the state to deal with the consequences of climate change is a huge challenge, given that they range from identifying the people and places most at risk, to implementing a statewide policy to respond to evolving issues, to finding a way to fund those strategies to make New Jersey better prepared to the deal with the effects of global warming.

Those recommendations are detailed in a report by the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance last summer, a study prepared by the group and Rutgers University, which sponsored the event. The time to act is long overdue, they said.

“It is really amazing how unprepared we have left ourselves — not just for the future, but for the present,’’ said Michael Catania, a cochair of the alliance and executive director of Duke Farms. “There is no excuse for not moving forward now.’’

As a coastal state, climate change is going to affect New Jersey more than other states, according to Catania.

“Mitigation, at this point alone, is not going to hold off some of the effects we already are feeling,’’ he said. “It’s too late to mitigate our way out of this.’’

More frequent storms, longer droughts, and more extreme weather all are potential consequences of climate change, according to many scientists and policymakers.

There is a lot of work to do to better prepare New Jersey for climate change, the panelists agreed. They include improving designs for the transportation sector to make it more resilient to extreme storms, such as Hurricane Sandy, when hundreds of railcars were flooded when parked in a vulnerable location, causing $120 million in damage.

“There are a lot of challenges in the transportation sector,’’ said Jon Carnegie, executive director of the Alan Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers. Among them are the many modes of transportation and the many owners of those systems. Another is that counties own many roads and lack the resources to address problems.

One of the alliance’s recommendations is to integrate statewide climate adaption strategies into the annual policy of state agencies and authorities, including capital planning. A similar recommendation, however, was incorporated into the state Redevelopment Plan with mixed results.

Perhaps a more challenging issue is identifying populations and people most at risk from the effects of climate change, several panelists said, including those who suffer from more intense heat during summer months.

“By 2050, the number of deaths will probably triple due to heat-related issues,’’ said Anna Baptista, assistant professor of the Milano School of International Affairs at the New School.

More money will be spent by the healthcare system, predicted Dr. George DiFerdinando, an adjunct professor of the Department of Epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health.

“Unfortunately, much of this spending is reactive,’’ he said. “Figuring out how to get the system to pay in advance is really difficult.’’ In any case, he indicated that health-related costs could be shrunk by proactively reducing emergency room visits.

The state’s utility sector also faces problems in making its system more resilient, an issue driven home by the fact that the three biggest storms Public Service Electric & Gas has had to deal with occurred in the past few years, according to Jess Melanson, director of energy services at the Newark utility.

PSE&G is spending $1.2 billion to improve the reliability of its power system, Melanson said, but faces increasing challenges posed by an electric grid that is becoming more complex. Utilities face problems maintaining the grid’s reliability because of the increased use of distribution generation — ranging from more locally situated independent power plants to solar systems used by homes and businesses.

It is not only coastal areas, however, that are at risk to climate change, one panelist said.

“We don’t have a floodplain problem,’’ said John Miller, legislative committee chairmn of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management. “We have a land-use problem. Our buildings are getting into the way of these storms.’’

Former Gov. Jim Florio said many of the problems posed by climate change may get addressed with more education about the issue. “All of this can get done if we get people engaged,’’ he said.