DEP Report Specifies Climate-Change Effects but Avoids Policy Prescriptions

Officials say action plan to counter the impacts will come in September, as required in executive orders
Credit: Tom from Flickr
Coastal flooding, seen here on Long Beach Island, could become more common if left unchecked.

Environmental officials unveiled a scientific report Tuesday on what climate change will do to New Jersey, but they declined to specify how the state plans to respond, saying new climate policy will be proposed later this year.

The 2020 Scientific Report on Climate Change from the state Department of Environmental Protection is the first result of two executive orders from Gov. Phil Murphy requiring officials to identify the scope of climate challenges faced by the Garden State and then specify how the state should respond.

The new report predicted higher temperatures, rising seas, bigger storms and disruptions to human health and wildlife, among a wide-ranging description of how climate change will affect New Jersey. All are familiar forecasts gleaned from regional, national and global climate studies, but the new report presents them in a Jersey-specific form as the basis for future policy action, officials said.

“If you’ve been reading every report that comes out, you will see it as a summary of what’s already available,” said David Rosenblatt, the state’s chief resilience officer. “But for the first time in one place, New Jersey has put out the science that it is going to respond to.”

He said a 10-page executive summary of the 205-page report is designed to be a primer on climate science that is relevant to New Jersey specifically, and will show non-specialist readers how they are, and will be, hit by the changing climate.

“If you are sitting on a beach today, and high tide is a foot at your piling, what’s it going to look like when there are four feet of sea level rise? If you are in Jersey City or Hoboken or Trenton today, and it’s hot, what happens when the summers get hotter?” he said during a conference call with reporters.  “Being Jersey-specific, as much as we could, hopefully we will get people to think personally about what it means to them.”

Basis for future action

The report will be followed in September with a climate-change strategy document that will include a coastal resiliency report, Rosenblatt said. “The scientific work that we offer today is the basis for all the strategies that will come after. It’s the basis for what we need to do,” he said.

The document comes the day after a national report from First Street Foundation, a research group, predicted that New Jersey would see a 19% increase in properties at substantial risk from flooding over the next 30 years.

New Jersey’s average temperature has already increased by 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the end of the 19th century, and is expected to rise by up to another 5.7 degrees over the next 30 years, the DEP report said.

It noted that the Garden State is subject to more warming than the rest of the U.S. Northeast and the rest of the world because its large areas of asphalt and concrete trap heat and create a “heat island” effect.

The report also predicted there will be 7% to 11% more precipitation in the state by 2050 and that there’s a 50% chance of seas rising by 1.4 feet by that time, and by 6 feet or more by the end of the century.

It warned that rising temperatures may worsen air pollution, especially for low-income communities already impacted by pollution and environmental stress. And it warned that water supplies to farm crops will come under increasing demand because warmer weather will extend the growing season.

Wildfire seasons are also likely to become longer and more active as temperatures rise with longer periods between rainfalls, while unabated carbon-dioxide emissions will increase the acidity of the ocean, harming New Jersey’s fishing and aquaculture industry.

The state’s climate effects are likely to be the result of a “moderate” global carbon scenario that’s in line with current emissions, said Nick Procopio, chief of the Bureau of Environmental Assessment in the DEP’s Division of Science and Research. That scenario, which assumes a 5.4-degree F increase in the overall global temperature by 2100, represents a mid-point between sharp cuts in carbon emissions, which are considered unlikely given current global mitigation policies, and strong growth in emissions with little mitigation, according to the report.

Some want action now

Officials refused to say whether the predicted inundation of some coastal areas would mean restrictions on development there or other policy options like the expansion of the Blue Acres program — under which the state buys up groups of properties in chronically flooded areas, and uses the land to create open space or buffers against future flooding.

DEP Chief of Staff Sean La Tourette said existing land-use regulation, as currently being reviewed by the department, is no longer suited to current environmental conditions.

“If we are confronted with rising sea levels and chronic inundation, we should not confine ourselves to regulating what and where we build by rules that we made 30 years ago,” he said. “We need to make rules that govern us far into the future.”

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the New Jersey-based American Littoral Society, welcomed the report as a valuable summary of climate-change literature that’s relevant to New Jersey.

“It lays out the critical and increasing challenges facing New Jersey as a consequence of climate change, clearly supported by science,” he said. “It leaves few places to hide, and takes away the ‘I didn’t know’ excuse from those seeking to avoid accountability. The report is a strong foundation for the Murphy administration’s efforts to protect the state.”

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the report should have specified policy actions. “It’s another scientific study that has good information but we don’t need a study, we need an action plan,” he said.

Tittel argued that New Jerseyans are already familiar with the effects of climate change such as full-moon flooding on Long Beach Island that forces residents to move their cars, and the toxic algae blooms that are again closing lakes this summer.

“People in New Jersey want the government to act, and that’s what they are not seeing,” he said.