NJ Policymakers Face a Steep Climb in Implementing Climate-Science Report, Analysts Say

State response seen as unlikely to match daunting list of climate challenges identified in DEP document
Credit: (Giuliano Maiolini from Flickr; CC BY 2.0)
The 2020 Scientific Report on Climate Change did not stipulate how the state will respond to environmental changes that have already begun, including rising temperatures.

Environmental officials have identified a long list of severe climate threats facing New Jersey but they face formidable challenges in implementing the policies needed to respond to them, environmentalists and lawmakers said.

The 2020 Scientific Report on Climate Change, released by the Department of Environmental Protection on June 30, draws together existing research on the higher temperatures, bigger storms, rising seas, strained water supplies, worse air pollution, and many other effects that are already being seen here and that are expected to intensify in coming decades.

The report, the first result of recent executive orders on climate-change policy from Gov. Phil Murphy, did not say how the state will respond to the seismic environmental changes that have already begun, but whatever actions result, they are unlikely to match the massive scale of the problem, analysts said.

They predicted that policymakers will face pushback from the public if they try, for example, to limit development in flood-prone areas along the Shore or inland, and they said the state’s ability to act is now constrained by the plunge in revenue resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The issues that are laid out in that science report are the ones the state needs to respond to if they’re going to respond responsibly to what the science is telling us,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the New Jersey-based American Littoral Society. “But I don’t want to underestimate the challenge it will pose given the traditional pushbacks on responsible environmental management.”

Dillingham predicted that resistance to curbs on Shore development — his own top priority for climate policy — will strengthen because of the economic damage wrought by the pandemic.

Credit: Hurricanehink from Wikimedia (CCO 1.0)
Many Shore towns are vulnerable to flooding: Flooding after a nor’easter in Ocean City, Cape May County

“Any time there is an attempt to limit development, the pushback is that it will destroy our economy,” Dillingham said. “In the past, there hasn’t been a lot of validity to that, but we now have an economy that is destroyed in a lot of ways, and that will add to the pressure to not take steps to take protective measures.”

So much to address in economic hard times

Those factors are likely to underpin a big difference between the climate effects specified by the report and the policies prompted by them. “It’s going to be a big bucket of things to address, and with the economics, and the inherent pushback, it’s going to be a tremendous challenge to address all of them,” he said.

Last year, a study by the national real estate firm Zillow and the Princeton-based research group Climate Central showed that about 4,500 New Jersey homes were built between 2009 and 2017 in areas that are vulnerable to the kind of flood that typically occurs once every 10 years. The new homes were added in the so-called risk zone at almost three times the rate in safer areas, and were the largest number in any coastal state, the study found.

Meanwhile, the new DEP report forecast a rise in sea level of up to 2.1 feet by 2050; an increase in the state’s average annual temperature by as much as 5.7 degrees F by 2050, and a jump in precipitation by up to 11% by the middle of this century.

It also said New Jersey is warming faster than other parts of the Northeast, and other parts of the world, because of large areas of heat-trapping concrete and asphalt in its highly urbanized environment. And it issued the latest warning that the state, like the rest of the mid-Atlantic shoreline, is seeing more sea-level rise than many other areas of the globe because land is sinking and ocean currents are shifting at the same time as ocean waters are rising.

In Atlantic City, for example, the frequency of tidal flooding has risen from less than once a year during the 1950s to an average of eight times a year over the past decade. By 2100, it’s virtually certain that the city will see high-tide flooding 95 days a year, assuming global carbon emissions and temperatures continue to rise at the current rate, the report said.

It calls for a “comprehensive and forward-thinking response” from all levels of government and society.

Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon (D–Essex), a member of the Environment and Solid Waste Committee, said the report shows a “demonstrated commitment by the State to ensure climate action in New Jersey is guided by science and facts.” The document is the basis for a mitigation plan that will “safeguard new Jersey’s environmental future,” he said in a statement.

Anticipating public outcry

But state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Environment and Energy Committee, predicted an “outcry” from the public if the DEP tightens rules such as those on coastal development, after its current review of regulations under the Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJ PACT) process, which is expected to be complete this fall.

Still, Smith said critics will eventually be forced to accept the inevitability of radical new policies to adapt the state to the stark realities of climate change. He said some coastal municipalities such as Toms River that were hard-hit by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 have begun to curb development in flood-prone areas, recognizing the growing threat to their towns.

“The report lays it on the line that this is an existential crisis for New Jersey. DEP is doing its very best to get the attention of the policymakers and the citizens of the state to say we really have to move faster than we’ve been moving,” he said. “It’s putting everybody on notice that this change is coming faster than expected, and you better start thinking about it.”

Top of DEP’s list, Smith said, should be policy measures for the Jersey Shore that get people and property out of harm’s way. One way of doing that, Smith and other analysts said, would be to greatly expand the state’s Blue Acres program which buys houses that have been repeatedly flooded, demolishes them, and uses the land to create open space that can absorb storms and rising seas.

The program was expanded with federal money after Sandy in 2012, and last year marked its 700th property acquisition, but critics say it’s dwarfed by the problem. “Blue Acres is a good idea but nowhere near the scale needed,” Dillingham said.

Thousands of ‘Repetitive Loss’ properties in NJ

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state has more than 14,000 “Repetitive Loss” properties — those that have had at least two paid flood losses of more than $1,000 in any 10-year period since 1978.

Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R-Bergen), an environmental spokesman for the Republican caucus, agreed that there will be a “huge implementation problem” when policymakers attempt to act on the science report. But he said the report itself was only a partial statement of the climate problem that should have taken into account a broad range of views from business and residents as well as academics and other environmental experts.

“We need to look past this report and use it as just a small piece of the puzzle,” he said. “This really doesn’t guide us on any particular pathway to success for not only the residents of New Jersey but the businesses of New Jersey.”

In almost five years in the Assembly, Rooney said he has seen “small stabs” at mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis, and he urged both parties to write a comprehensive response. “We have to recognize in a bipartisan way that climate change is real,” he said.

On coastal development, he said there are some places where it should be restricted but those should not include previously developed land on which owners are already paying taxes.

The expected public resistance to some climate policies shows that adaptation to a changing climate will be a bigger challenge than efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change such as greenhouse gas emission, analysts said. Mitigation measures include Murphy’s new goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, and the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 2006 levels, as set by the state’s Global Warming Response Act of 2007.

Mitigation such as building wind farms is likely to be an easier sell to the public because they generate jobs as well as cut carbon emissions, Dillingham argued, but it will be harder to tell people that they have to adapt to a changing climate by, for example, not building houses at the Shore.

“Adaptation is the less-recognized side of the coin, and it’s harder to deal with in many ways,” he said.

But Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, called for mitigation measures such as reducing carbon emissions as well as adaptation such as managing a retreat from the Shore.

“We need aggressive mitigation measures that are going to not just stop the increase in climate pollution but reduce it,” he said. “That’s going to require a sea-change of action from DEP.”

The DEP report underscores the urgency of the department’s review of climate-related regulations, he said. “New Jersey does not have time to lose, even in a pandemic, to address climate change, and we need to change every regulatory structure at DEP to reflect that reality.”

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