NJ makes pitch for massive shifts in statewide response to climate change

Resiliency report foresees relocation from flood areas and ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach by government
Credit: (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
File photo: June 20, 2019: Chris Smith makes his way through floodwaters in Westville after severe storms swept across southern New Jersey.

New Jersey released its first major statement Thursday on how the state should respond to climate change, recommending seismic and sobering changes that include moving population away from flood-prone areas; educating the public about the massive task ahead; redirecting state investment toward resiliency measures, and forging an “all-hands-on-deck” strategy within government.

The long-awaited State of New Jersey Climate Change Resiliency Strategy described 125 actions across six policy areas that it said should be implemented by public and private sectors to help adapt to the higher temperatures, bigger storms, heavier rains and rising seas already affecting the Garden State and set to worsen in coming decades.

New Jersey is especially vulnerable to climate change effects such as frequent flooding of residential areas or higher temperatures because of its long, flat coastline, and its intensely urban nature, the report said. And it warned that the impacts on infrastructure, public health and inequality will only worsen in future despite efforts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases that produce higher global temperatures.

A reduction in carbon emissions — a goal the Murphy administration is aggressively pursuing through initiatives like the promotion of offshore-wind power — won’t be enough to protect New Jerseyans from the worst effects of climate change, the report said. Climate scientists say that sea level at the Shore, for example, will rise until at least 2050 regardless of ongoing efforts to reduce emissions from cars or power plants.

‘Single greatest’ long-term threat

“Climate change is the single greatest long-term threat currently facing humanity, and our state and economy are uniquely vulnerable to its devastating effects,” wrote Gov. Phil Murphy in an introduction to the 120-page report, released on Earth Day. “These risks are already manifesting across New Jersey, and they will only worsen in the years to come, posing predictable and adverse impacts to our communities, economy, public health, and the daily lives of our residents.”

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The report builds on a climate science report describing the nature of the phenomenon, issued by the Department of Environmental Protection last year. Officials stressed that the calls to action are not detailed legislative or regulatory prescriptions but overarching statements of what needs to be done to protect the state from the ravages of climate change.

While some advocates welcomed Thursday’s report, others said its lack of specific actions was troubling.

The document’s release came on the same day that President Joe Biden formally pledged to reduce national carbon emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. He said the costs of inaction are “mounting” and argued that the countries that take steps to cut emissions now will be better placed to benefit from an economic boom that he said will accompany the coming transition to clean energy.

Murphy said the resiliency strategy document presents “baseline considerations” that prioritize key public-policy concerns and provide a framework for “continuous public engagement.”

In part, the strategy relies on improving public understanding of how life is being affected by climate change. While 64% of New Jersey residents say they know something about the effects of climate change, only 42% said they know how to prepare for it, the report said, citing a 2019 survey by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Nationally, only one in 10 people say they get their information on climate change from state government.

One way to help people understand more about climate change would be to create a dashboard of information on a state website, such as that now provided by the DEP as a central source of information on the subject, and a guide to relevant DEP programs, the report said.

Not just issue for Shore communities

It also warned residents of New Jersey’s coastal zone — not just the Shore but a wider area that is home to some 7 million year-round residents — to expect that they or their descendants will have to move to higher ground in years to come.

Whatever euphemisms are commonly attached to the idea of relocation from flood-prone areas, they all come down to the fact that many areas will become uninhabitable in future decades because of rising seas or heavier rainfall, according to the report.

Credit: (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
File photo: Oct. 30, 2012, a parking lot full of yellow cabs is flooded as a result of Superstorm Sandy in Hoboken, NJ.

“Alternately referred to as managed retreat, managed realignment, resilient relocation, or transformational adaptation, whatever the term, the result is the same; whether through individual or market decisions, people, businesses, and coastal functions will eventually move to safer areas,” it said.

With  1 foot of sea-level rise, 3,600 buildings will be flooded daily or permanently inundated, rising to 11,000 buildings under a 2-foot scenario, the report said. It estimated that seas at the Shore will rise 1-2 feet from 2000 levels by 2050 and 2-5 feet by the end of the century, under a moderate scenario of global emissions, reflecting the melting of land-based ice caps worldwide and the expansion of ocean water as it warms.

More than 60,000 homes statewide are already at risk of chronic flooding, and 2,600 of them were built or rebuilt since Superstorm Sandy devastated the Shore in 2012, the report said.

Elevating houses is not enough

Elevating homes is only a long-term solution if infrastructure like roads, bridges and water treatment plants are also permanently protected from flooding but that’s not happening, and so communities in flood-prone areas need to plan to move eventually to higher ground, it said.

The report also said the state should require county and local planners to identify potential relocation areas, based on sea-level rise projections and information on the areas where properties are repeatedly flooded. “This will improve property owners’ understanding of future risk, while also informing investments at all levels of government,” it said.

The document praised Blue Acres, a state program that has bought and demolished about 800 flood-prone private properties since the 1990s, but it said there are limits to the amount that government can spend on the purchases, which are funded by the Corporate Business Tax and federal money.

If the demand for buyouts exceeds available funding, the state should look at ways of limiting demand, including denying purchases for any newly built properties, the report said.

“If the demand for buyout and relocation assistance programs increases to a point where current acquisition programs are unsustainable, reforms should be explored including adding seller relocation contingencies to future buyout contracts, only allowing one buyout per property owner over a lifetime, and precluding buyout of any newly constructed homes in inundation areas.”

Credit: (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
File photo: Oct. 31, 2012, workers try to clear boats and debris from NJ Transit’s Morgan drawbridge after surge from Superstorm Sandy pushed boats and cargo containers onto the train tracks.

On ways to make a “significant public investment” in climate resiliency measures such as infrastructure or policy changes, the report said the state should identify how to incorporate climate change into fiscal planning, encourage private investment in resiliency projects, and identify ways of reducing climate risks to the public finances.

The cost of doing nothing

While resiliency measures are costly, avoiding them is far more so, the report said, noting that $1 spent on mitigation results in $6 in savings to the state in future remediation costs.

In government, the state’s Interagency Council on Climate Resilience is already coordinating the work of 17 state agencies, as directed by Murphy’s Executive Order 89, the document said. It called for the panel to help local governments take resiliency measures and to consider the needs of vulnerable, underserved populations, who may be disproportionately affected by climate change.

The DEP is working on an overhaul of regulations called Protecting Against Climate Threats that are expected to be published in coming months. They will include new requirements for anyone who wants to build a home in a flood-prone area.

And the report urged the state to strengthen natural systems such as coastal marshes that help to protect against climate change. Ecosystems not only harbor thousands of species of wildlife, but they also provide a range of services such as flood control and carbon sequestration that should be recognized and guarded, it said.

Pete Kasabach, executive director of the nonprofit New Jersey Future, which advocates “smart growth,” welcomed the report as an important step toward climate resiliency, and a shift in emphasis by the state from mitigation to adaptation.

Protecting ‘people, property, and the public dollar’

“After years of focusing planning efforts on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the administration has produced a complementary policy roadmap for the second pillar of climate change — adaptation. This is a critical recognition that climate change is here and will continue to impact our communities for decades to come, and that we need to adapt to these changes to protect people, property, and the public dollar,” he said.

In coming days, Kasabach said his team will be looking at details including how quickly the new strategy can be implemented.

But Jeff Tittel, the soon-to-retire director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the report was long on good intentions and short on specific actions to address the “climate emergency.”

“It’s a plan to make a plan,” he said. “It talked about a lot of the problems and identified them but there were not any bold actions in here.”

Tittel said it’s not enough to expand the Blue Acres program or talk to people about how to prepare for climate change. Rather, the state should be making regulatory changes to implement the policy “and that’s what I didn’t see,” he said. “This would have been a good plan 20 years ago.”

It would have been better, Tittel said, if the DEP had changed the planning structure in order to manage the threat from sea-level rise and storm surges.

Meanwhile, the report called itself just the first step toward ensuring that New Jersey’s communities, landscapes and economy are designed to cope with future conditions.

“Climate change will permeate every sector, and affect every individual, family and community in some way,” it said.

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