Sinking Feeling

The Cost of Hope: $20 Billion

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg says nearly $20 billion could protect the city from climate change. But can he—and his successor—walk the walk? David Freedlander reports.

06.11.13 7:56 PM ET

Warning that the city faces dire consequences in the face of global climate change, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg laid out a far-reaching plan Tuesday to confront rising sea levels and a warming planet.

The plan, called “A Stronger and More Resilient New York,” comes in response to Hurricane Sandy, last year’s massive storm that rendered large swaths of the region uninhabitable and left 43 New Yorkers dead.

Speaking at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, a World War II–era shipyard retrofitted as a green-technology manufacturing center, Bloomberg said, “Today this building that once turned out battleships now helps lead us in another battle—a battle that may well define our future for generations to come: the battle against climate change.”

The Bloomberg administration warned that in the coming decades New York City will face summer heat waves similar to those in the Deep South, sea levels that are rising by as much as 11 inches, and devastating droughts and rainstorms. The number of New Yorkers living on a 100-year flood plain will double to 800,000 in 50 years’ time. If nothing is done, the mayor’s office warned, the nation’s largest city will face crippling damage to transportation and infrastructure networks, property loss, and increased joblessness as waterfront homes and businesses confront the effects of warming planet.

“If we do nothing, more than 40 miles of our waterfront could see flooding on a regular basis, just during normal high tides,” Bloomberg said before an audience of hundreds of city dignitaries. “Think about what that means—just in financial terms: Sandy cost $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity. And now we forecast that a storm like Sandy could cost nearly five times that much by midcentury—around $90 billion.”

Laying out a $19.5 billion initiative to guard against this future, Bloomberg proposed a series of storm walls and surge barriers in vulnerable areas of the city; a revamped building code to permit more buildings to be elevated off the ground; increased access to flood insurance; and improvements to the city’s health-care, electrical and transportation networks to prevent the kind of panicked scrambling that Sandy wrought.

“We’re not going to make the mistake of fighting the last war. We have to look ahead—and anticipate any and all future threats, not only from hurricanes, but also from droughts, heavy downpours like we had last week, and heat waves, which may be longer and more intense in the years to come,” the mayor said. “Now there is no solution to all of these challenges, and we won’t get all of this work done at once. That would be impossible. But piece by piece, over many years and even decades, we can build a city that’s capable of preparing better, withstanding more, and overcoming anything.”

In what was perhaps his most audacious proposal, Mayor Bloomberg proposed building a new neighborhood on the city’s east side to better protect Manhattan’s right flank. Modeled on Battery Park City, a neighborhood constructed on a landfill in the 1970s, “Seaport City” would bring new housing and businesses to the east side of Lower Manhattan and protect existing residents from future storms.

The mayor said this is not something that can be done by city hall alone. The city will need Congress to deliver on its promises made to the city in the wake of Sandy and is asking the federal government for an additional $4.5 billion. Plus, after 11 1/2 years and three terms in office, Mayor Bloomberg is planning on turning over the keys to city hall to a successor at the end of the year.

“It’s up to you to hold us accountable for making as much progress as possible over the next 203 days, and it’s up to you to hold our successor accountable for getting it done,” the mayor said.

Grappling with climate change has long been an interest of the mayor’s, who has combined his immense personal wealth—he is listed as one of the richest men in the country—and his position as the leader of America’s largest city to push for changes. After the hurricane, the mayor made a surprise endorsement of President Obama for reelection, citing his belief that global climate change is real. And in 2011, his personal foundation gave $50 million to the Sierra Club to help retire the nation’s aging coal fleet. In 2007 his administration embarked on an ambitious 25-year campaign called PlaNYC 2030 to help prepare the city for the future.

But the fact that Hurricane Sandy was so devastating led some environmentalists to warn that the Bloomberg administration and any future mayors must follow through with their plans.

“They did the assessments, they did the planning, but a lot of it was never implemented,” said Brian Holland, climate programs director at ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability USA, which pushes municipalities to coordinate their efforts to combat climate change. “They laid out a lot of things that haven’t been built yet. That is where the rubber meets the road. You can analyze, and you can plan, but the capital to actually build this infrastructure is just not flowing.”

But the Bloomberg administration, which is still cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy, is clearly counting on the hope that, in the wake of the storm, this time is different.

“We can’t completely climate-proof our city,” the mayor said. “That would be impossible. But we can make our city stronger and safer—and we can start today.”