NPR

As Storm Recovery Continues, Looking To The Future

Communities along the East Coast are reeling from the impact of Hurricane Sandy, dealing with electric outages, flooded streets, damaged sewage plants and fractured transportation lines. Can cities rebuild stronger, more resilient infrastructure to weather the storms of the future?

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Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. Sandy was huge, devastating and unprecedented, and we knew she was coming. But was there any way to adequately prepare for her record high floodwaters that inundated New York's subway and traffic tunnels, paralyzing the city, or the indescribable damage to the New Jersey and Connecticut coastlines that literally wiped out parts of the real estate, wiped them right off the map?

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo may have summed it up best. It seems like we have a 100-year flood every two years, he said, and we're going to have to deal with it. This hour we'll talk about how we're going to deal with it, the inevitable rise of the oceans due to climate change and the disasters of the future.

What new kinds of thinking, engineering, social design will be needed? And has Sandy put global warming and climate change on the political map? In a surprise move, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed President Obama this week, citing his belief in climate change. Is the mayor's move enough to make climate change an election issue it has not been so far?

A lot to talk about this hour, including an amazing view of Sandy you may not have seen before. It's on our video pick of the week. That'll be coming up, and if you'd like to talk about it, our number at 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can always tweet us @scifri or go to our website at sciencefriday.com.

Let me introduce my first guest. Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for the New Yorker. She joins us by phone. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Hey, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. What do you make of the mayor, Mayor Bloomberg's endorsement so late in the game? Do you think that Sandy will make climate change an issue?

KOLBERT: Well, it's a really interesting question. I mean, as you point out, it's very late in the day. We're just a couple days from election day. So there's really no opportunity to change the dynamic of the race or really even change the conversation at this point.

But I do think it is sort of potentially a breakthrough moment, especially if President Obama does end up winning. If he ends up losing, I suppose it will be a breakthrough moment in a different way, and that is that someone has in my either recollection for the first time a major political figure come and out and said this is why - I am doing this because of climate change, that my position is based on the president's positions on climate change.

FLATOW: It's interesting that just I think a day or two before, I quoted Governor Cuomo as saying that this is something we really - you know, this is serious and a major politician also, this is serious, and we have to deal with it.

KOLBERT: Yeah, that was another very interesting moment. I got that emailed to me, you know, within 30 seconds of his saying that by several people. I think that was another very important moment, though I think, you know, New York officials have - Mayor Bloomberg has had a panel out there for years looking at the effects of climate change on the cities.

So it's not the first time that New York city or New York state officials have said - and New York state has had a panel looking on potential climate impacts on the state. So these - and they've testified in front of Congress on all this. So New York officials have, you know, been pretty straightforward about this.

But I think in a national context, especially in a race where this has been so pointedly ignored for the whole race, it's a significant development.

FLATOW: Do you - yeah, looking forward after this, no matter who wins, do you think because of the Midwest droughts, the extreme weather, go and name other kinds of things that have happened over the past year or so, do you think this will become part of the dialogue?

KOLBERT: Well, I unfortunately do not have a crystal ball. The only thing that I can tell you and that scientists have been warning us, you know, for 30, 40, 50 years is that these things are going to happen, and we are seeing them in a sort of accelerating - things are happening even faster than many of the models predicted.

So it seems like a very safe bet at this point that by the time we get to the next presidential election, we will have seen several more significant weather-related, you know, loss events as they're called in the insurance industry that will compel attention.

Now, you know, the problem with climate change is always that people have been trying to get people's attention because climate change is something that's always further along than it appears. There's - the system is out of equilibrium right now, and it's going to take decades to get back into equilibrium no matter what we do at this point.

FLATOW: All right, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us, Elizabeth. We're going to be (unintelligible).

KOLBERT: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: That's - Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and she was joining us by phone. I'd like to bring up our next guest and talk about our next topic, which is rebuilding, rethinking, re-engineering the city's infrastructure for rising sea levels and the storms of the future.

Can we keep people safe, avoid gas shortages like the kinds we're seeing today, blackouts, crippled transport networks? Or do we just have to deal with it? Let me introduce my guest. Radley Horton is associate research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute. He's also a climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and he served as the climate science lead for the NYC Panel on Climate Change. He joins us by phone today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Horton.

RADLEY HORTON: Thank you, it's great to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Andy Revkin has been writing about global warming since the '80s and nowadays writes the Dot Earth Blog for the New York Times. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Andy.

ANDREW REVKIN: Good to be with you.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, Radley. As Elizabeth Kolbert said that Mayor Bloomberg had been watching this for years as part of New York City's study of climate change. Were you surprised by him coming out yesterday?

HORTON: I think his statement is very much in line with the perspective we saw going all the way back to 2008. The mayor showed leadership in addressing climate hazards and climate change and forming a taskforce comprised of agencies, private-sector companies and really beginning to look at the vulnerabilities, the climate hazards and develop strategies to reduce that vulnerability.

FLATOW: Now, you served on the New York City Panel on Climate Change, and I know that Columbia, Lamont-Doherty, all the folks up there have been doing a lot of predictions I remember going back 10 years or more now about what New York would look like if climate change were real, and global warming, and the seas were rising.

And you made - and if I remember reading your reports years ago, your first prediction was that the New York subways would be flooding.

HORTON: That's right. I mean, we've known that New York City has large vulnerabilities, being a densely populated coastal city with a lot of its infrastructure right along that coast: transportation, electrical systems, communication.

We've known there's this big vulnerability, and New York City is trying to take steps, I'd say, to reduce that vulnerability.

FLATOW: So this was not surprises, the power outages, the flooded tunnels, things like that?

HORTON: I would say that the extent of the flooding was a surprise. And to give one example, we had a setup really where the timing where the surge, the amount of water pushed forward by the wind in the storm, really coincided so that we had the peak of the surge at almost precisely the same time that we had the natural high tide.

That made the flooding worse. It made the extent of the impacts worse. But these are the type of impacts that I think, you know, coastal cities in general do face.

FLATOW: Andy Revkin, you've talking about how it doesn't really matter whether climate change contributed to the storm because the damage to our cities is still our fault, and we need to deal with that.

REVKIN: Well, what I was saying was that, you know, you can - there's been a lot of people fighting about was this global warming or not global warming, but that debate is a side note when you realize that the - again, as I was saying, the destruction here is our fault in the sense that we make choices about where to build, where to subsidize and then how to gird against the worst case.

The post that I have right now on Dot Earth, "Building With Resilience in Mind," gets at what the mayor was talking about, which is there are two issues. One is what do you do about emissions, greenhouse gases, and that's a century-scale question because again, even if you had perfect climate policy, you're not going to blunt sea-level rise more than a few inches in this century by some estimates.

At the same time, in a crowding world that's building ever more stuff, if we don't get more serious about taking the worst-case scenarios into consideration when we're building them, we're really setting ourselves up for this kind of problem going forward in a big way.

FLATOW: Let me ask both of you: But how does a political agency, any politician, look 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 years into the future?

REVKIN: Well, they don't, that's the problem. It's - part of this is human nature. Part of it is just how our politics is all torqued toward the here and now. And that's why climate itself is such a tough issue because it's all really multi-generational, ultimately.

HORTON: I think, you know, we're dealing with a lot of relic infrastructure. I mean, if we look at - when some of the transportation infrastructure was built, water tunnels, we're going back over 100 years. But I think we're seeing proactive leadership in trying to prepare. I mean, we know at this point, essentially, that - and we've had a foot of sea-level rise in the past century.

A lower-end projection suggests we'll have two more feet over the next century. Even if storms themselves don't change, we're going to get something on the order of three times as many coastal flood eventually.

Well, fortunately I think there are some strategies that can be taken to reduce that vulnerability.

FLATOW: Such as?

HORTON: I think it's - you know, we really need a suite of strategies, everything from the federal scale down to individual levels. Some of the things we're talking about that we can do right away include elevating critical infrastructure. We look at some of these electrical systems in basements, on the first floor. We need to get those up to higher levels.

We need to look at passive approaches, whereby you can have flooding of the first or second floor of some, you know, maybe newly designed building in terms of innovative designs. I think a key issue that's come up here is the need for energy redundancy, look at the ways that all of our infrastructure is interconnected.

But just to sort of pick on one example, the electricity and energy system, when we saw the power go out, we see individual suffering, we see loss of revenue as businesses are unable to operate, but we also see electricity being out having impacts on other parts of the key infrastructure.

It's harder to pump water out of the subway tunnels when you don't have access to electricity for pumps. It's harder to get gas for your car when so much of the distribution system is out because there's not electricity, and the pumps can't work.

Electricity is also part of the story in the telecommunications, cell phones not working quite as well. So we need to build in redundancy, for example, to the electrical and energy systems so that we can get sort of up and running faster. There are a lot of other strategies we can talk about, as well, in terms of adapting.

FLATOW: Yeah, and I guess if we have more fuel-efficient or electric cars, they'd be storing up energy in their batteries, you wouldn't be needing to go out and fill them up with gasoline.

HORTON: Good point.

REVKIN: Ira, there's one other example of just what Radley was talking about. Tom Bourgeois, who's another professor at Pace, where I teach now with my blogging, said that there are a number of NYU facilities that didn't go dark because they have distributed generation, which is really interesting to look at. I'm hoping that there'll be some coverage in the Times soon on that in the news side.

FLATOW: All right, we'll come back, we have a lot to talk about, our number 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about rebuilding, re-engineering, rethinking how to avoid these next disasters because we know that the ocean's rising, and we're going to be getting more storms like this. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Radley Horton and Randy Revkin. So stay with us. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about Hurricane Sandy and how we can rebuild our cities to be more resilient in the future with my guests: Andy Revkin has been writing about global warming since the '80s, and now he writes the Dot Blog, Dot Earth Blog for the New York Times; Radley Horton, associate research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute, and he served as climate science lead for the New York City Panel on Climate Change.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. What other creative ways, Dr. Horton, can we think about to rebuild in a better way? You mentioned raising power lines a little bit above on new buildings. You don't want to put them too high outside, right, on the other hand, because they could get hit by a tree.

HORTON: There are absolutely a lot of tradeoffs there. You know, it may not be the power lines, it may be electrical equipment just at the building scale. It may be other equipment you can raise. Look at the wastewater treatment plants. That's somewhere where, based on the recommendations of our panel, New York City has already begun to raise key pumps in the wastewater treatment plant, for example at the Rockaways.

So it's sort of a point about raising valuable infrastructure generally. Other things we can do - green infrastructure solutions, putting in special plants, drainage systems to catch rainwater, which can be a big part of these flood events as well.

Can we restore wetlands just offshore to protect and buffer against the impact of storms? And part of the discussion nationally, I think, has to be about managed retreat in some cases. We know that there are some areas where it's not going to be possible to go with sort of a hard infrastructure solution. The soils may not support it. There are places where you have limestone, where you can't build a barrier there. You may have to discuss retreat, sort of something Andy was getting to earlier, I think.

And then I think part of the discussion does need to be these engineering solutions as well, at least as something we should research, something, you know, maybe as simple as a small seawall, and in some cases there are cities that, you know, have gone with more elaborate systems as well.

FLATOW: Andy, want to chip in on that?

REVKIN: Well, yeah, and here you get into some of the systemic and political questions, because this all circles back to what we end up with as priorities. And politicians, while we call them leaders, still - are still mostly followers. And just this morning, in watching some of the news in some of the most hard-hit parts of the metropolitan region, you saw - I saw the same thing I saw in 2004 in covering Hurricane Ivan, the onslaught of that hurricane down in Alabama - people standing and saying we're going to rebuild.

And that's really an issue that's - I don't know other than roots of education and really revealing some of the subsidies that we have in place that foster rebuilding in places that are fundamentally not sound, I think we have to kind of really work hard at figuring out how to make that case.

FLATOW: Speaking of political solutions, on the line with us now is Dannel Malloy. He's governor of Connecticut. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Governor Malloy.

GOVERNOR DANNEL MALLOY: It's great to be with you.

FLATOW: As a resident myself of Stamford who just got our electricity back this morning, I want to thank you for all the hard work you folks have been doing out there. But I know there's still a lot of challenges facing you as a governor. What is on your to-do list in terms of making Connecticut less vulnerable to future storms? And we don't see a lot about it because New Jersey has been so awfully wiped-out by the storm, but you yourself have a long coastline that suffered greatly from the storm.

MALLOY: We do. We have about 30 communities that stretch the entirety of our shoreline. Our shoreline, obviously, for folks who aren't familiar, is Long Island Sound, and so we share that with Long Island, New York.

We had actually volumes of water that we have never seen before in Long Island Sound, and it did a fair amount of damage. If there was any saving grace, it's that the winds didn't push more water into Long Island Sound. And we have vulnerable areas.

Again, I've talked about infrastructure issues for years. I've talked about global warming issues since 1997. And I think that unfortunately we're not taking either sufficiently seriously enough. That's a problem. And somehow one of our political parties has become anti-infrastructure, which I absolutely don't understand.

I mean the very same people that will tell you they've been to China, Europe, and marvel at the train systems or the new airports that are being built, then come back to this country and refuse to support those kinds of investments, and that includes the hardening of our infrastructure in vulnerable places.

You know, most of our population is spread out along our shores, whether it's the Eastern Seaboard, the Western Seaboard shared by a few states, or for that matter along the Gulf Coast. We're going to have to harden infrastructure very significantly over the next, you know, two days to 20 years. I mean that's the reality.

FLATOW: When you say harden the infrastructure, does that mean building seawalls or floodgates or...

MALLOY: I think it's - it's floodgates, it's battling(ph) - drainage systems, it's seawalls where that's appropriate. I mean it's all of those things, every one of them. And no - and quite frankly, changing design concepts in some of our urban environments. I mean there are assets that can be sacrificed in floodwaters.

Parking facilities, for instance, underneath buildings up to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth floor is a better way to handle being flooded out with boilers and electrical systems above that than having the entire, you know, entire half of Manhattan without power right now.

FLATOW: In the Washington Post this week, three Stanford, Stanford with an N, researchers wrote that several of the East Coast nuclear plants were, quote, unprepared for high waves. And one of the plants they listed as most vulnerable to flooding is the Millstone Plant on the Connecticut coastline.

MALLOY: Yeah, you know, there are conflicting reports on that. Obviously we kept an eye on it. I'm not sure they understand how high that facility is and how high above the water it actually is. And you know, as somebody who's just lived through, you know, the biggest attack on Connecticut since 1938, record hurricane, it came through with flying colors.

Having said that, if anything more needs to be done, it should be done, and we should undertake it. But you know, because it's in my state, I follow that quite a bit, and we did power down to about 75 percent of output just because there was concern whether debris in the water might cause a difficulty at the intake, not because there was any fear of wind or wave action.

And then obviously it's well-protected from a tsunami being across Long Island Sound from Long Island. So that's not a problem either.

FLATOW: One last question for you as a governor and with voting booths set to open across the country on Tuesday: How do you deal with the power outages? Can you plan to deal with voters and the lack of electricity in some of the voting centers?

MALLOY: I think - I mean we - I just got off a phone call where we talked about if there continue to be any voting places that are without power by Sunday, or perhaps tomorrow night, we'll then ship generator powers to those facilities. We've made a lot of progress in Connecticut in a relatively short period of time, going from about 600,000 people without power - or I should say customers, to about 200,000.

I think we could - I think we'll have every voting place connected one way or the other, but if we don't, we will in fact have generators. We're going to run this election, and you know, I want to encourage everyone to get out and vote.

FLATOW: Governor Malloy, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

MALLOY: Thank you, take care, bye-bye.

FLATOW: Dannel Malloy, governor of Connecticut. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Also with us is Radley Horton, associate research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute; Andrew Revkin, who has been writing the Dot Earth Blog for the New York Times. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Martin in Oakland, California. Hi, Martin.

MARTIN: Good morning, Ira. It's a pleasure being on your show. I wanted to echo the governor's comments on, you know, needing cities' (unintelligible) infrastructure. It's been woefully put to the back of everybody's budget for years, and our cities that are right on coastlines don't have any of the big money infrastructure at all.

And I think civil engineers as a group are ready to address this problem if they had the federal and state funding to go ahead. We've got to go large in order to save our cities. These little tiny fixes, stoppers at the front of subways and such, are not going to do it. A more, larger situation like the Dutch (unintelligible) or the surge barrier, that is well-proven and has saved them from flooding many times, would be completely appropriate in this situation.

And they've already done all the engineering. We've just got to make it here.

FLATOW: Dr. Horton, would you agree?

HORTON: You know, I think that these sort of large-scale engineering solutions are something that New York City absolutely needs to research. I think, you know, that was a key recommendation of the New York City panel on climate change as led by Cynthia Rosenzweig and Bill Solecki. But there are key issues that you need to explore before you just go ahead and start building them. Will they perform as intended? Are there unforeseen consequences in building them?

HORTON: What happens if you have a false sense of security and you - people sort of stop taking precautions behind the barriers? What are some of the social implications? What happens to people who live just outside or the boundary of the barriers? Would they potentially have slightly larger surges? There may be ways around these issues. There may be ways around some of the environmental concerns that come up in terms of sediment transports being block by a barrier, for example, which can itself, you know, impact flood risks.

So I think, you know, barriers may end up being the way to go. Clearly, they've been the way to go, you know, in a lot of other cities, you know, Providence, New Bedford in the U.S., if we look at The Netherlands as mentioned. But I think, you know, New York City will have to look at that with its own set of circumstances and unique conditions.

FLATOW: Andy Revkin, are there - is there any mythology about this storm itself that people need to be aware of that it was this, it wasn't that?

REVKIN: Mythology in terms of its meteorological...

FLATOW: Yeah.

REVKIN: ...potency or...

FLATOW: Yeah.

REVKIN: ...well, and Radley knows the history of hurricanes pretty well, and I'm sure he could really weigh in a little bit on half the storms. In 1821, that was the epic one of all time, which from what I understand from a story in Queens College, when that hit, Manhattan was briefly two islands. Of course, it was a very different place in 1821. There wasn't all of the construction and building that took place since, but we've been hammered before epically. And one of the things I wanted to mention just about this infrastructure investment is just the word investment.

And this gets batted around by politicians all the time, but just on Dot Earth today, there's Jonathan Rose who was involved with the MTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency, in New York several years ago did its own climate resilience plan. And he was on that - he headed that commission, and he on Dot Earth today - Jonathan Rose - was talking about how we have to look at this as an investment, not a cost. And he says right now - he made the point that it's cheap right now, with interest rates, as he says, on the federal 30-year bonds now below 3 percent, this is an ideal time to make the case for such investments. So there's maybe an opportunity there in that sense. But as Radley says, of course, you have to know what you're building and why.

FLATOW: And I guess as far as an investment and as far as creating jobs, short of a war, you know, that creates jobs at home, this would be a different kind of war that would certainly create a lot of jobs very quickly, put people to work.

REVKIN: Yup.

HORTON: Yeah. I think, you know, there are a lot of infrastructure investments that probably do make sense right away today. I mean, we know, you know, as we heard, that there haven't been enough investments. We haven't sort of respected our infrastructure in a sense. We haven't maintained it. So we need going forward to consider how a changing climate will impact, you know, our design standards. And there's a lot we can do today. You know, every year, you see culverts, those sort of mundane pipes that go under roads, for example.

Those come up for replacement every single year. That's something that you do anyway without consideration of climate change. Maybe there's a simple way to build in the perspective of a possible broader range of climate outcomes, more intense precipitation events in the future just as a design standard. You could call it a design precaution even at relatively low cost, and that, you know, that gives you extra resiliency.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking with Radley Horton and Andy Revkin. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a couple of calls in. Eli(ph) in Champaign, Illinois.

ELI: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

ELI: Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to add to that sea barrier because that's something that was discussed about five years ago in New York, and one of the reasons they rejected it was that it supposedly would cost too much - six billion some odd dollars at that time. In a way, that would have prevented all the damage in New York City, in Brooklyn and possibly some in New Jersey. And if you just think of it in terms of an adjustment on insurance rates, you could have a public-private consortium of some sorts building that.

And it would alleviate the need to make the major changes which would never happen in New York infrastructure where this is the one item that would alleviate the need to make all the changes into the wiring, electrical, subway, et cetera, which isn't going to happen because of the complications. So I think it's something that's important to think of and to think of it from a private perspective and a private funding perspective.

FLATOW: Radley?

ELI: So I'd like to hear what your...

FLATOW: OK.

ELI: ...guests have to say about that.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Radley Horton?

HORTON: Yeah. I think I agree with a lot of that sentiment. I think clearly, you know, an effort that ambitious would need private sector at the table. It would need a lot of communities at the table - legal or regulatory considerations as well. But, you know, I think it's, you know, that - it has to be part of the discussion.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. And so besides building immediate - in the immediate future, besides building culverts and other drainage types of structures, what other steps can the public and also people building their own homes and buildings take over the next few years?

HORTON: So if I could jump in with a couple...

FLATOW: Sure.

HORTON: ...examples of maybe what individuals can do, I think, you know, simple steps along the lines of keeping track of some of the more vulnerable members of our communities. Are there people who may have trouble heeding evacuation orders, who are going to experience more stress during any time of any type of climate event, even a heat wave, say, when the power goes out. So start looking out for some of our neighbors. Also, the importance of heeding evacuation orders. You know, when we look at the stress that was put on, you know, the first responders, fire department and such, doing their heroic efforts to the extent that people heed evacuation orders, to the extent that they store water and food in their homes. That can, you know, be as a step towards personal responsibility that can make us safer against a range of hazards.

FLATOW: Andy, if I hear one message that both of you were saying is - it is don't think that this is not going to happen again, that this was...

REVKIN: That's certainly. That is absolutely a message.

FLATOW: ...freak of nature.

REVKIN: Yeah. And, by the way, there's another analysis I stumbled on today that I put on the blog post on Dot Earth today. It was a World Bank study. And a World Bank economist who is their lead climate guy, he said he did this analysis that shows just how - the reason we get into harm's way is because of basic behavior. The risk is worth the reward. In other words, building close to the coast, close to a river comes with so many rewards, proximity to your shipping, proximity to, well, for rich people, you know, just being on a beach. And you just tolerate that.

But at the same time, there are all these needs to kind of look for the subsidies that are helping those things happen and finding ways to get those out of our system. Insurance, flood insurance, coastal flood insurance.

FLATOW: All right. We'll go and take a break. We'll come back more and talk lots more about Sandy. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: This SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about preparing our cities for the flooding and storms of the future with my guests. Radley Horton, associate research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute. Andy Revkin, he's been writing about global warming since the '80s, and now he writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times. Our number is 1-800-989-8255.

Andy, I follow your column a lot. I know that people are always trying to make - connect the dots, connection between hurricanes and climate, climate change. Can you make that dot connection in this case?

REVKIN: Well, the thing you can make a connection to is that your exacerbating the risks that storms will be just that little bit stronger, surges just that little bit more potent to top a levee or get into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel through the background heating of the climate system. There's no question about that. But too much of the rhetoric was this back and forth thing on was this storm caused by global warming? And that's really a distraction because it just - the realities are that there were just - the hurricanes are one of the more complicated outcomes of the climate system in general. And figuring out how the various factors that come with rising greenhouse gas emissions will shape their behavior makes them - if they're not at the right place to look for the kind of clear evidence of this is us kind of answer.

FLATOW: Radley Horton?

HORTON: You know, as Andy said, sea level rise is like raising the floor of a basketball court. The rims, you know, all our infrastructure staying at the same height. We're going to get more slam dunks just by virtue of having that average sea level get higher. There's very important research going on, I'd say, looking at how warming of the oceans may impact the strength of hurricanes. There's even research, you know, more speculative, I would say, looking at how the track of this storm, which took a tilt to the west as it got to the mid-latitudes, which is very unusual, as far north as New York. Normally, they turn to the east.

Could that possibly have been influenced by, say, reductions we've seen in the Arctic sea ice cover that are associated with increase in greenhouse gases and global warming? But those are in the research stage now. You know, we're not yet ready to draw those firm conclusions. But I think it's, you know, given the impact these storms have, you know, we need to keep looking at sea ice. We need to look at how warm are ocean temperatures. All things being equal can make storms stronger.

What we do know, as I said, the higher sea levels - and as Andy said, higher sea levels are going to give you more coastal flooding, and we've locked in higher sea levels due to our increases in greenhouse activities, greenhouse gases through our fossil fuel burning.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Andy, is that a tipping point we've reached?

REVKIN: Well, actually, but I think that tipping point may be that this raises the vital need to integrate climate change into how we're planning. And just to give you an example, I live north of the city. Actually, Radley lives up here in the Hudson Valley with me, too, whereas last year, Irene absolutely devastated our roads. And I learned about the FEMA standard. You know, when you get FEMA federal money to rebuild, for the moment, as far as I know, the rule is they give you the money to rebuild to your existing standard - to rebuild the road, not to redesign the road, with the idea that, you know, more heavy downpours are likely outcome already manifest in a human-altered climate. So that says to me that you can build a lot of support at the local level. We're getting smart about how we build so we just don't keep getting stuck in harm's way, and that's not a polarizing issue. That's just common sense.

HORTON: Yeah.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So in other words, you can get the money, but don't go back and build in that spot again or build it better.

REVKIN: Well, to change how you build a road so it's more - it's going to more likely to endure these no longer rare, heavy downpours, that kind of thing.

FLATOW: One last point. I remember from reading you, the Earth Institute papers years ago was that one of the side effects that people don't think about economically is that if you have to spend all this money on constantly rebuilding, that takes away money for other infrastructures like your schools and your hospitals and things like - there's things that are falling apart that may need the money also.

HORTON: Yeah. Well, this is really tough. And, by the way, you know, none of these issues we're discussing are restricted to climate. I've written for years now about growing vulnerability of infrastructures, schools in Oregon to the inevitable earthquake that's going to happen when the Cascadia falls off the coast there, lurches again; this hasn't since 1700. And the issues are the same. You know, the school retrofitting money is locally raised. So you know, how do you get a school board to say, OK, let's retrofit our school against a rare disaster. Or should we hire more teachers? It's really hard.

FLATOW: But it's something that you're saying you have to do.

REVKIN: Oh, I think, you know, again, it all depends on what you value and, you know, our values and our reflexes are mostly about the near term. Somehow - I mean, part - a big chunk of what I do on Dot Earth is try to assess are there ways to foster more of a long-term view of things so that we don't get stuck in this - what I wrote about the other day was what they called a blah, blah, blah, bang approach to disaster policy.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we hope we can get out of that rut, so to speak. Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us today.

HORTON: Thank you.

REVKIN: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Radley Horton, associate research scientist at Columbia's Earth Institute. He's also a climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Andy Revkin has been writing about global warming for decades. And nowadays he writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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