What if the Isle de-Jean Charles was Canarsie, Brooklyn?

“Without weapons, humans are not built to kill, no claws or fangs, but when one group of humans is forced to say to another group facing a life-threatening condition “we cannot help you” now or even in the evolutionary sense, I do not know which group is worse off.”

Rex L. Curry
Trust.org Video

If NYC’s ramparts are drawn across its landscape, it forces two questions: 1)Who’s In? and 2) Who’s out? The GND says we need to get practical about the local impact of global climate change problems as a matter of science and humanity. In this spirit, I will apply America’s first climate refugees from Isle de-Jean Charles, LA to a New York City example (video here). The relocation action taken in Louisiana occurred when they were down to the last two-percent of their land along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.


Can New York or any other city afford to set that kind of relocation standard? Let’s do the math here,  it cost $100 million in relocation funds for 20 households of the Isle de-Jean Charles. Now apply that to the 35,000 families in Canarsie, a neighborhood in Brooklyn threatened by lots of seawater. The relocation bill would come to $175 billion. A resettlement plan at 20 households/year would take a millennium. At 500 households a year, the cost would be $2.5 billion/year, and it would take 70 years.

The plan now (and it is a bad one for people) is to allow land poverty to occur and over the course of seventy years of increasing worthlessness, let it go “in rem” or purchase the property at the lowest possible price, strip it of its toxins, and wait for the ocean to come in an unrelenting, but unknown rate. The product would be an artificial barrier reef of foundations on the north side of Jamaica Bay. If the acidity could be neutralized, it would be a seafood farm.

The current policy destroys lives and smacks of environmental racism. A good investment policy would protect the future by creating a value that could accrue to the estate of every displaced household. It would not prevent the “land poverty” plan currently in play, it would also result in lives horribly disrupted, but it would create a benefit to future generations of the families displaced. For a place like Canarsie, or the Rockaways (the natural rampart), the test should be whether a quid pro quo is in place, or just another caveat emptor slap in the face, aimed at people of color that will soon be without the power of an alternative or a public admission of a plan for recourse. Could the pitiful amount of $2.5B be put into action today? Unlikely, as the policy of catastrophic resolution is now the only way to draw a line in the sand. It is already around a burned to the ground neighborhood in CA today, and likelihood of a neighborhood soaking in seas of Jamaica Bay.

Today the planners, engineers, architects, and climate scientists assess the impact of the sea rise, storm surges and microbursts pounding down the Hudson River Valley on the city’s property. The Flooded City article points out the big picture these professionals paint for owners and policymakers.

The San Francisco – Bay Area Challenge is an excellent illustration of what needs to be done. The simple answer known solutions will not occur – but take heart there are people out there who know what to do and are not afraid to illustrate the steps. (Here)

For example, a rise in sea level far less than a meter places 71,500 buildings and $100 billion of property in NYC’s high-risk flood zones. Sea rise is not a complex assessment. Remote earth sensing devices can measure elevation to less than a meter other, devices calculate small fluctuations in gravitational forces, and for any area in question in real time. The data is in, the “when” sea rise is too high remains unknowable. Analytical programs on weather and storm forces may never get beyond a two-week window. MIT’s Ed Lorenz 1968 paper describing that two nearly identical atmospheric models can diverge widely after just two-weeks of an initial disturbance as minute as a butterfly flapping its wings. This model has yet to be altered beyond two weeks by mathematicians, meteorologists or both for a half century.

The below-ground world of tunnels and conduit (vehicles, gas, power, clean, gray and black water) of New York City is not climate proof.  Given the positives of the walls and ramparts, the capacity to fragment infrastructure systems to function independently is implied, but the policy is dishonest unless the question “who is in and out” is answered.

Global processes are geologically instantaneous events in the context of the last half-billion years. They occur daily but remain well outside of human experience. We are unlikely to “duck and cover” or step back from the waves of an unobservable rise of the ocean at the base of a massive river basin. Creating incentives to do so is the challenge of our time.

Nevertheless, insisting the acquisition and removal of toxins from NYC’s waterfront and flood-prone zones may be the best plan of action for no other reason that it will take a century to accomplish. The planning work as it stands today favors protecting property in the short term. It emanates from the boardrooms and public conferences in the old way.  It is about producing jobs through relatively high yield, short-term investments under the heading of resiliency. The discussion of the chemical, biological, and most importantly, financial toxins encircled by these old ways requires a sharper focus by its critics.

The sea rise may be known first in Kiribati, Vanuatu, and the Marshall Islands with a poignant reminder: If the world fails to halt global warming they disappear in the tide.

2 Comments

  1. Four Southwest Atlantic Coast States are developing or implementing policies that will all the abandonment of roads that will become “to nowhere” due to climate change. Cite the following if this interests you:

    Jones, Shana Campbell, and Ruppert, Thomas and Deady, Erin L. and Payne, Heather and Pippin, J. Scott and Huang, Ling-Yee and Evans, Jason M., Roads to Nowhere in Four States: State and Local Governments in the Atlantic Southeast Facing Sea-Level Rise (January 17, 2019). Columbia Journal of Environmental Law Vol. 44, No. 1. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3349837

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