Christie won't consider climate change in rebuilding after Sandy; scientists say he should

In Monday's paper, my story on the politics of climate change and Superstorm Sunday. Here it is:

Did global warming and rising sea levels trigger Hurricane Sandy?

And does it matter?

Gov. Christie says it doesn't. Whether environmental changes caused the storm is an "esoteric question," he said at a news conference at the Shore earlier this month. Victims of the storm don't "give a damn" either - as confirmed by a group of Sandy survivors who applauded Christie's remark.

But scientists say they all need to start caring. Because regardless of what caused Sandy, even those skeptical about climate change say a Sandy-like storm will happen again. And so, steps must be taken now to prevent loss of life and property later.

Christie's focus, though, is more immediate: the tens of thousands of families who are still displaced, and a $16 billion Jersey Shore tourism industry, crucial to the state economy, that is struggling to get ready for the summer. When Christie's name is on the ballot in November, one year and one week after Sandy, he wants to say New Jersey is back to normal.

Those political and economic demands of rebuilding immediately, however, conflict with the environmental demands of rebuilding slowly - or in some places, maybe not rebuilding at all.

Christie sees larger environmental factors as irrelevant. "Maybe in the subsequent months and years, after I get done with rebuilding the state and getting people back in their homes," he said, "I'll have the opportunity to ponder the esoteric question of the causes of the storm." 

While scientists acknowledge that evidence doesn't yet exist to say climate change caused Sandy, they do know that sea levels are rising - maybe an additional four feet in New Jersey by 2100, according to a Rutgers University estimate. Research also shows that climate change may be making storms more intense.

That means that, if there's another storm surge of the kind that swept houses off foundations during Sandy, even more water may rush ashore. All of this must be evaluated before the state rebuilds, scientists say.

"How do you balance those issues, when there's intensive pressure to show that you're taking decisive action to help alleviate community suffering?" asked Gavin Smith, who runs the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters at the University of North Carolina. "It's very difficult, but it happens routinely."

Smith has worked on storm recovery for two governors and is sympathetic to Christie's plight. He knows that making "hazard mitigation" part of disaster recovery is "not as sexy" as repaving roads, reopening schools, and restarting electricity.

But, he said, it's more important.

"Sometimes, in the rush to recover, those communities are setting themselves up for the next disaster," Smith said, because storms "are almost assuredly going to get much, much worse."

Proper preparation could mean "hardening" infrastructure (moving power lines underground, for example), forbidding construction in flood zones, modifying building codes, and lifting homes off the ground onto pilings. It could mean relocating people to denser developments that are less flood prone or building sea walls on the coast.

"Those decisions need to be made now," Smith said.

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released last week showed that despite the rush to rebuild, 62 percent of New Jerseyans say assessing potential for future damage is more important than rebuilding by summer.

Christie has, indeed, taken a major step that addresses flooding risks. He adopted preliminary flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that expanded flood zones and would force many to raise their houses. If they're not lifted, property owners face exponentially higher flood insurance.

Some experts, though, see the maps as too weak because they are based on historical data and don't account for predictions about how future storms may be exacerbated by global warming.

Another option for policymakers is to force property owners in flood zones to sell. But Christie said he was "uncomfortable" using condemnation to buy properties and turn flood zones into open space. He doesn't want to move homeowners unless entire communities agree to it.

The Republican governor's approach is different from that of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who has repeatedly spoken of the role climate change played in Sandy and has offered a $400 million buyout program. Democratic President Obama also linked Sandy and climate change last week in his State of the Union address.

Meanwhile, Christie faces pushback from a significant interest group, environmentalists, who want a public planning process to determine the future of the Shore. They want decisions made based on science, not politics. And they are angry that Christie has rolled back measures to address the fossil fuels that they say contribute to climate change.

On the other side of the climate-change argument is David Legates, a University of Delaware geography professor who believes Sandy simply was a "freak storm."

"That having been said, there may very well be another Sandy in the future," he said, so additional discussions are needed.

"It's sort of the American spirit of: We will rebuild, we will come back stronger," Legates said. "That's fine, but we have to rebuild smarter."

Michael Oppenheimer, a climate expert at Princeton University, "personally respects" the governor's desire to get homeowners back to their properties, but he called his climate-change remark "baffling." Rebuilt infrastructure, like water facilities, are intended to last 100 years - so the constantly changing climate must be considered, he said.

If destruction greets the Jersey Shore again, that "hurts everyone, including the homeowners and the larger community of the state that has to pay for this infrastructure," he said. So Oppenheimer just wants Christie to evaluate the risks, like politicians do on other issues.

"This," he said, "is what we pay them for."