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New ways to withstand climate disruption

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Hurricane Sandy proved to be a costly weather monster for the East Coast. In New York state alone, damage estimates hover around $30 billion. Last year, recovery after Tropical Storm Irene exceeded $15 billion in total costs.

Those figures have been helpful in the same way an alarm clock can be useful – for many, they’ve been a wakeup call. While government, community and business leaders have been trying to recover from this latest storm, even before, many were attempting to come up with strategies to prepare for what now seems inevitable: the annual mega-storm.

Franz Litz, executive director at the Pace Energy and Climate Center, a legal think tank based out of Pace University’s Law School, has spent much of his career looking for ways to lessen the impact of what he calls “climate disruption.”

“I think there’s no question that the climate has changed and we’ve seen much higher frequency of extreme weather,” said Litz. “Governor Cuomo said it well when he said we’re having ‘one-hundred year storms every year now.’ He’s right.”

Regional leaders may have thought they were ahead of the storm due to the efforts of both Republican and Democratic governors from Maine to Maryland. In 2003, former Gov. George Pataki initiated the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a trade program that aimed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Ten states collaborated on the idea in part because there was a growing since of urgency.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), carbon emissions increased by human industry is in part responsible for the warming of the atmosphere. Litz, who served as New York’s principal representative for RGGI said, “In the Northeast our winter average temperatures have gone up four degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re talking about averages it means a great deal, because the highs and the low fluctuate around those average numbers.” This translates to increased precipitation and a shift northward for the path of hurricanes, tropical storms and cyclones.

The original goal for RGGI, which launched in 2009, was to reduce carbon emissions by 10 percent by 2018. But because of the economic downturn, there’s been a 23 percent drop in emissions, Litz said. “Natural gas has become so cheap, certainly cheaper than oil,” he noted. Natural gas is less carbon intensive, so with its increase in popularity the emissions have lessened substantially.

However, RGGI needs to revise its goals because the impact of climate disruption is still taking a toll on the region, Litz said. Reportedly, the EPA has initiated a movement to further regulate carbon pollution from power plants. According to Litz, RGGI is primed to be the program that moves the proposal forward, not just for states in the Atlantic region, but for other states across the country.

There’s also been interest expressed in combating the billion-dollar cost that comes after the hundred-year storms of late. At Pace, Litz has been part of discussions to look at other ways to prepare. He believes there’s a lot that can be done especially when it comes to power outages, which have proved to be a huge problem for the region to overcome. The think tank has been considering how to get communities to become “more climate resilient and cleaner at the same time,” and is in the process of working with local communities on alternative options including embracing microgrids.

“We have some of the highest electricity rates in the country and because of that it also makes sense for communities to generate their own electricity,” said Litz. That’s something many communities would be willing to rally behind to for savings and convenience.

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