ENVIRONMENT

As new report warns of rapidly rising seas, officials push for action on climate change

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

The state Department of Environmental Protection and scientists are urging prompt and meaningful action to combat climate change in the wake of a report predicting that sea levels in New Jersey could rise more than a foot by 2030, and six feet by the end of the century.

The study, commissioned by DEP and prepared by Rutgers University and leading climate change experts, paints an even more dire portrait of the impacts of a warming climate here than previously envisioned, including a sharp increase in the number of days each year where coastal areas are inundated not by storms but with tidal flooding.

“How severe sea level rises depends on what we as a global civilization do about our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Robert Kopp, director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science and one of the team that produced the report. “We need to be looking at a radical transformation of our energy system and our transportation system.”

The DEP, too, says action is needed, soon.

“New Jersey has much to lose if we do not act quickly and decisively to adapt to the realities of climate change,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe. “This study illustrates the sobering reality that our coastal landscape will change drastically, and we must act with urgency to ensure the long-term viability of our coastal and waterfront communities.”

At the same time, though, the push for change faces headwinds, not just in Washington but also in Trenton, where a bill designed to lessen carbon emissions from the transportation sector has been stalled.

According to the Rutgers report, so-called “sunny day” flooding occurred less than once a year in the 1950s. Now, shore areas experience tidal flooding 10 times a year, and the Rutgers scientists predict it could happen 75 days a year by 2030.

“I think the people on the shore recognize that tidal flooding is happening more frequently,” Kopp said. “It can cut people off from their cars. It can cut people off from … they can’t get to where they’re going. Even though it’s sometimes called nuisance flooding, it has a real economic impact.”

Kopp says this research is not meant to overwhelm anyone, but to spur action.

“We have to make our communities more resilient to that more frequent flooding,” he said. “That includes things [like] looking at building codes, that includes things like thinking about buyouts in the aftermath of a disaster, and it includes sort of long-term communal thinking about what the long-term shape of our coastal communities are.”

Kopp also said, though, that the problem of rising sea levels cannot be addressed solely along the coast.

“We need to get on a path towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the only way to stabilize the global climate,” he said, adding that while the rate of growth in emissions has slowed in recent years, it is still rising.

“We have to get that curve of global emissions going down to zero in order to stabilize the climb of climate,” he said. “As long as carbon dioxide is going in to the atmosphere, the planet’s going to keep warming.”

Jeanne Herb is executive director of the Environmental Analysis and Communication Group at Rutgers’ Bloustein School, which looks to help policy makers put science in to action.

“The science is only as good as the practice of its implementation,” she said.

“What we hear over and over and over again from communities is that they want to plan for change in climate conditions, but they’re not sure how,” Herb added. “Last spring, we did a statewide survey here in New Jersey and what we heard was that at least two-thirds of New Jerseyans were either very concerned or concerned about climate change, but less than a quarter of New Jerseyans knew a lot about what to do about climate change.”

The administration of Gov. Phil Murphy has adopted policies to address climate change, setting a goal for the state of 100% clean energy by 2050. It has also promoted a number of policies to lessen impacts of carbon pollution, setting more aggressive goals for solar and offshore wind energy and subsidizing nuclear power plants, among other steps.

But at the same time, a legislative initiative to create a comprehensive plan to electrify the transportation sector, the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, was not among the bills acted upon this week in the lame-duck legislative session.

And on Thursday, a federal regulatory agency ruled that the operator of the power grid that feeds New Jersey, the nation’s biggest, must move to bring the price of solar and wind power, which generally benefits from state subsidies, into line with that generated by fossil fuels.

Clean-energy advocates denounced the order — issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, led by an appointee of President Donald Trump — saying it will lead to higher prices for renewable-generated electricity and hinder efforts to curb carbon emissions.

Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim, III.