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N.J. forum addresses climate-change risks

The impact of climate change goes far beyond the obvious issues of public safety and disaster planning, participants stressed during a conference this week at Rutgers University.

The impact of climate change goes far beyond the obvious issues of public safety and disaster planning, participants stressed during a conference this week at Rutgers University.

New Jersey should be considering future costs, long-term health risks, and even social-justice issues when considering how to deal with a warming climate, they said. The good news is that there are some creative ideas on how to deal with the varied effects of climate change, regardless of its cause.

For instance, New Jersey could protect itself against the vast cost of future disasters such as Hurricane Sandy by taking out insurance that would pay in the event of hurricanes or other natural calamities. State or county governments could buy policies that would compensate them for the increasingly frequent and severe climate events expected as a result of rising global temperatures and disrupted weather patterns.

Megan Linkin, a natural-hazards expert for the reinsurance company Swiss Re, told a panel at Wednesday's conference, "Climate Change in New Jersey: Leading Practices and Policy Priorities," that such policies already are in effect in other states and countries whose governments have entered into public-private partnerships with insurers to protect specific locations or whole states from specified natural hazards.

Alabama has a policy that protects it against hurricane damage, Mexico is protected against hurricanes and earthquakes in certain places, and Haiti has "micro-insurance" coverage that includes excessive rainfall, Linkin said.

Mexico's coverage includes the hurricane-prone resort city of Cancun, whose policy will pay if the barometric pressure drops below an agreed-upon level across a specific area, as confirmed by an authoritative third party such as a national weather service.

"There are many different [climate-related] perils that could be covered in addition to a hurricane," Linkin said.

She said that the primary-insurance arm of Swiss Re had had discussions with New Jersey officials, but that state authorities were still evaluating their options in the aftermath of Sandy.

"It's going to take them a while to decide what they really want," she said.

Such policies allow the holders to close the gap between the economic losses from natural disasters - which have risen sharply worldwide in recent years - and losses that are currently insured, which are far smaller, Linkin said.

The conference in New Brunswick, attended by some 260 people, aimed to educate the public and encourage cooperation among diverse stakeholders, said Marjorie Kaplan, associate director of the Climate and Environmental Change Initiative at Rutgers.

"We wanted to get people out of their silos and cross-pollinate," she said. "When are you going to get an emergency management official and an insurance company representative together in the same room?"

Bob Butkus, domestic-preparedness planner for the Ocean County Sheriff's Department, said during a panel discussion on preparing residents for climate change that his department was focused on the effects of rising seas that are forecast to inundate Long Beach Island with three feet of water by the end of the century.

Whether sea-level rise is caused by human-induced global warming is not the primary concern of Ocean County officials, Butkus said after showing pictures of an extensively flooded Long Beach Island the day after Sandy hit.

"We don't really care what's causing it, but the sea is rising, and that's what we need to address in Ocean County," he said.

George DiFerdinando Jr., director of the New Jersey Center for Public Health Preparedness at the University of Medicine and Dentistry, said meaningful policy on climate change could be achieved only if the issue becomes a central part of the public conversation.

"In New Jersey, we are still seeing climate change as something we deal with only in an emergency," he said. "We will be a lot more resolute in an emergency if we deal with climate on a day-to-day basis."

Health effects of warming temperatures are expected to include an increase in mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and dengue fever, as well as higher incidences of asthma and allergies, DiFerdinando said. It may also impact drinking water.

The poor are especially vulnerable to climate change if they live in low-lying or contaminated environments, said Roland Anglin, director of the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University.

Because the full effects of climate change have not yet been felt, getting some members of the public to take it seriously is challenging, he said. "There's a tendency to resist change without the full information."

He urged those working with people in poor communities to make sure they are informed about the potential impact of climate change on their lives.