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Christie ignores climate change in NJ's post-Sandy rebuild

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in Trenton, N.J.,  (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in Trenton, N.J., (AP Photo/Mel Evans)Read more

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a series of aggressive rebuilding initiatives to protect New Yorkers from future climate-related threats.

But less than a mile away in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River, political leaders reacted in a much different way.

To them, the October 2012 superstorm was just a rare event, not a preview of what scientists expect global warming to bring to the East Coast in the coming decades.

When asked in May about Sandy's connection with climate change, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said the question was "a distraction" and that global warming was an "esoteric" theory.

That philosophy has permeated New Jersey's post-Sandy recovery effort.

Instead of planning for future climate threats, New Jersey focused on rebuilding quickly to get people back into their homes and to get the tourist industry up and running for the lucrative summer season. As a result, the state spent billions of federal aid dollars to rebuild boardwalks, businesses and houses almost exactly as they stood pre-storm.

The coastal protection measures New Jersey has proposed, such as dune systems or flood gates, will defend communities only at current sea levels—not the 3.5 feet of sea level rise that New Jersey is expected to see by 2100. The state has partnered with six New Jersey universities to study how communities were flooded by Sandy, but that research will not consider how those communities, or others, may be affected under future climate scenarios.

"Our research doesn't really look at climate change. That is not an objective New Jersey has right now," said Tom Herrington, a physical oceanographer at the Stevens Institute of Technology who has been mapping Sandy's effects on the Hudson River shoreline for the NJDEP.

Nowhere on the Governor's Office of Recovery and Rebuilding webpage do the words climate change, global warming, or sea level rise appear, not even under the site's "resiliency" section.

New Jersey's rebuilding strategy is leaving its residents vulnerable to future climate change-related threats, several environmentalists, policy experts and scientists told InsideClimate News.

"We're occupying areas that perhaps we need to revisit and rethink, places that will be devastated by climate change in coming decades," said Mark Mauriello, a coastal development expert and former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "Perhaps we shouldn't put everything back exactly the way it was before the storm … We really missed a lot of opportunities to work on climate, to build back smartly."

The strategy also wastes federal funds, the experts said—an ironic decision by a Republican administration that touts itself as fiscally conservative.

"We're wasting billions of dollars [rebuilding infrastructure] that will just be washed out to sea in the next storm," said Jeff Tittle, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.

The divide between what is happening in New Jersey and New York reflects a larger national trend. Political leaders increasingly see Sandy and other extreme weather events as wake-up calls for what's to come from global warming. But many others still don't acknowledge the connection. The two reactions, experts warn, could cause a disparity in how neighboring communities cope with the impacts of stronger storms, heat waves or sea level rise.

The Fall of a Climate Leader

Climate change wasn't always a politically taboo subject in New Jersey. In fact, the state was once seen as a national leader on climate issues.

In 2007, state legislators passed the Global Warming Response Act, which mandated a 20 percent reduction in New Jersey's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. State agencies started improving energy efficiency standards, increasing public transit options and developing more renewable energy. They also embraced stricter floodplain construction laws and began looking at fortifying the state's 1,792-mile coastline. By 2009, New Jersey was the second largest producer of grid-connected solar energy in the United States, behind California. It was also a founding member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a coalition of states in the Northeast that pledge to reduce CO2 emissions.

All this changed when Christie entered the governor's office in January 2010.

Almost immediately, Christie closed the Office of Climate Change and Energy in the state's DEP. He also cut off funding for the Global Warming Response Act, effectively rendering it a stagnant law, said Mauriello, who was replaced as NJDEP commissioner when Christie took office.

In 2011, Christie pulled the state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, claiming the program wasn't helping New Jersey cut its emissions. "RGGI does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses, with no discernible or measureable impact upon our environment," the governor said at the time.

» READ MORE: InsideClimate News.

InsideClimate News is an award-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization that covers clean energy, carbon energy, nuclear energy and environmental science—plus the territory in between where law, policy and public opinion are shaped. Its mission is to produce clear, objective stories that give the public and decision-makers the information they need to navigate the heat and emotion of climate and energy debates. A partial list of funders can be found here.