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Global warming Will Have Dire Effects

by: Frances Beinecke    1 June 2006

Thanks in part to Al Gore's new movie, more and more people know that heat-trapping pollution is warming the planet. Last year tied 1998 as the hottest year on record — followed closely by 2002, 2003 and 2004.

But what will it mean when the global phenomenon of climate change comes home to roost on New York City's shores?

The question isn't hypothetical. We'd better start thinking through answers now, because unless we take action to stop climate change, we're going to have a huge problem on our hands.

Because four of the five boroughs are on islands, many neighborhoods — not just lower Manhattan, but large areas of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — lie just above sea level. That could spell disaster as polar ice caps melt, increasing sea levels worldwide by up to 8 inches by 2030 and 17 inches by 2050.

Things would be worst during major storms, when maximum flood levels could increase anywhere from 4 to 11 feet.

Also, although scientists can't say that global warming causes more hurricanes, there is growing consensus that warmer oceans are making the storms that do form stronger and more violent.

New York doesn't get hurricanes often, but it does happen. (That's worth remembering today, as hurricane season begins.) Far more likely are intense Nor'easters — which last longer and dump more water than hurricanes.

Climate scientists say that, by the 2050s, the frequency of storms of that magnitude could increase two- to fourfold, and by the end of the century they could come as often as once a year.

Remember how floods from the 1992 Nor'easter shut down the subway, PATH trains, FDR drive and LaGuardia Airport? Imagine the effects with a stronger storm and sea levels higher from the outset.

A rising tide is just one part of the problem. Global warming is expected to raise average New York City temperatures by 4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. And that's just an average. Studies say the number of 90-degree days could double by as early as the next 10 years and increase up to sixfold by century's end.

That means that Houston St. would start feeling more like Houston, Tex.

Higher summer temperatures create more smog, more air alert days and more trips to the emergency room for people with asthma and other respiratory troubles.

A 1995 Chicago heat wave claimed more than 500 lives, mostly among the poor and the elderly. Would New York be ready?

The good news is this: We know how to fix the problem. Global warming is caused by emissions from cars, power plants and other sources.

The way to slow and stop the climate from heating is to develop cleaner, more efficient energy technologies that keep our economy moving without all the pollution. And we're starting to see some progress, at least at the state and local levels.

Gov. Pataki recently headed a pioneering bipartisan deal by eight Northeastern governors to cut power plant emissions, and laid out a plan to invest in biofuels made from American crops.

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued to force emission cuts at five big utility companies. And the green building initiative passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Bloomberg means that $12 billion worth of city-owned buildings will meet strong new efficiency standards.

Our private sector is also driving change — with more low-emission hybrid taxis hitting the streets and energy-efficient buildings, like Conde Nast's headquarters and the Solaire apartments in Battery Park City, cropping up.

Unfortunately, these steps alone aren't nearly enough to get the job done. We need national and global leadership — without delay.

We can beat global warming, but the window is closing fast.

Beinecke is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.