Climate Change Resilience Study Halted

Published May 22, 2020

What happened: The Trump administration indefinitely froze a six-year study looking at future flooding risks in the New York-New Jersey area after President Trump tweeted out his opposition.

Why it matters: By canceling an ongoing study, the Trump administration is preventing decisionmakers, scientists, and the public from obtaining important scientific information that could be used to protect the lives and properties of the communities living in coastal regions of New York and New Jersey. Due to climate change, the region will be facing an increased risk of intense storms similar to that of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The Trump administration put an indefinite hold on funding for a climate change adaptation project in the New York-New Jersey area. According to an official in charge of the project, it is highly unusual for an Army Corps study to be halted after three years of work and millions of dollars have already been invested.

Overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, the NY & NJ Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study (HATS) had been researching the vulnerability of coastal communities as well as possible solutions for protecting these areas from severe coastal storms. As the region is expected to see more intense storms due to climate change, the projects under investigation have the potential to protect the destruction of communities along the coasts of New Jersey and New York and save lives.

In January 2020, the New York Times published an article reporting on an Army Corp of Engineers Study exploring options for protecting New York and New Jersey from storm-induced flooding. The project looks at a variety of strategies to protect the coast from storms like Superstorm Sandy that devastated New York and New Jersey in 2012. Four out of the five of the project proposals being explored by the study include a wall or storm surge barrier of some kind, the longest of which would be a 6-mile long sea wall. The cost of building such a wall: $119 billion.

Soon after the article was posted online, President Trump tweeted his discontent with the project and its estimated price tag. Then in February 2020, the agency announced the study did not receive federal appropriation and therefore would be “postponed indefinitely.” Other than funding concerns, no additional reasons were given for why the study would not be moving forward as planned. Senator Charles Schumer of New York stated that there was no reason given for the budget cuts “because there is no answer”.

With such a large price tag, it’s important to understand the benefits and harms posed by the construction of such a massive wall. Even before President Trump expressed his opinion online, the proposed sea wall was contentious. Supporters of the project lauded the protection it would provide for coastal communities, properties, and landmarks. At the same time, many environmental groups argued that construction of such a barrier would pose a large threat to marine ecosystems and wildlife. The true costs and benefits of this project, however, can never be fully understood without a comprehensive study.

By withholding funding and postponing this study, the administration is preventing states from developing science-informed solutions for climate change adaptation. The ACE study was meant to help management of “future flood risk in ways that support the long-term resilience and sustainability of the coastal ecosystem and surrounding communities, and reduce the economic costs and risks associated with flood and storm events.” With the study ‘indefinitely postponed’ these communities are left without a complete understanding of the feasibility and the effectiveness of these climate change resilience and adaptation projects. As a result, the communities of New York and New Jersey could be left without important information about flood vulnerability until they find themselves underwater. Until then, they will just have to make sure they keep their mops and buckets at the ready.