POLITICS

Gov. Christie's climate change remarks get him in hot water with infrastructure experts

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- A panel of New Jersey infrastructure experts yesterday took issue with Gov. Chris Christie a few days after the Republican expressed doubts about the links between climate change and Superstorm Sandy.

The governor's remarks earlier this week, in which he said there isn't "any proof thus far that Sandy was caused by climate change," served as backdrop to the dialogue here during a Rutgers University event on New Jersey and climate adaptation. Each member of a panel of experts appeared to disagree with Christie.

The event was dominated by language now common in the climate adaptation debate. Words like resiliency, risk and the need to "shore up" infrastructure were common, not to mention the theme of the event, which was how to react to last year's superstorm in the context of preparing for climate change.

First up was Mark Mauriello, of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management. Mauriello said Sandy demonstrated how much coastal property in the state is at risk of flooding, a threat he believes will increase in the years ahead as climate change potentially brings higher storm surges to the seaboard.

"We have very clear data that tells us sea level is rising," he said. "We know that our floodplains are expanding horizontally. People need to know their risk."

Also at odds with Christie, whose comments came Monday during a heated exchange with a WNYC reporter at a post-Sandy ceremonial event, was Dennis Doll, president and CEO of the Middlesex Water Co. Doll said it has been "very clear that climate change has had an impact" that should be taken into account as water utilities prepare for the future in this storm- and flood-prone state.

"It's an indication of things to come," said Doll of the superstorm and the billions of dollars in damage it left in its wake in New Jersey.

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"We understand the science, and we fully believe there are things that are coming we should prepare for now," said Doll, adding that politicians should appeal to voters on the need to invest in water infrastructure to adapt even if it means higher rates.

'A new level of resiliency' is required

Kim Hanemann, vice president for transmission at Public Service Electric and Gas Co., chimed in that the utility has proposed a $3.9 billion investment over the next decade to make distribution systems "more resilient to natural disasters." She did not mention the words "climate change," but her remarks were in line with those of others who suggested a new reality has emerged after Sandy and Hurricane Irene hit and flooded the state.

"The extremes of weather we're now seeing on an increasingly frequent basis require a new level of resiliency to natural disasters that wasn't needed in the past," she said.

Hanemann added that nearly 2 million PSE&G customers were affected by Sandy, with 90 percent losing power during the event. She estimated the utility's cost to restore power lines and flooded facilities at $250 million to $350 million.

"We really need to look at our infrastructure differently now," she said. "We need to do something more."

Christie wasn't a direct target of the remarks, but they came after a week that saw the governor going to the mat on the climate change issue. Christie was criticized by liberal groups after his comments Monday for what they see as his flip-flopping on warming to appeal to conservative GOP voters in advance of the 2016 presidential race.

Writing on the website Climate Progress this week, Rebecca Leber took issue with Christie for not making the case that sea-level rise and more frequent storms are more likely in the years ahead. Leber noted that Christie has previously acknowledged a link between human activity and warming and urged the governor to reverse his remarks or at least better explain them.

Where should New Jersey park its trains?

Leber also noted that Christie may have been so aggressive in part because the reporter who asked him the initial question works for WNYC, a public radio outlet that recently did a story on how New Jersey may have overlooked the threat to its public transit fleet before Sandy by not removing trains from storage at or near sea level.

After Christie denied the causal link with climate, he reportedly said, "I would absolutely expect that that's exactly what WNYC would say, because you know liberal public radio always has an agenda."

Michael Catania, executive director at Duke Farms Foundation, blasted Christie directly for what he implied was playing politics with the adaptation issue when the state needs to prepare as best it can.

"It's just shameful," he said during the Rutgers panel. "It's just a diversion."

Alan Robock, a professor in the Rutgers Department of Environmental Sciences, echoed that view. He accused the governor of starting his run for president early by tacking to the right on climate change.

Robock acknowledged Christie's remarks could be read as commenting solely on the causal link between climate and Sandy, but he said they could just as easily be read in the negative as the governor ignoring "a huge threat" for political reasons.

"It's irresponsible," Robock said. "He's trying to play both sides of the issue."

Asked to comment, Christie's office referred to the totality of the remarks by the governor, suggesting they were isolated to the question from WNYC and a premise with which Christie disagreed. His office also referenced a statement by Christie in 2011 when he said, "Climate change is real and it's impacting our state."

In the same statement, Christie said, "There's undeniable data that CO2 levels and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are increasing. This decade average temperatures have been rising, temperature changes are affecting weather patterns and our climate."

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