A Tale of Two Cities: America's Bipolar Climate Future

By Marc Hujer and Samiha Shafy

Photo Gallery: US East Coast's Watery Future Photos
DER SPIEGEL; Satellitenbild: Google Earth

New York City and New Bern, North Carolina both face the same projected rise in sea levels, but while one is preparing for the worst, the other is doing nothing on principle. A glimpse into America's contradictory climate change planning.

When Veronica White and Tom Thompson stand on the coastline of their respective cities, 680 kilometers (423 miles) apart, they gaze out at the same ocean, but see different things.

White, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, believes "we have to prepare the entire coastline for disasters, including storms and rising floodwaters." Thompson, a former city planner in New Bern, North Carolina -- an eight-hour drive to the south -- argues the opposite. "All this panic about the climate always amazes me, but people like to believe horror stories," he says.

Since 1900, the sea level in both cities has risen by about 30 centimeters (12 inches). According to calculations by a group of climatologists working for New York City, the sea level in that city could rise by more than three-quarters of a meter (2.5 feet) by 2050, and by one-and-a-half meters 30 years later. The group of experts warns that by the end of the century, average temperatures in New York could be as high as they are in North Carolina today.

According to the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), that state, like New York, will also see warmer temperatures by the end of the century, as well as a sea-level rise of more than one meter. But now the state government in North Carolina has muzzled the CRC with a new law that requires coastal communities to ignore its prognoses. The legislation states that the sea level off the North Carolina coast will not rise more quickly than it has in the last 100 years.

In the United States, two very different worlds have come into existence along the same coastline. In one of those worlds, people pay attention to climate predictions. In the other, they don't. While New Yorkers believe they have to do something against global warming, because it could spell the city's demise, the citizens of New Bern would rather put their faith in God's creation. In New Bern, climate change is a question of faith and conviction that touches on broader issues of American identity. Indeed, climate change has become central to a culture war over the future of America.

A Movement to Prevent Preparations

"If sea levels did go up by a meter," says Tom Thompson at the New Bern marina, "most of New Bern would be uninhabitable." He is 69 and despite his white hair, looks younger. He walks along the boardwalk, past a new riverfront park and the Hilton Hotel. All of it reflects his work as a city planner. Thompson has brought companies to New Bern, including Bosch-Siemens, which built a factory for electronic devices there, and he knows many people in the North Carolina business world.

He had just retired -- proud of the world he had created -- when the CRC delivered its prognosis that sea levels would rise by about a meter within the next 100 years, swallowing buildings, roads and public squares. It was the same number officials in other coastal states had come up with as a result of scientific research. For Thompson, however, that one-meter announcement was nothing less than a declaration of war, an assault on his legacy.

Shortly after the news appeared in the papers, Thompson worked from an office in the storage room of his wife's business, a home furnishings store on Main Street in New Bern. Sitting in a small space between two cuckoo clocks, Thompson began reaching out to the lobby he had once assembled to protect the local economy against regulation.

He called heads of chambers of commerce with whom he was on a first-name basis. He also spoke to the urban developers and chief executives of the companies he had brought to North Carolina. Thompson told all of them his horror story: of roads and highways that would have to be raised by at least a meter because of the predicted rise in sea level, of disappearing boardwalks and businesses fleeing the area. He also warned them that the building conversions, evacuation routes and property insurance would cost billions.

'They Have No Evidence'

According to Thompson, some 5,200 square kilometers (about 2,000 square miles) of the state would be in jeopardy. His friends and business associates were alarmed. Was North Carolina about to become a billion-dollar grave?

Thompson told his story until, eventually, Pat McElraft, a Republican member of the state's General Assembly, wrote a paragraph into a bill known as HB 819, which included various anti-climate change provisions.

In April 2013, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety presented an official report on what a one-meter rise in sea level would mean to the state. The economic losses would be staggering, since the affected areas are covered with homes, office buildings and public facilities worth a total of $7.4 billion (€5.16 billion). Everything would have to be rebuilt to withstand the storm surges.

And why? "Just because a few scientists are claiming that that's what will happen," says Thompson. "But they have no evidence. We're supposed to spend money on something that might not happen at all."

Thompson is a God-fearing conservative fighting against the scientific finding that climate change exists. In his view, there are too many numbers and too many estimates that seem contradictory. To him, it feels more like a lottery than science.

Post-Sandy New York

It's early morning in Queens, New York. The sun is rising over the Atlantic, its shimmering surface broken only by gentle waves. Veronica White, 54, isn't exactly dressed for a fall walk on the beach. She is going to a gala dinner with the mayor in the evening, and she knows she'll be too busy to change her outfit first.

As commissioner of the Parks & Recreation Department, part of White's job is to protect New York from climate change and rising sea levels. She and her staff of roughly 6,000 employees are responsible for the city's beaches and coastal areas, monuments like the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, the High Line and about 1,700 other city parks, 500 community gardens and 2,500 street medians known as Greenstreets. But Rockaway Beach, where she is now standing, is perhaps the best place for White to explain why New York is worried about climate change.

The view from the shore of the Atlantic, with its calm, blue waters and a few well-fed seagulls, seems perfectly idyllic. But when you turn around, the devastation becomes all too apparent: a beach that could no longer truly be called a beach.

In October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy, dubbed a "Frankenstorm," struck the East Coast of the United States, Rockaway Beach was washed away, swallowed up by a raging storm surge.

A Climate Change 9/11

What's left of the beach is now several meters below the coastal road, surrounded by sand bags. The boardwalk is gone. "It flew up into the air and, when it was all over, pieces of it were spread around the entire community," says White. The Rockaway community was flooded and littered with sand, overturned trees and utility poles with torn cables dangling from them. Residents were all but paralyzed. "We spent months just cleaning up," says White. "God, it was so discouraging."

She walks quickly along a makeshift wooden platform and looks down at the construction site on the beach, where workers are pounding planks into the sand. They're building a barrier designed to protect Rockaway Beach from being washed away by the next storm. In the coming months, the US Army Corps of Engineers will bring in 2.7 million cubic meters (95 million cubic feet) of sand, which will be piled up and secured with the help of protective walls, geotextiles and beach grass, so that Rockaway Beach can become a real beach again. But will it be enough?

Even before the storm hit, the majority of New Yorkers supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans to transform their city of superlatives into the world's greenest metropolis. "But Sandy brought home to people what climate change really means," says White, "just as 9/11 showed New Yorkers what's at stake in the war against terror."

White concedes that a single storm cannot be directly attributed to climate change. But she also points to the models developed by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), which indicate that by the end of the century, storms like Sandy will likely occur once every two years. In New York City alone, the storm killed 44 people, destroyed thousands of buildings and hundreds of thousands of cars, and caused $19 billion in total damage.

And as the sea level rises, the consequences of every storm surge will spread to larger areas and affect more and more people. About 400,000 New Yorkers live in flood-prone areas today, a figure the NPCC estimates will double by 2050.

North Carolina: Faith in God

Sandy also caused damage in North Carolina. The Outer Banks, a group of barrier islands and one of the state's most popular tourism destinations, were cut off from the mainland for a period of time. But residents are accustomed to storm damage and have gotten used to rebuilding destroyed houses instead of investing a lot of money in precautions to avert future damage.

In Tom Thompson's world, they call it faith in God. It's a world in which a government that provides for its citizens is not seen as a moral necessity, but as an immoral temptation that makes hardworking people lazy. And it's a world shaped by the fear of a nanny state that deprives citizens of their freedom.

In Thompson's worldview, only socialists and cowards prepare for the worst. Although North Carolina had a Democratic governor until the beginning of the year, and a majority voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, it remains a state that defends its lax gun laws, closes abortion clinics and where many people flatly refuse to believe in the existence of climate change.

And so North Carolina continues to plod along, blithely ignoring the warnings of the scientific community. When the law was passed in July 2012, then Governor Bev Perdue merely warned: "North Carolina should not ignore science when making public policy decisions." She was referring to climate change. Nevertheless, she refused to veto the law, which dictates to the sea how high it is permitted to rise off the coast of North Carolina. Perdue did point out that the issue would be revisited in four years.

"If we discover in 10 years that the sea level is truly rising at a faster pace, we can always start building roads at higher levels," says Thompson. "But why start now?"

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1. The flood will come
Mus Musculus 12/13/2013
to New Bern sooner or later. I don't think I'll be able to feel sorry for the flood victims then. Those that are smart are hopefully moving away from the endangered area as quickly as possible.
2. climate change
sailhardy 12/13/2013
Climate change has occurred many times on our planet. Climatology as a science is apparently in its infancy. Anyone who believes that a consensus means something is true is no scientist. One test of the science is if accurate predictions can be made. Thus far, the problems illustrated so vividly in this essay, have not occurred anywhere. And thus far,no evidence exists that massive disruption of world economies to combat climate change will not change anything. Maybe they will; maybe conservation measures will help. We simply don’t know, but some want us to upend our economies to take steps that may well turn out to be meaningless. Is there a compelling truth to the dire predictions? Not yet.
3. Really funny...
matthiashub 12/13/2013
... "a god fearing conservative" who doesn't belive in climate change because there is no proof for it. That really made my day!
4. Armageddon
spon-facebook-10000139396 12/13/2013
But somehow Armageddon never seems to arrive: strange that.
5. optional
spon-facebook-10000096450 12/14/2013
I understand Thompsons view completely. I've spent all of my 55 years along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from Tampa to Galveston. I've seen Hurricanes destroy and people rebuild. Nothing lasts forever. So when a storm comes leave. Go back afterwards and clean up. If you can't take the once-a-decade storm move inland. We place too much importance on old places. So what if NYC is partially flooded. Deal with it when it happens, IF it happens. Another thing that adds to people's skepticism is scientists falsifying data, polar ice reports that contradict, sunspot activity slowing down, and record cold fronts that seem to blow away any of Al Gore's credibility. On top of this, the public works projects I've seen to build levees for flood protection are filled with kickbacks and corruption. After five years of Obama, most do not trust our Government.
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