Political Animal


November 04, 2012 8:16 AM Sandy, climate change, and Michael Bloomberg’s failure

By Kathleen Geier

What’s wrong with this picture?

Here’s New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, earlier this week in his much-praised (by liberals, at least) endorsement of Barack Obama for president:

“Our climate is changing,” [Bloomberg] wrote. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Especially the part about how we must “compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

But as Joe Nocera points out in an excellent column in today’s Times, here’s the reality:

What New York is not so good at is preventing big storms from exacting an enormous toll on infrastructure, buildings and businesses. In the case of Sandy, the damage to New York City is estimated to be as much as $17 billion. Cities like London, Amsterdam — and, yes, Providence — have built systems to minimize the damage even Category 3 storms can cause. But not New York.

And it’s not like Mayor Bloomberg was unaware of the danger that an unprotected New York City faced:

In 2008, for instance, Bloomberg convened a panel of experts to examine the ways climate change could affect the city. The panel’s report, issued in 2010, documented the undeniable fact that the rivers and bays around New York were rising, and that changes in the atmosphere were likely to make storms both more frequent and more dangerous.

Yet Malcolm Bowman, who leads the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University, told me that when he joined the panel, he was pointedly told that barriers were not going to get much emphasis. Another former member of the panel, Klaus Jacob, a scientist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, told The New York Times, in a prescient article published just six weeks before Sandy hit, that the city’s unwillingness to be more aggressive was akin to “Russian roulette.” Jacob believes that the city needs to build unbreachable gates to subways, tunnels and infrastructure to prevent water from rushing in. Despite the expense, he says that such a system would save billions by preventing storm damage.

This, in a nutshell, is one of the most glaring failures of neoliberal political leaders like Michael Bloomberg. They are so obsessed with protecting the rich from high taxes that fail in their most basic duty, which is to whatever it takes to protect the lives and property of the citizens who elected them. Mayor Bloomberg may be talking a good game, but clearly his low-tax. anti-spending ideology makes him incapable of meeting even the most minimal standards of decency and competence we require from our public servants. His leadership is a prime example of how catastrophically America is failing itself, and why our leaders desperately need to stop asking, how can I best cater to the narrow, short-sighted economic interests of my plutocrat cronies and supporters, and to start asking, how can I best protect the broad public interest of all the people I serve?

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Al on November 04, 2012 9:46 AM:


  • tt on November 04, 2012 9:50 AM:

    like the moral hazard of a fire department ?

  • c u n d gulag on November 04, 2012 9:58 AM:

    Part of the problem in NYC, is that the taxes ARE REALLY HIGH - for the poor and working people.

    Real Estate taxes on the middle class are stifling, to put it mildly.

    The cities taxes on any and everything, from soda, to beer, to food, to Broadway, to movies, to gas, to hotels, etc., stifles the poor and middle/working classes. THEY are the ones who can least afford it.

    At the same time that those taxes are stifling, the luxury class is undertaxed - despite their complaints.

    I'm sorry, but if you can afford a $5-10 million condo in Manhattan, of brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, you can afford to pay a higher annual real estate tax than the poor schmuck of a cop, fireman, teacher, sanitation worker, or small business owner, who owns a single or two family home in one of the boroughts.

    I remember these issues of flooding and wind damage were all that we talked about when Hurricane Gloria was riding up the coast back in 1985.
    They had to shore-up (no pun intended) the (then) Citicorp building, because when it was built, they didn't rivet it properly, and if the work wasn't completed by the time Gloria hit, they had plans to evacuate the entire East and West sides of Midtown Manhattan, because the entire BUILDING MIGHT COLLAPSE!

    Fortunately, even though the re-riveting was done in time, Gloria went East, sparing the city its worst. But the city was still shut down for a day or two by water and wind damage.

    And what did we learn from Gloria, 27 years ago?

    So, Bloomie, start taxing your Galtian pals and save the great city for everyone - not just them.
    And if you have to tell them that the levee's you're going to build will protect only THEM, presonally, I'm ok with that - because I know it will protect ALL of the people who live and work in NYC, and not just the Entitled Galtian Class.

  • Hedda Peraz on November 04, 2012 10:08 AM:

    I WANT my beach house on Galveston, and the one at Cape Hatteras, and also I am building a really big (Trump Size) one on Long Beach Island.
    And I expect your Liberal, Tax and Spend government to insure it. For free.

    And, also, a pony.

  • Anonymous on November 04, 2012 10:19 AM:

    Bloomberg is a republican of yesteryear. Back in the days when republicans painted on their 'reasonable face' and pretended to care about the public good while always landing on the side of $$ for the wealthy above all else. Today's republicans are a bit lazier. They see a vast propaganda arm that can effortlessly miseducate their rubes and manhandle the MSM, and they think why bother painting my face today? Different technique same goal.

  • Domage on November 04, 2012 10:21 AM:

    I'm not real quick to blame Bloomberg and the anti-tax jihad for the failure to build protective ramparts around the city or even the subways.

    The reality is that events like Sandy, while inevitable, are relegated to the realm of the abstract. Yes, the models say massive flooding of subways, shutting down of highways, tens of billions of dollars in damage, etc. But for most average people just trying to survive from day to day in the workaday world, spending money on protection from "fanciful" events like Sandy seems like an extremely low priority or even a waste. After all, it hasn't happened yet, has it?

    Until it does happen, as Sandy did.

    For the next month or so, there will be the political will to build protection. And people might even be willing to pay some additional taxes for it. But within 30 days, that will will be gone. Bloomberg, by coming out two days after Sandy and saying that he would never authorize such construction for infrastructure protection, has ensured that the lifespan of such political will is even shorter.

    So don't castigate him for his low-tax views. Castigate him for his political shortsightedness in not taking advantage of such a crucial moment.

  • emjayay on November 04, 2012 10:29 AM:

    New York harbor is connected to the Atlantic at the top (Well Long Island Sound) and the bottom through the East River (not really a river) and the Narrows. Plus the Hudson flows into it on the other side of Manhattan.

    And of course Brooklyn and Queens have shoreline on the Atlantic (technically the Lower Bay, but pretty much the Atlantic) in the south, and Staten Island has tons of coastline in the Upper and Lower bay. So, build a wall around Manhattan and forget the rest? Put the Hudson in a giant underground culvert going out to the ocean? Remove everything within a half mile of the water in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island except parks? A little late, but a good idea actually.) What is going to happen in a few decades when the oceans are three or four feet higher, not just one like now? If Romney wins, add a couple more feet.

  • SecularAnimist on November 04, 2012 11:01 AM:

    It's likely that Sandy will prompt New York City to take at least some of the protective measures proposed by that 2010 report.

    However, as emjayay notes above, the sea level will continue to rise. Storms will continue to become more frequent, more powerful, larger and longer-lasting, and will deliver ever more rain and ever bigger storm surges.

    Any measures that are taken now will soon be overwhelmed by the inexorable onslaught of global warming, and the climate change and weather of mass destruction that global warming is driving.

    So, yes, of course we must take measures to protect New York and other coastal cities, and to protect vulnerable infrastructure (e.g. the electric grid) from ultra-violent weather all across the country.

    But if we are to have ANY hope of avoiding catastrophic consequences beyond any possibility of adaptation, we must address the underlying causes of the problem.

    First, we must end ALL fossil fuel use as rapidly as possible. We can do that much faster, and at much lower cost, than most people believe possible -- and indeed, the transition to renewable energy can be the basis of a new industrial revolution that provides sustainable and equitable prosperity for people all over the world.

    In addition, we must draw down the already dangerous anthropogenic excess of atmospheric CO2. This can be done with organic agriculture and reforestation, which sequester CO2 in soils and biomass.

    And it is important to note that the measures we need to take to eliminate CO2 emissions and draw down atmospheric CO2 levels overlap with the measures needed for adaptation.

    For example, upgrading the electric grid to make it more robust overlaps with upgrading the grid to better integrate distributed renewable energy sources like wind and solar (even New York City has very large untapped potential for on-site renewable energy generation, which could be keeping the lights on for millions of people right now). Organic agriculture not only reduces CO2 emissions and sequesters CO2 in the soil, but is also more productive under conditions of drought that global warming is already making more prevalent.

  • dr2chase on November 04, 2012 11:02 AM:

    @Domage - "abstract" is just excuse-making. We have a long history of hurricanes doing damage with storm surges, and a long history of hurricanes sometimes wandering up towards New England. To someone who grew up on the Gulf Coast, it is intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that if a storm approached "just right", it would funnel a good-sized surge up Long Island Sound as well as into New York Harbor in general. Sandy was not a strong storm; Sandy was a large storm, aimed just right, and moving slowly enough to build up a lot of waves. And for all the stupefaction at the damage done, that was not an extraordinary surge by hurricane standards. Camille hit 24 feet, Gilbert hit 20, so did Hugo.

  • square1 on November 04, 2012 11:07 AM:

    I was never an enthusiastic supporter of Obama in '08, but one of my hopes was that he would be able to push through policies to address climate change based on economic arguments to business leaders that the economy would suffer massive disruptions from increasingly-frequent catastrophic weather events.

    Sadly, Obama has utterly failed in this role. He now completely avoids the issue.

    At this point, I am now convinced that a Obama re-election is, in the net, worse for climate change than a Romney election. Not because Obama, in isolation, is worse than Romney on carbon issues. But because Romney would actually be opposed by liberal environmental and scientific groups that currently are unjustifiably deferential to the Obama administration.

    Too many Democrats believe that simply because Obama is a Democrat and in the oval office, he has mystical powers to affect climate change, regardless of what actual policies are in effect.

    A perfect example of this dysfunctional attitude can be seen in the comment above by emjayay, above, wherein a Romney administration is prospectively blamed for an additional rise in sea level of "a couple of feet" more than we will get under Obama despite the fact that it is virtually impossible to imagine what realistic policy differences that we might have in the next 4 years could lead to such a difference in outcome.

    The U.S. and the world desperately need dramatic policy changes. Such changes are simply not going to occur as long as liberals give Centrist Democrats credit for supporting liberal policies which the Centrists not only do not expend political capital to pass but no longer even rhetorically support during election season.

  • emjayay on November 04, 2012 11:23 AM:

    To Secular Animist: If we had continued what Carter started we could be a whole lot more energy efficient by now. It's way cheaper and easier to half as much energy than finding eco ways to generate it instead of using fossil fuels. Or to put it another way, If we got our renewable energy up to one half, and reduced energy use by one half, there's your end of using fossil fuels. (Yeah, not that simple really...) We've come a long way just mostly by market forces and oppressive big government car mileage requiremsnts.

    But look for instance at my Brooklyn apartment, with the usual cheap and stupid and shortsighted landlord. Three windows are single pane. Three others old cheap double pane. They should all be low-E double pane minimum. No insulation in the walls or roof. Probably a black roof. Regular light bulbs in the hall. He won't fix anything. He requires a government kick in the butt or a free program shoved down his throat, and the building could cut energy use in half including window air conditioner use in the summer.

    Just one small example of millions of dwellings in the US. In the suburbs, 5000 square foot houses in deserts with two people somewhere inside, completely cooled to 70 degrees inside. People driving everywhere in SUV's in a built environment based on suburbs and cars instead of mass transit. Planes flying tons of people up and down the East coast where with a big investment in real high speed rail would get half of them on a train.

    We need Big Government Solutions and we need them now!

  • schtick on November 04, 2012 11:33 AM:

    Hedda, I thought the government insured those beachfront homes for $5 a year? They insure them for free now? And that's still replacement insurance?

  • emjayay on November 04, 2012 11:46 AM:

    square1: I may have been exaggerating, I hope, but you do remember that Romney's oft repeated entire energy program is to extract and burn any fossil fuels we can get our hands on, oil sands or in National Parks or your back yard or wherever with no mention whatsoever of renewables or conservation. How's that for a realistic policy difference that we might have in the next 4 years (and the following 4 also).

    Obama wanted cap and trade, which was labeled cap and tax by the head in the sand crowd known as Republicans, so he realized it was a loser now and quit talking about it. Instead, the EPA is trying to get CO2 considered something they control, controlling mercury emissions, auto fuel mileage standards were put way up (something Romney will dismantle, as well as defanging the EPA). Oh look, more realistic policy differences that will make a difference.

    It's sad that Obama backed down on something that was fueling even more Obama derangement syndrome, but politically understandable. A tiny carbon tax (at least as good a way to go) supported by Democrats a decade or two ago was shot down with AK-47s and RPGs and also disappered.

    If Obama wins, the Republicans won't have to worry about making him a one term president anymore. Just about him continueing his successes and paveing the way for another Dempcrat. Uh-oh. Anyway there's reasonable hope on global warming action, even if too little and too late under Obama, and only a very safe prediction of going the other direction with RomneyRyan.

    It will take more banging them over the head with a two by four like hurricane Sandy for many of our fine citizens to get it. More two by fours are bound to come.

    Watch this and see what I mean.


  • biggerbox on November 04, 2012 11:47 AM:

    It's not Obama's fault that real action on climate change can get nowhere in Congress. He tried early in his term, hit a brick wall on the Hill, and then decided to do what he could do through regulations he controls, and tweaking the bills that could get passed. Is it enough? No. But the real problem isn't Obama, it's the party that mocks the idea of climate change that opposes him, and 'Democratic' senators who vote for the fossil fuel industry.

  • exlibra on November 04, 2012 1:06 PM:

    From the same Nocera article:

    "Part of the reason is that the cost of any such system would run into the billions of dollars. But another reason is that many environmentalists are firmly opposed to a big public-works project, fearing that it would give people a false sense of security about the problems posed by climate change."

    So let's not put *all* the blame on blooming Mike, since at least some of it is shared with people who think that we need a lesson, not protection.

  • Anonymous on November 04, 2012 1:21 PM:

    I see absence hasn't made someone any smarter.

  • Rick B on November 04, 2012 1:22 PM:

    @Hedda Peraz

    The pony is for miniature dressage, right?

    Just tax the middle class to start the league. That's what G. W. Bush did to build Rangers baseball stadium and what Jerry Jones did to build Cowboys Stadium next door to Ranger ball park.

  • Rick B on November 04, 2012 1:41 PM:


    Obama has downplayed climate change because the big money would have come out to attack his reelection. He has the pro-climate change vote without spending ad money to rile up the anti-climate change vote. It's unlikely that his relative silence on the subject will last past the new year.

    Romney is tethered to the anti-climate change institutions with chains of hardened steel. He answers to the guy with the most (conservative) money who spoke to him last. He has totally proven his unfitness for any public office this last year. He is clearly is morally and intellectually to be President. No major candidate for President has ever run so dishonest a campaign. His owners would never let him do what America needs done.

    A vote for Romney is a vote to rapidly drag America down to near third world levels.

  • Keith M Ellis on November 04, 2012 2:19 PM:

    Your use of neoliberal — and its use in general — is more a signifier for your sociocultural affiliations, and your investment in one example of social capital, than it is meaningful.

    In this context it really means "conservative".

    Neoliberalism is meaningful as a contrast to actual socialism, but within that context almost the entire political establishment of North American and Europe is neoliberal and therefore it's just not a helpful terms to use, it tells us nothing.

    You will certainly find a difference of opinion in the US between the left and right regarding finance reform, AGW response, and such. But if most everyone in the US is, by definition, neoliberal, and many of those are emphatically not most interested in protecting the interests of the wealthy, then saying that Bloomberg's response to the panel was typical of a neoliberal affiliation to the interests of the wealthy was false.

    It's typical of, first, the wealthy's affiliation to the interests of the wealthy, and, second, an affiliation to the interests of the wealthy by the economically conservative, which Bloomberg certainly is. Just not quite as conservative as his Wall Street cohort. But that doesn't make him an economic liberal.

    Even by a narrower and arguably more relevant definition, people like Paul Krugman is definitely neoliberal, even though he has been and will continue to be as vigorous a critic of what you're criticizing here as you are.

    While I'm inclined to believe that your usage of neoliberalism is at least partly academically informed, its usage in general has long seemed to me to be similar to those who used neoconservative in its non-technical sense, as if it just meant "that new bunch of war-mongering conservatives". That is, a label affixed to a disliked group which signals the dislike, not a label in a technical usage that implies relevant meaning.

    Of course, the use of nomenclature implies a kind of authoritative significance, implies that there's a technical meaning here that if one were more informed, one would agree with the speaker on these matters. Which is another reason why I don't much like the usage when it's sloppy like this. It's a badge, a social signal.

  • Hue and Cry on November 04, 2012 7:22 PM:

    I don't blame Bloomberg. I don't blame the president.
    No one screamed when Ronald Reagan took down Jimmy Carter's solar panels. Time goes on. Storms don't come. And then they do.
    It is a matter a what we do now.

  • Anonymous on November 04, 2012 7:32 PM:

    I would like to thank emjayay and Secular Animist for their reasoned, intelligent, and informative comments. I hope so much that Obama wins and that such discourse becomes commonplace.

  • Hue and Cry on November 04, 2012 7:58 PM:

    I agree with Anonymous--most thoughtful comments from emjayjay and Secular Animist. Impressed as well.