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Cities begin planning for a very different future

Sarah Gardner Sep 1, 2011

Cities begin planning for a very different future

Sarah Gardner Sep 1, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The fiscal problems of states and cities have kind of been lost in all the recent hullabaloo about federal debt and deficits. They’re still lousy is the update.

So an item in a report not too long ago from the U.S. Conference of Mayors caught our eye. It said almost a third of American cities have made provisions in their budgets for adapting to climate change. That is, potholes, police cars and getting ready for global warming.

Seeing as how climate change is still a touchy subject, our sustainability reporter Sarah Gardner decided to dig into it and find out the real story.

Sarah Gardner: Turns out, it’s not quite true. Lots of cities are investing in energy efficiency and cleaner power. But only about 30 are seriously thinking about investing in “climate change adaptation.” That means making plans for changes like rising sea levels, extreme drought and more frequent storms.

Stanford University researcher Susanne Moser says news flash: American cities have barely begun.

Susanne Moser: In terms of actually making changes on the ground, there are very, very few that I can think of that are beginning to do that.

Among the few: Ventura, on the California coast. It’s moving all the facilities at famed Surfer’s Point 65 feet inland. Other cities are making plans for more drought-resistant trees and building bigger storm drains.

Moser: You know, because we have for so long debated just the fact of climate change — whether it’s happening, whether it’s human-caused — we’re kind of behind the eight-ball here.

Mike Henn doesn’t want his city in that position. He’s mayor of Newport Beach, Calif., where rising sea levels are already affecting some of the wealthiest people in the country.

Mike Henn: Well, yeah, we’ve had some very substantial storm events and heavy rain for most of the winter and a couple of those storm events actually did cause flooding here on Balboa Island.

Henn stands near a nine-foot seawall in this close-knit neighborhood that some here compare to Mayberry. Well, maybe — if Sheriff Andy had a million dollar yacht. Henn and councilman Ed Selich say they’re convinced that rising sea levels will eventually threaten homes and businesses here. They’re considering raising this public seawall several feet.

Ed Selich: We have no option but to solve the problem. You look at this real estate, this is the highest per-square-foot-valued real estate in the United States, because these are small lots with very valuable homes on them, so not having a solution is not an option.

But in this conservative little city, there are plenty of climate change skeptics. Selich is among them. He says he doesn’t know why sea levels are rising — just that they are. Newport needs to deal with it.

That kind of attitude is why Jeannie Renne-Malone doesn’t even whisper the words “climate change” when she works with cities. Renne-Malone is with the consulting firm HDR Engineering.

Jeannie Renne-Malone: In some places, it’s just easier to use words when we’re talking about climate adaptation such as “risk-preparedness‚” “resiliance” and other words. And what we always do is try to tie it back to economics.

But with cities strapped these days just to fill potholes and pay teachers, Renne-Malone says climate adaptation gets short shrift at city hall.

Renne-Malone: Climate adaptation is looking out 25, 50 years into the future. It’s just not seen as a high priority in a lot of places.

Stanford’s Susanne Moser says there’s little research on how much adaptation will cost in the long run. That’s why Newport mayor Mike Henn wants to get started now.

Henn: I feel a high sense of urgency about this. Just the planning alone is going to take time. And then because the improvements and changes that are necessary are so expensive, it’s going to take a long time to actually implement.

Henn figures it’ll take $50 million to start. That’s the cost of raising those public seawalls on Balboa Island.

In Newport Beach, Calif., I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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