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Scientists critical of Christie’s dismissive remarks on climate change

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 10:13 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — HACKENSACK, N.J.—A day after Gov. Chris Christie dismissed questions about whether climate change fueled Superstorm Sandy, scientists maintained Wednesday that global warming and sea level rise must be taken into account when rebuilding the Jersey Shore.

Meteorologists and climate experts criticized Christie for remarks at a news conference on Tuesday in which he said he was not focused on the cause of the devastating storm and that questions about the role of climate change were “esoteric.” The scientists said that understanding how climate change helped exacerbate Sandy’s destructive force is crucial to limiting damage from future storms.

“He shouldn’t be dismissing this,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate expert at Princeton University. “This should be at the heart of local, state and federal policy right now in deciding how to rebuild the Jersey Shore. If we rebuild the same way it was, are we just asking for more trouble? How can we rebuild and retreat in a way that makes us less vulnerable?”

Other public officials, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have said they are convinced that global warming played a role in Sandy’s unprecedented destruction.

While Christie was dismissive on Tuesday, he has said in the past that climate change is real and that “human activity” has contributed to it. And while he has maintained that the science behind climate change is in flux, Christie adopted new federal rebuilding standards last month that will require damaged properties to be elevated or retrofitted to withstand storm surges or face steep flood insurance premiums.

Some scientists question if it is wise to rebuild in some of the most vulnerable areas at all.

“I think a lot of this building is inappropriate on the Jersey barrier islands,” said James Carton, an expert on sea level rise at the University of Maryland. “It’s extremely risky. You’re almost guaranteed that the buildings will be destroyed at some point.”

Scientists are quick to say that no particular storm can be irrefutably linked to climate change. But many have said that the effects of climate change likely played a role in enhancing Sandy’s destructive power. Melting ice sheets have already helped raise sea levels along parts of the Jersey coast by 19 inches over the past century. That provided Sandy with more water to push ashore, causing record flooding and acting as a battering ram to inflict billions of dollars in property damage.

Leading up to Sandy, New Jersey had experienced 21 consecutive months of above-average temperatures, and the above-normal surface water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean off the Jersey coast last October provided Sandy with more energy at a time when it otherwise would have started to weaken.

“What we saw with Sandy is clearly consistent with what the scientific community has been warning for a decade or more,” said Antonio Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland.

And it’s only going to get worse.

Sea levels are expected to rise a foot by 2050 and 3 feet by 2100, according to Ken Miller, an earth and planetary sciences expert at Rutgers University.

Scientists have been focusing on forecasting sea level rise on a regional basis such as the Eastern Seaboard, but have not yet come to any conclusions. Still, a state like New Jersey, which sustained $37 billion in damage from Sandy, would do well to prepare for more frequent “extreme events,” Busalacchi said.

“The climate of the past is not the climate of the future,” Busalacchi said. “We will be reliving the sins of the past if we do our planning based on what happened in the last 30 years rather than the next 30 years.”

There are still those who dismiss global warming or question whether humans are to blame for climate change, arguing that weather extremes are purely random or the computer models used to predict the changes are too crude. The vast majority of climate experts, however, call the evidence convincing.

Christie does not deny that climate change exists. While he vetoed a bill in 2011 that would have required New Jersey to rejoin a regional carbon cap-and-trade initiative intended to reduce greenhouse gases, he acknowledged that “the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are increasing, that climate change is real, that human activity plays a role in these changes and that these changes are impacting our state.”

Oppenheimer said he respected Christie for making that statement. “He avoided doing what many of his Republican colleagues do — dump all over the science,” Oppenheimer said. “I respect that a lot.”

David Robinson, Rutgers professor and the state climatologist, agreed. “Christie said something that is anathema for many Republicans to say — that humans have played a role in changing the climate,” Robinson said.

Still, Christie’s comments on Tuesday were too dismissive to some at a critical time in the rebuilding process.

Storms such as Sandy “make us more aware of the fact that we’ll have to deal with the consequences of higher sea level, and I don’t consider that esoteric at all,” Robinson said. “That’s a pretty germane question to any long-term development plans.”

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