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8 years after Superstorm Sandy, we need a more resilient New Jersey, October 25, 2020New Jersey Future Op-Ed Button

By Peter Kasabach

There are steps that we can take now to begin adapting to climate change that will make each of our communities in New Jersey safer, avoid wasting limited government funds and set the state on the path for a healthier, more sustainable and equitable future, says Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future and a member of the bi-state Rise to Resilience coalition.

This October marks eight years since Superstorm Sandy ravaged our region, leaving thousands in New Jersey without homes and causing $30 billion in economic damage to businesses.

Our response as a state has been mixed. While we have been aggressively seeking to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, known as climate change mitigation, we have been slow to modify our development and investment response to the changing climate, known as climate change adaptation.

Even if carbon emissions were halted today, the reality is that our livelihoods and well-being depend on our ability to adapt to a changing climate. Global climate patterns have already shifted to ensure that the impacts of climate change now set in motion will persist. The seas will continue to rise, temperatures will continue to climb and precipitation events will continue to intensify — even under the best greenhouse gas emission reduction scenario.

We’ve seen the impact of disasters — from Sandy to COVID-9. We have a duty to do all we can to prevent additional disasters before they start, especially climate-change-driven flooding.

There are steps that we can take now to begin adapting to climate change that will make each of our communities safer, avoid wasting limited government funds and set the state on the path for a healthier, more sustainable, and equitable future.

Amend the Municipal Land Use Law

New Jersey is a home rule state where municipalities have the authority to self-govern through individual police and fire departments, water systems and planning boards. This authority is derived from the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) and enables municipalities to develop master plans that set local land-use priorities determining where and in what form development can happen.

While the MLUL contains certain land-use guidelines, it does not currently address the most serious environmental threats in New Jersey: sea-level rise and climate change. A bill sponsored by state Senator Bob Smith, S-2607, with companion legislation in the Assembly, would amend the MLUL to require towns to include climate change risk in the master plan updates conducted every 10 years. These assessments would utilize forward-looking projections from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to inform land-use decisions and be easy to incorporate into the current planning process. This type of planning is essential to protect local businesses, residents and land from the economic, personal, and physical toll of climate events.

Enact NJ PACT regulations

In January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order 100 directing the NJDEP to develop comprehensive climate adaptation regulations, signaling the importance of acting now to protect our future. These regulations, developed under the banner of New Jersey Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJ PACT) include regulations guiding land-use development across the state.

The rules governing the management of stormwater, coastal areas, and floodplains must include scientific-based projections for sea-level rise and eventually increased storm intensity. These projections must be issued in the form of standards so that other state departments, local governments and the private sector have a clear target to plan and design buildings and infrastructure toward.

Develop a climate change resilience strategy

Last year, Governor Murphy signed Executive Order 89, which established a Climate and Flood Resilience Program within the NJDEP and called for a Statewide Climate Change Resilience Strategy. The strategy, which is expected to be released later this year, will promote climate adaptation and economic, environmental, and infrastructure resilience. It is critical that this strategy be developed as a forward-looking decision-making guide with clear and objective adaptation metrics and targets and that it layout concrete steps to ensure that lower-income communities and communities of color are included and treated equitably. We must be able to develop a clear picture of what successful adaptation would look like and for who, and determine the concrete development and investment actions we can take to get there.

Amend NJDEP’s combined sewer system permitting process

New Jersey has 21 communities with combined sewer systems — antiquated systems that collect both stormwater and sewage and are prone to overflowing into streets and waterways during heavy rain — that are currently engaged in the process of developing and adopting plans to reduce overflows. The communities receive a series of NJDEP permits allowing a certain number of overflows each year as they adopt modern stormwater management infrastructure and practices.

The NJDEP can, and should, amend the permitting process to require communities to engage in transparent, inclusive, future-oriented climate change planning so that their plans realistically anticipate future climate threats. Additionally, the use of green infrastructure — an approach to stormwater management that mimics that natural water cycle — should be required as it offers additional and long-lasting community benefits and can create local jobs.

It is important to recognize that the consequences of these climate change events affect all of us in New Jersey, but are not experienced equally. The communities most likely to be impacted are those that have the least amount of resources to prepare for or clean up from damaging flooding and storms. By taking the important steps listed above, New Jersey can be a leader in addressing climate change adaptation in a proactive way that makes New Jersey both safer and fairer.

© New Jersey Future, 16 W. Lafayette St. • Trenton, NJ 08608 • Phone: 609-393-0008 • Fax: 609-360-8478

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