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NY - She led scientists advising New York on climate change. Did the city listen?

Cynthia Rosenzweig is a senior research scientist at the Columbia Climate School, and heads the Climate Impacts Group at the affiliated NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Since the 1990s, she has organized and led multiple large-scale local, national and international studies of climate change impacts and adaptation in rural and urban settings.

She served as co-chair of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to advise the city, from the panel's inception in 2008 until 2019. By the time Sandy struck, the panel had already assembled a great deal of information on the climate-related threats facing New York City, and measures the metropolis should take.

When did scientists and others start thinking seriously about how extreme weather and sea-level rise could affect New York, and how did you get involved?

I first got involved when I co-led the Metro East Coast Assessment, which was published by the Columbia Earth Institute in 2002. Not only was it the first major study on climate change impacts in New York City; it was also one of the first studies of how climate change would affect urban areas in general. Representatives from FEMA, EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Port Authority and other agencies were actively engaged, so many stakeholders were involved from the beginning.

Disaster preparedness, evacuation plans and policies were in place by the time of Sandy, but they were limited. Sandy was the critical turning point, because it motivated the city to embed sea-level projections into rebuilding policies. More broadly, it sparked an awareness of the importance of having local climate risk information available.

In 2008, you were appointed to co-chair the newly formed New York City Panel on Climate Change. How effective was this panel in bringing climate issues before city officials?

Our first report, published in 2010, definitely was successful in bringing climate change issues before city officials. This is in large part due to the leadership of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recognized that sustainability could not be addressed without taking the increasing risks of climate change into account. That report focused on both short-term and long-term adaptation measures, through development of the concept of flexible adaptation pathways.

In this approach, strategies evolve in response to continuous risk assessments and the occurrence of extreme events. Just weeks before Sandy in 2012, the passage of Local Law 42 mandated our panel to update climate-change projections at least every three years, and within a year of new projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Did the storm change your or others' perspectives on what to expect?

Major hurricanes have been a part of the New York region for a long time. The high-water level from a hurricane in 1821 reached 13 feet in one hour, and in 1893, another hurricane submerged southern Brooklyn and Queens. Hurricanes Donna and Gloria in 1960 and 1985, respectively, caused extensive damage on Long Island and in New Jersey. So we knew that New York should expect an event of Hurricane Sandy's magnitude, with a storm tide of about 14 feet.

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