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Legal Issues of Climate Adaptation – by Carey R. Dunne

Beginning with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the nations of the world agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to slow, and ultimately reverse, global warming. Despite these promises, global warming has continued to accelerate, with likely severe consequences for coastal cities, potable water sources, marine life, agriculture, forests and many island states. Superstorm Sandy and droughts across much of the U.S. farm belt have made dramatically clear that the U.S., including New York City, is at risk from these threats. While most attention has been focused on legal and regulatory tools to reduce GHG emissions, it is also essential to identify ways for nations to adapt to the global warming that now appears inevitable.

To address these issues, the City Bar has established a special Task Force on Legal Issues of Climate Adaptation, chaired by Stephen L. Kass. The Task Force includes representatives of the Association’s committees on Environmental Law, International Environmental Law, Energy, International Human Rights, Immigration and other relevant fields of law, as well as representatives of non-profit organizations, academia and governmental agencies dealing with climate change. The Task Force is focusing on three critical areas of climate adaptation, both in the U.S. and abroad: urban adaptation to floods and other threats to municipal infrastructure and residents; climate-driven migration, particularly in developing countries; and financing mechanisms and legal reforms necessary to help cities and nations undertake the investments needed to address these challenges.

As the New York City Bar Association, we have a special interest in how our own city is adapting to climate change. Moreover, by virtue of its global profile, New York City serves as a model for other cities and countries. The outgoing Mayor deserves credit for his environmental focus in recent years. PlaNYC, with its initiative to make the City’s buildings more energy efficient and sustainable, and the resulting Green Codes Task Force are great strides in the right direction.

But there’s plenty more to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to protect the City and its most vulnerable populations from the effects of climate change. That’s why we devoted a large section of our recent Policy Recommendations for New York City’s Next Mayor to climate change and the environment.

In addition to maintaining and building upon the existing PlaNYC objectives and programs, we recommended that New York City’s next Mayor bring “environmental justice” into the mainstream lexicon. One of the most important takeaways from Superstorm Sandy has got to be the disproportionate impact the storm had on disadvantaged communities in Red Hook, the Rockaways and Coney Island. Our City Bar Justice Center lawyers witnessed the fallout firsthand when they held a series of clinics in the Rockaways and Brooklyn following the storm. Among other steps, environmental justice concerns should be integrated into the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process.

With half of the world’s population, cities are on the front line, figuratively and often literally, in facing climate change. Later this month at the City Bar, on September 25th, Poland’s Minister of Environment, Marcin Korolec, will preview the 19th meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to take place in Warsaw this November, and he’ll address possible scenarios for climate mitigation, adaptation and compensation for victims of the world’s failure to address this most important of issues. On October 7th, a separate program at the City Bar on “Innovations in Climate Adaptation: Through the Lens of Cities” will discuss adaptation strategies being implemented in cities around the world, including New York.

Through these and other future programs, the City Bar intends to remain an active participant in the search for workable programs to confront the impacts of climate change both at home and abroad.

Carey R. Dunne is President of the New York City Bar Association

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