New Jersey Marks a “Novel” First in Fighting Climate Change

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New Jersey Marks a “Novel” First in Fighting Climate Change

This is a first for any state in the US: New Jersey will now require that builders take into account the impact of climate change, including rising sea levels, in order to win government approval for projects, according to one New York Times article.

Democratic Governor Philip D. Murphy announced the initiative on January 27, 2020. The move is a part of a growing effort by states to address worsening climate conditions and to aggressively counteract the Trump administration’s push to roll back environmental regulations.

The urgency of the situation is clear to Gov. Murphy: “This is real. The dangers are there.”

The article explains that New Jersey’s initiative is novel for its broad scope yet specific attempt to leverage land-use rules to control where and what developers can build, and to limit harmful emissions.

“It gives us the ability to say no, or to say, ‘You have to do it differently,’” said Kathleen Frangione, the governor’s chief policy advisor.

The Department of Environmental Protection will adopt the new regulations by January 2022. The changes do not require legislative approval, but could face legal and political challenges.

Not all officials were in support of the change, however.

“Phil Murphy might be forgetting that we still make the laws,” said Assemblyman Jon Brammick, the Republican minority leader, adding that the proposal was certain to have a distasteful effect on business growth. “If he’s going to roll out something that’s going to step development in New Jersey, that calls for serious legislative hearings.”

In order to gain as much widespread support as possible, business and environmental leaders will be invited to participate in the rule-writing process. This is a necessary effort to include many sectors of the community, especially given business owners and environmentalists do not always “get along” per say.

Michael Egenton, the executive vice president of governmental relations for the state Chamber of Commerce, said that he supported the regulation, but he knows that concerns from the business community had to be considered.

“You have to keep costs in mind, because we are in competition with New York, with Delaware, and surrounding states,” Mr. Egenton said.

Other states have taken environmental matters into their own hands despite federal policies—or lack thereof. For one, New Jersey set a goal of producing 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Many states, including New York and California, have tried to create a bulwark against the dismantling of federal rules to combat climate change, and have joined together to challenge the Trump administration rollbacks in court.

However, the Trump administration has pushed back against state efforts to impose regulations that supplement or skirt relaxed federal standards. One example of this was the revocation of California’s ability to set state-level standards on climate-warming tailpipe emissions that were stricter than the federal government’s.

Gov. Murphy’s land-use initiative does recognize that in order to reach its goals for reducing greenhouse gases, New Jersey needs to “add a new level of oversight to the building process to complement incentives aimed at changing individual and corporate behavior.”

“You need the carrot and the stick,” said Shawn LaTourette, chief of staff at the Department of Environmental Protection. “We’ve put out a lot of carrots — incentives. But the regulation needs to be the stick.”

Still, despite considerations of businesses and costs, many argue that it’s hard to deny the toll climate change has already taken on New Jersey’s 130 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline.

One study by Rutgers University, released in November, found that the sea level in New Jersey was rising nearly two times faster than the global average. Since 1911, the sea level rose 1.5 feet, compared with the global mean of 0.6 feet.

By 2030, the study expects the level to rise another foot, and more coastal areas are expected to undergo subsidence, or essentially sink.

Atlantic City specifically has seen intense tidal flooding—at an occurrence 10 times more frequently than it did in the middle of the last century. By 2050, Atlantic City could experience high-tide flooding 120 days a year, according to the Rutgers study.

“We are both drowning and sinking,” LaTourette said.

The enacted rules are expected to add a new layer of oversight, forcing applicants that require Department of Environmental Protection permits and approvals to consider 1) how climate change is expected to impact the project and 2) the effect of the project’s emissions on global warming.

The rules would also apply to the construction of state-funded projects and anything built with grants that pass through the department.

The rules would affect projects like the following: a condo complex near the banks of a flood-prone river, a public school close to the ocean, natural-gas pipelines, and carbon-emitting power plants.

While New Jersey’s initiative is definitely a drastic change from most state policies, and the federal government, many praise the measure, saying it is a vital step. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the proposal was a good step—but other variables will have an effect on its success like the DEP’s timeline and the regulations’ final language. Tittle says it’s important that the process move quickly and sooner than 2021.

“This is a big deal,” said Rob Moore, director of the water and climate team at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “For New Jersey to step to the forefront and say, ‘We’re going to look at future climate impacts, and that it’s going to be a driver of our decision-making’—that’s exactly what all 50 states need to be doing.”

“It would certainly seem that New Jersey would really be taking a big leap here,” said Jeanne Herb, director of the environmental analysis group Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Other states, like Rhode Island, are moving toward using land-laws to confront coastal resiliency.

The state plans to revise its Energy Master Plan, a document intended to create a road map to reducing the state’s dependency on fossil fuels.

While the initiative has months ahead of development and meetings between businesses, environmentalists, and scientists, the urgency to simply “do something” resounds among state officials and the country. DEP chief of staff, LaTourette, put it simply:

“Unless we want to send boats in to save everybody, we can’t back down.”