How a Green New Deal Could Shape Delaware’s Climate Risks

By Maddy Lauria (Wilmington News Journal) and Ayurella Horn-Muller (Climate Central)

About four times a year, Clarence White loses customers from his auto repair business in South Wilmington because flooded roads prevent anyone from getting close.

Consistent flooding in Southbridge has meant nearly 19 years of learning the best detours or skipping a trip to the grocery store for Diana Dixon.

For community activist Marie Reed, it elicits memories of rainy days leading to sewage pouring into her childhood basement.

High water is a pervasive problem in the region — and it is getting worse.

Southbridge Civic Association President Marie Reed stands for a portrait taken last year near Christiana Avenue in Southbridge.
Credit: Jerry Habraken/The News Journal.
 

“At certain times of the month, with a full moon and a high tide, we get flooded,” said White, who has had his shop in northern Delaware since 1969. “When it comes in, it don’t stay more than a day, but we usually have to stop working.”

Climate scientists warn that the challenges and hazards posed by coastal flooding, heavy rain and snow, heat waves and other climate-related hazards will continue to worsen across Delaware.

Seas are rising faster as heat-trapping pollution is released from the use of fossil fuels, farming and deforestation, which drive up air and ocean temperatures, melt ice and expand ocean waters. And land in the area is sinking because of geological processes, increasing risks.

At an elevation just a few feet above a sea level that could be 2 feet higher by the time millennials start retiring, Southbridge is just one example of how hard and fast climate change could alter ways of life in low-lying communities.

Not only will climate change impacts intensify and occur more frequently as temperatures continue to rise, but current pollution trends would further escalate those dangers locally while causing an overlap of crises – caused by rising sea levels, extreme rainfall, and intense heat waves.

Research published in November in the journal Nature Climate Change examined warming’s impacts in locations worldwide, including in Delaware.

“I think the main conclusion of this paper is to demonstrate that we as a species are not prepared to deal with climate change,” said University of Hawaii geographer Camilo Mora, who led the work. “When you see climate change impairing the capacity of a country like the U.S. to function, it gives you a very worrisome sense of how unprepared we are.”

In an effort to lessen the human effects of climate change, most nations have committed to shift away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner energy alternatives. But international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol of 1992 and the 2016 Paris climate treaty have had limited influence on global pollution rates.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published last year showed that if global average temperatures rise more than 1.5-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial era average temperatures, climate-triggered hazards will increase widespread risk of human death. 

That finding helped spark a rallying cry for congressional action in the U.S., leading dozens of Democrats to sponsor a resolution supportive of a far-reaching social and economic shift called the Green New Deal.

It calls for a dramatic increase in the generation of renewable fuels – and a rapid decrease in the use of fossil fuels, which have been the main cause of climate change.

President Donald Trump and his administration, by contrast, have worked to undermine climate science and the Paris climate agreement while also implementing sweeping cuts to climate and environmental regulations.

Economic development, social justice, transportation, education and renewable energy ideals make up the key elements of the Green New Deal's framework. Notably, it aims to reduce carbon emissions from one of the world’s worst climate polluters to nothing overall by 2030.  

Michael Wara, an environmental lawyer and climate policy expert at Stanford University, said he applauds a shift in the conversation about climate change.

“But the Green New Deal is a set of goals that ultimately have to be implemented through policy,” he said. “And I don't think we've seen a lot about what the actual policies would be.”

Mora’s study indicates that Wilmington residents can expect to battle rising sea levels and changes in rain and snow patterns within the next 30 years – even if drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are made.

This would be consistent with what climate scientists call RCP 2.6, or the “best-case” scenario of temperatures warming.

Achieving that “best-case” would require more than a national Green New Deal to reach, said associate environmental policy professor at Smith College and former senior EPA official Alexander Barron.

“The only time we can end up on a trajectory that looks more like RCP 2.6 is when everyone will know it, because the U.S. and China and India and Brazil and Indonesia are all taking aggressive action to limit emissions,” he said.

If no global changes to emissions are made, putting the world in a “worst-case” scenario, technically called RCP 8.5, the findings warn that residents can expect to face multiple climate hazards by 2050, sometimes all at once.

That means residents of Delaware’s largest city could be simultaneously forced to grapple with the effects of more extreme rainfall and faster rises in sea levels.

Mora’s research shows that global emissions cuts would ease the impacts on communities in Wilmington by reducing the severity of future hazards.

“When we were doing this project, we talked about the lack of ‘meat to the bones,’” Mora said. “These typical science statements were lacking pieces of evidence that we realized were what was needed for people to start assessing the realities of many of these impacts.”

See more in our report, CLIMATE PILE-UP.

Reviewing more than 12,000 scientific papers, Mora and 23 of his colleagues identified 467 examples of ways in which climate change hazards are affecting health, food, water, infrastructure, economy and security around the world. They combined the data with disaster projections to scrutinize how vulnerable different societies will be to to these various hazards in the future.

“There are ways that we can adjust to reduce our vulnerability,” said Jessica Hellman, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. She wasn’t involved with Mora’s study. “But the more climate change we allow, some of these hazards —  there's just not much that can be done.”

For Dixon, who has had to skip shopping trips and take detours when floodwaters make roads impassable, more data clarifying a dire future filled with environmental threats does not make much of a difference.

“It’s like a never-ending story,” Dixon said. “The problem has existed for over 100 years, and the problem has been talked about for 100 years. It’s just data and research, data and research. Here we go again. But nobody’s doing anything about it. They’re just talking.”

Dixon said the flooding issues in Southbridge, largely caused by the siting of the community on a filled-in marsh and the way nearby river tide gates function, have become a way of life.

While the 59-year-old paralegal and entrepreneur said she has little hope flooding problems will be solved in her lifetime, she said she hopes something can be done for future generations.

“It’s something you learn to live with,” Dixon said.

Amy Snover, an associate professor at the University of Washington, has been researching steps locals can take to prepare for the effects of disasters to come.

“I tend to start simple and just think about, you know, what are decisions that are being made in your community that affects things you care about?,” Snover said. “And the question is, were those made in a climate-smart way?”

Snover cites ways that coastal residents can invest their time and community resources into preparation, such as monitoring development permits and water conservation efforts. To the climate scientist, it comes down to a simple question: “Are you going to live in a community that is sustainable, or not?”

Airport Road flooding in Wilmington from Hurricane Irene.
Credit: John J. Jankowski Jr./Special to The News Journal.

Southbridge’s legacy of flooding has prompted the city to invest in a wetlands project that will store floodwaters during heavy rain events when the nearby Christina River is at high tide.

Leah Kacanda, a project manager in Wilmington’s economic development office, said the yet-to-be built 14-acre wetlands project, has been designed to withstand future rising sea levels.

But sea level rise could impact the project in as little as 25 years, she said. “The primary purpose of the park was designed to address flooding as it stands now,” she said. “But we wanted to make sure this project will still work [with rising sea levels] and also help with the community’s resiliency.”

In another part of the city, Pastor John Graham of Temple United Church on Washington Street is trying to figure out how to better reach people who may need shelter from the blistering heat when winter weather soon subsides.

In West Center City, an urban area historically overwhelmed by poverty and crime, climate threats are not as easily spotted as rising flood waters. There, the church opens its doors to residents looking for shelter on the hottest days—when Delaware often issues air quality alerts because of dangerous air pollution.

“We try to remind them that if they’ve got any type of breathing problems, they don’t need to be out in the heat,” Graham said. “But one of the biggest issues is instead of them looking at it as a place of safety from the heat, they think we’re trying to save them with God. In one sense it is saving them - from heat stroke.”

Meanwhile, members of Delaware Interfaith Power and Light, a religious-based group that focuses on climate change, soon will once again be knocking on doors to make sure city residents living on second and third floors know when extreme days of heat will pose threats, and to ensure they have access to a safe place to live and sleep.

“The issue is that folks aren’t prepared for it,” said Interfaith Vice President John Sykes. “And it’s going to get worse through the generations.”

This story was produced through a partnership between Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and news group, and the News Journal, a newspaper in Delaware.

This story was produced through a partnership between Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and news group, and the News Journal, a newspaper in Delaware.