Only question left on climate change: Should we spend money to fix present — or prepare for future?

CSG panel at event says increased costs, increasingly limited funds will soon force governments to face tough reality, make tough choices

In nearly four decades of working as an environmental engineer, someone who has had numerous roles involved in the creation of environmentally sound projects and the restoration of projects that have been ravished by the environment, Joe Seebode seemingly has seen it all.

Except this: The day when it’s decided that some projects are not worth rebuilding — and some areas are no longer worth saving.

Seebode, the deputy district engineer and chief of programs and project management for the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers, feels that day is coming. And soon.

“I do believe that we are at a watershed moment,” he said. “I believe we are not going to continue to see hundreds of millions of dollars, year after year after year, to repair beach projects where we’re having significant erosion.

“I don’t believe we’re going to be able to see the kinds of money come into our into our coffers for projects where the question remains: Are we spending the money smartly?”

Seebode, speaking recently on the recent environmental panel, “Let’s Get Real about Climate Change,” at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi in Roseland, gave specific examples.

“Are we going to raise a home on the beach so it doesn’t flood at federal expense, knowing that the next hurricane could knock it down again — or that the storm that comes in could provide enough surge that an emergency responder can’t get to the house, even if it was safely above the water?” he asked the crowd of approximately 100.

“These are big issues.”

The good news — if there is any good news about the ravaging impact climate change is having on New Jersey, the country and the world — is this: It’s nearly impossible to question the impact of climate change now.

This new reality, however, begs tougher questions: What do we do about it — and where is the money going to come from to address it?


Shawn LaTourette, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the state — and society — has to deal with two realities, two costs and two challenges.

“Our job in government is to help reduce and respond to climate change,” he said. “Those are two channels of policy: Reducing our emissions of climate pollutants through clean energy policy — and how do we respond? How do we build adaptation? How do we build resilience to the worsening effects that we’re not going to be able to change?”

There are no easy answers, LaTourette said.

“There’s a reality here that, because of all of the emissions we pumped into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide and other climate pollutants that are not like your typical air pollutants — they hang around for a lot longer, they damage you for a lot longer before they cycle out of the environment — it means it’s going to get worse for at least the next 30 years,” he said.

“So, what we’re asking ourselves is, with the policies we’re enacting today — clean energy policy, carbon reduction policy — how much worse do we want it to get? And then, on the other side, how much resilience do we want to build?

“And there’s balance, because everything you don’t do in this column, you then have to do in this column. It doesn’t go away.”


All of this impacts the business community in numerous ways.

It starts with a willingness to accept the fact that things are not as they were; businesses need to adjust. And not because they have to — but, because they should.

The panelists

  • Shawn LaTourette, commissioner, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
  • Doug O’Malley, director, Environment New Jersey
  • Joe Seebode, deputy district engineer, Army Corps of Engineers
  • Tracy Straka, executive vice president, Creamer Environmental
  • Dennis Toft, chair, environmental law, Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi

So said Dennis Toft, a partner at CSG Law and perhaps the top environmental lawyer in the state.

“We counsel clients as to how we can comply with rules,” he said. “Clients are always worried about (how) these rules are changing and things are evolving.

“Beyond that, it’s a question of: What do you want to build your project for? How long do you want it to last? Do you want it to be sustainable? No one wants to build a building that’s going to be underwater. People need to understand that. And we counsel them to understand that the rules are designed to protect them.”

Tracy Straka, an executive vice president at Creamer Environmental, one of the top environmental firms in the country, said educating business leaders — educating everyone — needs to be a top priority.

“People are grabbing at sound bites, not taking the time to understand,” she said.

These quick hits do not provide the depth needed, she said.

“Better, cheaper, faster — that’s what they want,” she said. “Climate change doesn’t play into better, cheaper, faster.”

To make business decisions — business investments — when you’ve only seen sound bites on the issues, doesn’t work, Straka said.

“This is real,” she said. “You’re going to meet a lot of frustration. We need to figure out how to communicate specific issues, specific solutions — tell people, ‘You’re going to flood because you’re in this location.’”


Location, location, location.

When it comes to environmental issues in New Jersey, it starts at the Shore, where the state’s annual effort to replenish its beaches has led to that initial question: How long are we going to keep doing this?

And, more so, why did we start doing this — asked Doug O’Malley, the director of Environment New Jersey.

O’Malley talked about the efforts of North Wildwood, where the mayor is now openly questioning the annual pursuit of sand.

And O’Malley offered a historical perspective of the state’s barrier islands that raised more than a few eyebrows.

“Traditionally, there were crab shacks, they were cottages — and the assumption is that there will be storms,” he said. “Think about the Ash Wednesday storm from the early ’60s.”

(Full credit if you’re familiar with one of the biggest coastal storms in history — click here if you’re not).”

The reaction to the Ash Wednesday storm — the rush to rebuild wasn’t as great — wasn’t the same as it was after Superstorm Sandy, O’Malley said.

“How many more times can we rebuild, and who’s going to pay for it?” he asked.

O’Malley noted how the impacts of climate change are now everywhere in the state. It’s costing money in ways that no one previously imagined, he said. And in places no one previously imagined.

“There was litigation in Haddonfield for homeowners that got flooded because of inadequate stormwater protections — and they won,” he said.


It all comes back to the increased costs around climate change.

The costs are varied.

Seebode mentioned a microburst event at West Point that led to $200 million in damages in one day — money that still hasn’t been completely appropriated.

Straka said insurance companies, which already are pulling away from policies in Florida and California, are starting to do so here.

Toft pointed out the costs of establishing renewable energy solutions to help combat climate change — whether it be offshore wind and solar, or new approaches such as hydrogen or small modular nuclear reactors — is high.

O’Malley talked about the cost of inactivity, pointing to a recent study that says climate change will have a $100 trillion impact in the next 30 years, saying we can pay for it now — or we can pay for it later.

And, if we don’t act, we’re going to pay a lot more for it later, he said.

All of this goes back to the original idea: Where is the money going to come from?

LaTourette said too many people rely on a faulty assumption that the federal government will take care of all of these climate change issues, with some input from state and local entities.

“That’s not true,” he said. “There is no someone else who’s magically taking care of all of these things. And, what we’re seeing, as a function of our changing climate, is that reality being thrown in our face over and over and over again. All these costs are going up and up and up.”

The spigot, as LaTourette called it, slowly is being turned.

“My view on it tends to be that, for as long as those federal resources are available, the state government will come up with a share to match those projects,” he said. “That will continue to be our path until such time that the spigot gets tighter and tighter, which is happening.

“Then we have to make even harder choices.”