By Walter O’Brien
October 29, 2013

BERNARDS — A year after Superstorm Sandy, former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman said governments need to pay more attention to nature and the environment if we are going to be prepared for the future.

“A year ago today, we didn’t know what was coming,” Whitman, the state’s first and only female governor said. “But nature did.”

Whitman, former U.S. EPA administrator and current president of The Whitman Strategy Group, consultants in energy and environmental issues, told an audience of about 100 Friends of the Bernardsville Library supporters Sunday at the Dolce Conference Center in Basking Ridge that public leaders need to learn from Sandy, and look further into the future if they expect to affect climate change in a positive way.

Whitman spoke of a walk in the woods the day before the Sandy’s landfall along the shore, noting that the forest even near her home much further inland was much quieter than normal — dead quiet.

“Nature knew something was going on,” Whitman said. “We as humans have to be a little more attentive to nature.”

We can’t stop climate change, she said, “but we can slow it, and that will give us more time to prepare. The future is not just five years from now, it’s 10, 15, 20 years from now.”

She said that, given the magnitude of the storm and its impact on the state, she thinks that emergency responders, even the power and other utilities, were as on top of things as could be expected considering a storm intensity for which no one could have adequately prepared.

“I don’t live anywhere near the shore, and we were off the grid for 12 days,” Whitman said. “This was a monster storm. We could never have predicted the amount of damage we saw.”
Greenhouse gases aren’t only partly responsible for extreme weather, but they increase dust and particulates in the air, which can trigger human health issues, Whitman said.

“We have an epidemic of asthma,” Whitman said. “We don’t know what causes it, but we know what triggers it.”

Whitman said that municipal, county and state leaders need to incorporate the lessons of Sandy, the environment and climate change into their master plans, and will have to make tough decisions regarding planning and rebuilding.

“Along the Jersey Shore there are places where people just shouldn’t be building,” Whitman said. “Sustainability doesn’t have to mean no growth. It means building a place where your children and grandchildren can live.”

Whitman said that our infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, from bridges and roads to the electrical grid and the water supply network.

“We have water mains built while Lincoln was president,” Whitman said.

Whitman expressed hope for renewable energy, but said better ways must be found to store energy from solar and wind power, which currently takes lots of land and transmission lines, and brings us back to the infrastructure problem.

She said the country will be using fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas for some time, so she hopes the states will led the federal government and big utilities to review the standards for fracking for natural gas.

“In a perfect world I’d like to see fracking gone,” Whitman said. “But we’re going to do it.”

She touched on holding taxes down and shared services between towns, but said it will take a revamp of the entire tax structure.

“It’s going to take a more pro-active approach to get municipalities to work together,” Whitman said. “Mother Nature does not see geopolitical borders. We have to stop thinking that way.”