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When A Good Reporter Makes A Big Mistake On An Important Story

NJ Gov. Christie Compared Favorably With NY Gov. Cuomo on Climate Risks

“Such a risk” was NOT climate risk

Juan Gonzalez of the NY Daily News is a superb reporter. I don’t read him often, but watch him regularly co-hosting the Pacifica news show Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman.

So, I was shocked when a friend from New York State sent me Juan’s latest column titled: Republican Chris Christie appears more concerned about the dangers of climate change than New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

I have favorably compared Cuomo with Christie on climate change, and have spent thousands of hours and words documenting Gov. Christie’s horrible record on both climate change and coastal development, so this issue is of major concern to me.

[Note: if anyone thinks I’m soft on Cuomo, see this and  this and this.]

Gonzalez correctly skewers NY Gov. Cuomo, but get’s the Gov. Christie side of the story flat out wrong and in doing so, violates basic journalistic practices.

Gonzalez wrote – without providing a source, link to, or context for – the following:

Right now, Republican Christie looks to be more concerned than the Democrat Cuomo over the dangers of climate change. […]

Compare Cuomo’s action to what Christie did in New Jersey.

A similar bill the state’s legislature passed in June would have allowed new condos and retail ventures right on the piers along the Hoboken waterfront. It was condemned by Jersey’s professional flood plain managers.

Christie listened and vetoed it in August, saying: “I cannot condone such a risk.”

Gonzalez appears to have lifted that Christie quote completely out of context from the Gov.’s Veto Message, without sourcing it so readers could read the original source and the quote in context.

I wrote about that Christie veto because I anticipated and wanted to avoid precisely this misunderstanding by the press corps about what Christie’s veto was actually based upon (see:  Christie Veto of Bill To Allow Development on Hazardous Piers Refused to Enforce NJ Environmental Law

Gonzalez badly misinterpreted the Christie quote he excerpted and came to the wrong conclusion.

The operative phrase is “such a risk”.

What risks could Gov. Christie not condone?

The correct answer to that question relies on the risks the Gov. specified that that preface the Gov.’s conclusion. To correctly answer the question requires analysis of the context.

Gov. Christie’s veto message completely ignored the climate change issue.

Gov. Christie did NOT veto the legislation in question because of risks to people and property from climate change, sea level rise, or extreme weather storm surge risks and impacts on new development in a coastal high hazard area.

The risks Gov. Christie could “not condone” and that his veto was based upon were economic risks.

Because the bill “contravened” federal regulations, it would jeopardize the loss of eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program for municipalities with existing development on existing piers.

Here is the critical excerpt of the Gov.’s veto message – which identifies the risks he “can not condone”:

Federal law provides that no flood insurance may be sold or renewed under the NFIP in areas that lack adequate land use and control measures. The federal regulations implementing the NFIP expressly provide that “all new construction” within a coastal high hazard area shall be “located landward of the reach of mean high tide.” Allowing new construction on a pier in a coastal high hazard area as this bill provides contravenes that federal regulation and may therefore jeopardize NFIP eligibility for those municipalities with existing piers along the Hudson River. I cannot condone such a risk.

Repeat: Gov. Christie did NOT veto the legislation because of risks resulting from climate change, sea level rise, or storm surge.

The risks Gov. Christie could “not condone” were the result of the fact that the bill would “contravene” federal regulations andjeopardize NFIP eligibility  for municipalities with existing piers along the Hudson River.”

Christie was seeking to protect the continued availability of federal flood insurance for existing development. He was protecting current property owners and protecting their ability to remain in the federal flood insurance program.

He was not seeking to prevent new development in coastal high hazard areas to prevent climate change, sea level rise, and storm risks.

Supporting this interpretation is not only the plain text of the veto message, but also the fact that  the Gov. ignored NJ State law that bans such construction due to coastal hazards.

Instead of invoking NJ’s existing law that bans development in coastal high hazard areas, the Gov. hid behind federal regulations.

Christie basically said “I have a federal gun to my head”

If Christie really were concerned about climate risks or coastal hazards, he would have said: “NJ state law bans new development in hazardous locations for good reason, I support that law,  and veto the bill because climate change will greatly increase those risks“. He did not say that and his veto did not say that.

Plus, the veto message does not even mention climate change, sea level rise, storm surge, or extreme weather.

And last, the Gov. himself has stated – numerous times – that climate change in an esoteric issue he has no time to consider.

It has ben reported many times that Gov. Christie’s Sandy rebuild plans do not consider climate change and sea level rise.

So, Gonzalez got the Christie comparison dead wrong on multiple levels – as a matter of fact and of policy.

I strongly urge him to issue a correction – and I will call him today to do so.

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