What’s wrong with this picture?

Here’s New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, earlier this week in his much-praised (by liberals, at least) endorsement of Barack Obama for president:

“Our climate is changing,” [Bloomberg] wrote. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Especially the part about how we must “compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

But as Joe Nocera points out in an excellent column in today’s Times, here’s the reality:

What New York is not so good at is preventing big storms from exacting an enormous toll on infrastructure, buildings and businesses. In the case of Sandy, the damage to New York City is estimated to be as much as $17 billion. Cities like London, Amsterdam — and, yes, Providence — have built systems to minimize the damage even Category 3 storms can cause. But not New York.

And it’s not like Mayor Bloomberg was unaware of the danger that an unprotected New York City faced:

In 2008, for instance, Bloomberg convened a panel of experts to examine the ways climate change could affect the city. The panel’s report, issued in 2010, documented the undeniable fact that the rivers and bays around New York were rising, and that changes in the atmosphere were likely to make storms both more frequent and more dangerous.

Yet Malcolm Bowman, who leads the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University, told me that when he joined the panel, he was pointedly told that barriers were not going to get much emphasis. Another former member of the panel, Klaus Jacob, a scientist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, told The New York Times, in a prescient article published just six weeks before Sandy hit, that the city’s unwillingness to be more aggressive was akin to “Russian roulette.” Jacob believes that the city needs to build unbreachable gates to subways, tunnels and infrastructure to prevent water from rushing in. Despite the expense, he says that such a system would save billions by preventing storm damage.

This, in a nutshell, is one of the most glaring failures of neoliberal political leaders like Michael Bloomberg. They are so obsessed with protecting the rich from high taxes that fail in their most basic duty, which is to whatever it takes to protect the lives and property of the citizens who elected them. Mayor Bloomberg may be talking a good game, but clearly his low-tax. anti-spending ideology makes him incapable of meeting even the most minimal standards of decency and competence we require from our public servants. His leadership is a prime example of how catastrophically America is failing itself, and why our leaders desperately need to stop asking, how can I best cater to the narrow, short-sighted economic interests of my plutocrat cronies and supporters, and to start asking, how can I best protect the broad public interest of all the people I serve?

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Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee