Salem is taking on climate change

For coastal cities, it's a matter of urgency

THE MORE THINGS change, the more they stay the same. For centuries now the economic health of the city of Salem has been tied to the ocean.

In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution and into the 1800s, ships from Salem took to the seas and returned with tea, spices, and silks that turned the port community into the wealthiest city per capita in the new nation. Later, Salem Harbor became home to a major coal depot, where ships dropped off coal on its way to fuel regional factories and, later, a large coal-powered power plant on the waterfront itself. Much has changed with the city today, but the ocean remains central to its economic prosperity. In this day and age that can only mean one thing: For Salem to survive and thrive, we must tackle the issue of climate change.

Modern-day Salem is a bustling city on the rise. Between tourism, health care, and higher education, the city’s economy has transformed from the days of importing tea from China. But it will never move on from its connection to the ocean. With a new natural gas power plant opening up acres of waterfront land, Salem has the opportunity to sustainably develop an area that will link oceanfront resources to economic development.

With this vital opportunity looming, addressing climate change is an economic imperative for Salem. The city’s 2014 Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan outlines serious challenges that may be in store for the coastal community by 2050: a sea level rise of more than four feet, storm surges of more than 13 feet by the year 2100, a 30 percent increase in the likelihood of a “100-year storm,” and a 157 percent increase in the number of days over 90 degrees.

The plan identified 22 prioritized vulnerabilities facing the community as a result of climate change, many of them with significant economic impacts. Property damage or loss of Salem’s historic and culturally significant properties, some of the city’s greatest tourist attractions, is seen as being “very likely.” Most certainly, any economic growth realized or possible as a result of redevelopment along the city’s historic waterfront would be severely jeopardized.

Salem is hardly alone. Last month, Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration released “Climate Ready Boston,” which predicts a rise in sea levels of three feet by 2050, with heavy impacts in economic centers like the newly developed Seaport District.

MassAudubon has estimated that more than 5 percent of Gloucester – a community with an economy long driven by its connection to the ocean — will be underwater by the end of this century, and that the more than one dozen ski areas in the Commonwealth will face higher operating costs in the years ahead as they struggle to maintain a snow pack due to rising temperatures. On Cape Cod, fishermen and cranberry farmers are already reporting the impacts of climate change on their businesses, and the local economy. The Cape Cod Commission projects that six feet of sea level rise by 2100 would mean the loss of $1.07 billion in sales and 8,222 jobs. Even the more conservative estimate of a two foot rise would yield a loss for the Cape of $188 million and 851 jobs.

Amidst all of this economic gloom and doom, there is opportunity. Fighting climate change will require innovation, and no place innovates like Massachusetts. The clean energy sector in our state is thriving, creating jobs and infusing our state coffers with new funds: 98,000 jobs, 6,400 companies, and $11 billion in investments across the Commonwealth to date.

Meanwhile, in addition to preparing to mitigate the impacts of climate change, Salem is working to address its own impacts on climate. A certified Green Community, Salem is reducing its own carbon footprint by taking such steps as converting all its streetlights to more efficient LED fixtures, installing solar panels on schools and city buildings, converting its municipal vehicle fleet to hybrid and electric vehicles, and entering into a municipal electrical aggregation supply contract that will supply every home and business in the city with electricity generated from green sources. Across the state, 154 other Green Communities are taking their own steps to reduce their carbon footprints.

Since its earliest days, Salem’s waterfront and oceanic identity has been a source of creativity, growth, and prosperity. America’s first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby, was one of many Salem merchants whose ships traveled the globe and made Salem famous and prosperous. As the city approaches its 400th birthday in 2026, it remains no less connected to the ocean and its harbor. It is a fixed and permanent piece of what makes Salem so vibrant and successful. The piece of the puzzle that is changing is our climate. Salem, and the Commonwealth, must not fail to adapt.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Jesse Mermell

President, Alliance for Business Leadership
Kimberley Driscoll is the mayor of Salem. Jesse Mermell is president of the Alliance for Business Leadership.