All hands on deck to address climate crisis

Quick action required on justice, resiliency, mitigation, education

IN JANUARY, the climate crisis debate in Massachusetts centered on whether the carbon emission-reduction goals and policy changes in broad legislation were too ambitious, and even realistic.

Now, just nine months later and with the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declaring that climate change is a code red for humanity, it is clear those goals and policy changes may not be aggressive enough. The effects of climate change are already clearly evident – causing costly and sometimes dangerous damages.

Across the country, we are seeing the impacts of the climate emergency: an unprecedented “heat dome” in the Northwest brought triple-digit temperatures that killed hundreds, buckled road surfaces in Washington and melted streetcar cables in Oregon. Earlier this year, subzero temperatures in Texas overwhelmed the electric grid, causing hardship and deaths.  This month Ida hit the coast of Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane, leaving approximately 1 million people without power as the electrical grid went down.

Closer to home, the rate of sea level rise in Boston Harbor has increased steadily in each of the last several decades, and we now expect another 6-12 inches by 2050 – on top of the roughly one foot that has already occurred. Because of the higher water levels, strong Nor’easters and monthly high tides now routinely cause serious flooding of homes, businesses, and transportation infrastructure.  And intense heat and rainfall are increasing here too: by the middle of July, we had had two heat waves, and by the end of the month, we suffered through the second highest rainfall totals in history.

Scientific models predict that all of these changes will intensify in the years ahead.

Beyond the threats to future generations, this crisis also has economic and health repercussions that disproportionately affect Boston’s low-income neighborhoods and communities of color today. As the effects of climate change mount, so should the urgency to ensure equity while pursuing solutions.

Five years ago, the city of Boston published Climate Ready Boston, a report that provided science-based projections for future changes in temperature, precipitation, and flooding. It examined the risks, economic challenges, and social inequities expected from these changes, and it provided guidance for critical resilience investments that will be needed to keep Boston above water.

As representatives of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission and its sector working groups, we call for immediate action on the climate crisis priorities outlined below. This all-hands-on-deck agenda calls for collaboration across the private and public sectors:

Prioritize climate justice: Residents living in vulnerable communities – East Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, and elsewhere – are on the front lines.  Members of the very communities that contribute the least to the greenhouse gas emissions) are unfairly suffering the brunt of the impacts in their daily lives.  Climate policies and investments – such as retrofitting homes to be more carbon-efficient, resilient, and healthy — designed with climate equity as a goal are required to both reduce climate harm and help reverse historical and current inequities. We can devise solutions with input from affected communities and make progress on both fronts.

Equitable resilience investments: Between now and 2030, sea level rise will put nearly 20,000 people and 2,000 buildings across the city at risk for extreme flooding. Five neighborhood resilience plans – prepared jointly by the Boston Cabinet of Energy, Environment and Open Space and the Boston Planning and Development Agency – identified about 75 flood protection projects that would keep at-risk residents and workers safe, at a cost that could approach $4 billion. To deal with the most urgent flood risks, about half of these projects need to be completed by 2030.

Given the urgency, swift decisions need to be made about the sequencing and timing for many of these projects and how their costs will be shared by the public and private sector. The city needs to immediately create a cabinet-level position to coordinate and oversee implementation of the neighborhood resilience plans. The position should have sufficient funding and staffing to enable it to prioritize and coordinate design, permitting, and construction of the most urgent projects.

It is important to note, however, that experience from other cities demonstrates that, in the absence of intentional planning to prioritize social equity, the default decision criteria for setting priorities will always be property asset value and impact on economic development. To avoid that outcome, Boston needs to explicitly prioritize equity in its climate plans and maximize the input from the neighborhoods themselves. We have to make sure that the most vulnerable populations are fully protected.

Accelerate carbon mitigation: Boston has set a goal of reducing citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. While some activists are calling for accelerating these targets, even achieving these goals will require sweeping changes in the city’s energy systems, including significant gains in building energy efficiency, decarbonization of the electricity grid, and the electrification of both transportation and building heating and cooling.

A critical step toward carbon reduction targets was recently passed by the City Council in the form of an update to its Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO) that will cap and reduce allowable carbon pollution over time in some 3,000 of Boston’s largest buildings. In a way, while far from a slam dunk, those buildings represent our easiest challenge. Mostly commercial and industrial, they benefit from professional management and institutional budgets. Normalizing the creation of a climate plan for each large building is a key piece of this work.

Tackling the more than 82,000 smaller buildings in the city that represent 50 percent of building-related emissions is another matter. Retrofitting them provides clear benefits in addition to reducing carbon: these include reduced energy costs, improved thermal comfort, and cleaner indoor air. But the city needs a strategy for touching every building with better energy efficiency measures, heating and cooling electrification, and on-site solar. That’s a lot of customized home improvement representing a lot of jobs – but how will it get done?

A more informed and activated citizenry: Finally, an all-hands-on-deck approach will require a much higher level of citizen engagement than we have today. If Boston’s residents, neighborhoods, and organizations understand the risks and opportunities of climate change, they are more likely to get involved and demand the business and political support necessary for broad based climate action.

This means continuing to find ways to speak about climate in terms that are relevant to everyone: health, energy costs, and finding places that are cool enough for kids to play outdoors in the summer. It means engaging everyone in the climate conversation, with the help of community organizations, artists, the Boston Public Library, the Boston Public Schools, and every other person and organization that is part of everyday life in this vibrant city. In addition, it will require that we connect scientific analysis with lived experience through citizen science, encouraging cultural institutions to offer climate programming, and find ways to come together in the public realm for shared experiences.

Meet the Author

Bob Brown

President, Boston University
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Amos Hostetter

Trustee/Chair, Barr Foundation/Green Ribbon Commission
Meet the Author

Anne Klibanski

President and CEO, Mass General Brigham
Meet the Author

Alan Leventhal

Chairman and CEO, Beacon Capital Partners
Meet the Author

Bud Ris

Chairman, Boston Harbor Now
Meet the Author

Kate Walsh

President and CEO, Boston Medical Center
Meet the Author

Gwill York

Chairman of the board, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Boston has been fortunate to have mayors and leadership that grasp the risks of climate change and have pushed us forward. As we look ahead at a historical election this November, we need to lean in even harder to address our climate emergency and tackle the many challenges outlined above, and the Green Ribbon Commission stands ready to support the successful candidate in that work.  Ensuring a viable future for Boston requires mobilization on all fronts, nothing less.

Bob Brown is the president of Boston University and a member of the Green Ribbon Commission higher education working group. Amos Hostetter is a trustee of the Barr Foundation and chair of the commission. Anne Klibanski is the president & CEO of Mass General Brigham and co-chair of the commission’s health care working group. Alan Leventhal is the chairman & CEO of Beacon Capital Partners and a member of the commission’s commercial real estate working group. Bud Ris is the chair of Boston Harbor Now and co-chair of the commission’s climate preparedness working group. Kate Walsh is the president & CEO of Boston Medical Center and co-chair of the commission’s health care working group. Gwill York is the president of the board of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the chair of the commission’s cultural institutions working group.