Climate change demands raising infrastructure standards

Massachusetts must prepare now for the challenges that are coming

PERCHED ON THE North Atlantic, with a shoreline prone to flooding and a history of damaging Nor’easters, and surrounded by the fastest warming ocean waters in the world, Massachusetts of all places needs to prepare now for the ravages of climate change.

From Cape Ann to Cape Cod, our infrastructure is not built to withstand the increasing impacts of storm floods, high winds, and soaking rain. This fact not only affects the health and safety of our residents but will also have an enormous influence on the region’s economic competitiveness.

With no shortage of evidence and urgency, two of us (Collins and Peake) have filed a bill at the State level to help us address this challenge more comprehensively.

Here’s the problem: Currently, the Commonwealth relies on historical data to plan for the future. However, we know that climate change will make conditions much worse than past data implies. Relying on outdated information makes it impossible to adequately address the social, environmental, and fiscal risks facing our communities. The Commonwealth needs a consistent, statewide standard for climate-ready projects and infrastructure that holds the public and private sector equally accountable.

Why does it matter?  We’ve seen it firsthand already. The string of historic snow storms in February 2015 cost local governments and the Commonwealth more than $35 million. If weather impacts were severe enough to trigger a full shutdown of the Massachusetts economy, the estimated costs are $265 million per day.

And we know how bad storms can be on residents. In March 2018, Massachusetts was hit by three Nor’easters in 11 days. According to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), power outages from the three storms combined affected over 941,000 homes and businesses.

The good news is that there are steps that we can take as a Commonwealth to adapt to climate change and make our communities more resilient. An Act Promoting Sustainable Development Across the Commonwealth would establish a consistent, statewide framework for climate adaptation.  The bill would do the following:

  • Create consistency and predictability in planning for climate risks in state licensing and permitting, financing, and capital projects;
  • Require investor-owned utilities to proactively plan for climate risks to their facilities and assets;
  • Mandate an evaluation of the effectiveness of state building codes, which do not incorporate climate change;
  • Ensure that the analysis of and adaptation to climate risks do not disproportionately harm or burden our most vulnerable communities, including low-income and minority populations; and
  • Provide education and training for the members of local boards and commissions—who are often decision makers about development and infrastructure—about the risks of climate change.

Creating consistency across municipalities, protecting critical infrastructure, compelling both the private and public sector to incorporate climate-resilient measures, and mitigating the impact that climate change will have on vulnerable neighborhoods are all necessary to ensure that Massachusetts is prepared for the future we know is coming.

Some may be concerned that new standards may add undue burdens – economic or otherwise – on Massachusetts. But creating this kind of framework is, in fact, the fiscally responsible thing for the Commonwealth to do. The truth is that the cost of inaction will be much higher, both in terms of property damage and the impact on human life.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Let’s be the leaders and revolutionaries we have always been and pass the climate adaptation bill. All the plans in the world will do no good if we don’t make the necessary changes to our permitting processes, building codes, and more. And we know we cannot afford to wait much longer.

State Senator Nick Collins represents the First Suffolk District. State Representative Sarah Peake represents the Fourth Barnstable District. Bradley Campbell is president of Conservation Law Foundation.