Now is the time to invest in climate resilience

New state law only address half the problem

GOV. BAKER’S RECENT signing of a sweeping climate bill into law codifies emissions reduction targets, expands clean energy, improves the efficiency of new building stock, and uplifts environmental justice communities. This new law is a major step toward reducing emissions—but it only addresses half of our climate change problem. As the Biden administration prepares to launch a $3-4 trillion economic stimulus and infrastructure plan that is uniquely rooted in combatting climate change, now is the time to ready the climate resilience projects needed for our communities to survive and thrive in the face of sea-level rise and extreme weather.

According to a recent Pew survey, more than 60 percent of Americans say climate change is currently affecting their local community. Despite this national reckoning, here in the Commonwealth, mobilizing to build large-scale climate infrastructure—transitioning from planning to implementation—still seems like an afterthought, an aside, something to tackle next legislative session. An ad hoc, piecemeal approach to climate resilience will leave us (quite literally) underwater.

Prior to joining A Better City, I helped spearhead recovery efforts in New York State following Superstorm Sandy—the 2012 storm caused upwards of $60 billion in damage and claimed more than 64 lives in the state. Days after Sandy hit, I was surveying damage on the Rockaway peninsula with my then-boss, US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Weeks later, I was helping the senator make the case for billions of dollars in federal recovery aid. Months later, I was helping establish New York State’s Office of Storm Recovery to disburse more than $4.5 billion in federal funds. Now, years later, I’m back in my home state of Massachusetts to ensure we are better prepared than New York City was for a climate shock like Sandy.

Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Baker and Mayor Walsh, Massachusetts and Boston are national leaders in resilience planning. From the State Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan and corresponding Resilient MA Action Team (RMAT), to the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) Program, to the MBTA’s ongoing vulnerability assessments, to Climate Ready Boston, we know where we must focus our efforts and investments in preparing for climate catastrophes. Additionally, Gov. Baker and former speaker DeLeo proposed bills last session that would direct more funding to broadly-defined resilience projects. However, to date, these efforts have largely emphasized planning, not implementation.

What I learned in New York is that the hardest work starts with establishing the financing and governance mechanisms needed to fortify vulnerable communities and assets. Efforts must prioritize both planning and implementation. We need the governor, mayor, and Legislature to act now on climate resilience funding and implementation—before Greater Boston is hit and before the Biden administration’s landmark infrastructure bill passes us by.

While there is no shortage of planning or potential projects in Massachusetts, there is a funding and governance gap that keeps us vulnerable. In the near term, Gov. Baker and Mayor Janey must seize the opportunity to tee up big-ticket infrastructure projects—like seawalls and engineered wetlands—for federal funding. At the state level, the Resilient MA Action Team is well-positioned to identify capital projects within state agencies to protect critical infrastructure, including MBTA assets. Unfunded projects identified through the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program could also provide a pipeline of smaller-scale capital projects to advance with federal funding. At the city level, the Climate Ready Boston plans contain an array of critical flood protection projects needed to safeguard our business districts and residential communities alike. In the medium term, the Legislature should consider legislation to develop an action plan for funding, building, and maintaining resilient infrastructure investments across the state.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of being ready to aggressively advocate for federal funding. Thanks to the post-Sandy infusion of federal recovery dollars, New York State was able to make significant capital investments to not just build back, but to build back better (as the now familiar Biden saying goes). In the hard-hit borough of Staten Island alone, New York State facilitated a $120 million voluntary home buyout program to move residents out of harm’s way; launched a $60 million “living breakwaters” initiative to build engineered oyster reefs to slow waves and filter water; and advanced a $600 million elevated promenade project to offer flood protection while creating recreational and economic opportunities.

The financial cost of inaction is becoming increasingly clear. According to a recent Environmental Defense Fund report, since 1980, the number of extreme weather events per year has increased 400 percent, and the annual direct cost of the disasters has increased 500% percent. Luckily, there is a strong economic case for investing proactively in resilience. The UN estimates that for every dollar invested in resilience, six dollars can be saved. Investing in climate resilience doesn’t just protect our infrastructure and communities—it saves money and creates jobs.

Moreover, as our European (and New York) counterparts have proven, coastal protection projects do not need to wall us off from the water—in fact, they can activate the waterfront, enhance equitable access, and create new opportunities for recreation and commerce. By investing in smart coastal protection strategies now, we can strengthen both our built environment and our social connectivity, bolstering the physical and social resilience of our communities.

Meet the Author
The future of our region depends on bold, immediate action. Now is the time to invest in climate resilience. It may be the only time we have.

Kate Dineen is the executive vice president of A Better City. She helped lead New York State’s recovery after Superstorm Sandy. She has served as a nonresident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Homeland Security Project.