On climate action, do not hit snooze

Entire regional economy is at stake

MARK TWAIN’S WITTY aphorism that climate is what you expect and weather is what you get has been sorely tested in Boston and the northeast this past quarter. If the weather this winter is anything to go by, what we are getting must surely be pushing even the most recalcitrant climate denialists into revised expectations. “One swallow does not a summer make” nor does one storm alone indicate a change in climate. Three in a row in the space of three months, however, two of them record breakers pushing further the trends of several decades, suggest we should not only be paying more attention to those long-term trends but actually taking action with an increased sense of urgency.

To be fair, since 2008 Massachusetts has passed legislation curbing greenhouse gases, mandating more efficient building and development, and joining with other states in a regional effort through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Boston and Cambridge and one or two other municipalities and hospitals and universities have over the last few years developed comprehensive climate action plans setting out what needs to be done to reduce carbon emissions as well as to assess exposure to risks posed by climate change projected through the next few decades: sea level rise, storm surges, increased precipitation, heat waves and increased wind velocities.

Private philanthropies such as the Barr Foundation and the Boston Foundation and voluntary associations such as Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission and A Better City have donated time and money to these efforts. Looking ahead, the Boston Society of Architects and the Urban Land Institute have concocted images of how Boston might be protected from the sea with images of canals in the Back Bay, berms in East Boston and even a barrier running from Hull to Nahant.

As worthy as these efforts are, however, for the moment it’s all talk and no action. In 2009, a report from re-insurance giant Allianz and the World Wildlife Fund identified Boston as one of the world cities that would be particularly vulnerable to sea level rise in the event of a climate “tipping point” being reached in 2050. Their calculation was that the asset risk at that date would be between $409 billion to $463 billion depending on high or low projected scenarios. Since that time climate science has improved – and the prospects worsened; several millions of square feet of commercial space have been invested in the South Boston Seaport – one of the most vulnerable locations in the city; and the US has pulled out of its commitments to the Paris Climate Accords. Not only has the probability of ocean flooding increased but the consequences have become exponentially more catastrophic.

In considering both the physical and financial scale of what needs to be done, it is as if we are still in collective trauma from the experience of building those big tunnels under the city and under the harbor. A reminder: The Big Dig, from start to finish, cost $24 billion, including interest. Never was an investment in urban infrastructure more richly rewarded. Logan Airport was connected directly to the continental US for the first time; 1,000 acres of South Boston became a viable extension of the city; and the old city was once again reconnected to a now revitalized waterfront. In short $24 billion, spent over a construction period of 15 years or more, bought a vibrant future for the city and the region for generations to come. Compare this with the $700 billion US defense budget for 2018; or the Homeland Security budget of $44 billion, per year.

The scale and scope of the risk exposure generated by climate change stretches beyond one or two municipalities, beyond the universities and hospitals critical to the economy, and beyond the confines of the state. Boston is the economic engine for the entire region. Individual livelihoods and community prosperity in western Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and down to Rhode Island depend directly or indirectly on the prosperity of Boston. In that Combined Statistical Area the 2015 population was 8.2 million and the Gross Regional Product $551 billion.

At this juncture, the federal government appears to have little interest in climate change and its consequences so it is this regional constituency – voters, elected representatives, and enabling institutions – that needs to understand that its future is at stake. To match the scale of the challenge, this must be our “imagined community.”

Although sea level rise is the major threat and downtown assets are the focus of projected economic loss, the reality is that we have to think of residential communities, underserved communities, and in particular our connective tissue – the transportation and utilities infrastructure – as critical to a strategic plan. Torrential downpours and river flooding, prolonged heat waves and windstorms are projected to affect inland populations with increased frequency and severity. Who are the most directly affected? The old and the very young. We are all in this together.

Meet the Author
Robert Moses, the master New York public infrastructure builder of the mid-20th century, opined that it took 30 to 40 years to realize a major project. We have a little over 30 years to that “tipping point.” We have done the analysis, now we need action. The alarm went off this winter. Do not hit snooze.

Hubert Murray is an architect currently consulting to Partners HealthCare on climate resiliency and related issues. From 1989 to 1992, he was chief architect on the Big Dig.