Massachusetts House should act on climate change

States must step up after US leaves Paris accord 

LESS THAN TWO DAYS after Syria signed the Paris Agreement, leaving the United States in the unenviable position of being the only country in the world to refuse the climate deal, the Massachusetts state Senate took a critical first step toward preparing the Commonwealth for the ravages of climate change. The Senate passed the Comprehensive Adaptation Management Plan (CAMP) bill, the nation’s first-ever comprehensive climate change adaptation legislation. The House of Representatives should follow the Senate’s lead and swiftly pass this important bill.

While Massachusetts has long been a forerunner in the fight to reduce greenhouse gases, the Paris debacle is a sad reminder that many of most significant consequences of climate change are now unavoidable. Decades of federal inaction have left local communities vulnerable to an array of climate-related hazards, including sea-level rise, heat waves, and drought.

The state’s coastal communities are especially vulnerable. A 2016 report by the City of Boston revealed that many neighborhoods are already at risk of increased flooding, including the popular Seaport District, which will soon be home to General Electric’s global headquarters. Flood waters could eventually reach as far inland as Quincy Market.

Similar scenarios are anticipated in other municipalities as well. Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations at Mass Audubon, estimates that at least 1,300 Gloucester residents currently live in a flood zone. Farther south, on Cape Cod, rising seas threaten to inundate a myriad of vulnerable assets. A three-to-six foot increase in sea levels would submerge portions of Route 6, the Hyannis Steamship Authority, parts of a rail line in Sandwich, and the Provincetown Municipal Airport. Climate change could cost the state hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 35 years.

Massachusetts has thus far pursued a patchwork approach to climate adaptation. The Baker administration awarded several rounds of grant funding to support local preparedness, but much work remains. Enormous variability exists and some municipalities have been far more proactive in addressing climate change.

CAMP promises to fill this void by establishing a permanent grant program to support regional vulnerability planning and adaptation strategy assessments. It mandates the creation of a statewide database documenting existing areas of vulnerability while establishing an interagency advisory community to support the development of a comprehensive statewide adaptation plan. These important changes represent a critical first step toward ensuring climate resilience across the entire state, as opposed to in a handful of isolated communities.

Of course, CAMP is by no means a panacea. According to the Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Coalition, CAMP will cobble together roughly $350 million in funding from a number of sources, including the state’s operating budget; environmental bond authorizations; electrical retail suppliers; and a host of other sources. Even if we assume all of these disparate funding streams are willing—and able—to support the adaptation program, this number still falls short of covering the cost of the state’s long-term adaptation needs.

CAMP also allows the state to “buy back” properties damaged by severe weather. While the current legislation emphasizes that the program will be voluntary, buyback programs tend to be highly controversial. Homeowners are understandably reluctant to relinquish property to the state. However, the buyback program will be critical to restoring the state’s coastal buffer zone. CAMP’s long term success could hinge on whether or not state officials are able navigate these potentially thorny political conflicts.

Despite these drawbacks, the time to act was, well, yesterday. Climate change represents the single greatest threat to the state’s long-term security. Enacting CAMP will not only allow the state to begin to protect critical infrastructure and assets, but it will also send a powerful message to the rest of the country that Massachusetts intends to remain a torch bearer in the fight against climate change.

Rob A. DeLeo is an assistant professor and coordinator of the public policy program at Bentley University. His research explores the dynamics of agenda setting in disaster domains and the governance of public risks. His 2015 book, Anticipatory Policymaking: When Government Acts to Prevent Problems and Why It Is So Difficult, examines policy change in anticipation of emergent hazards and potentially catastrophic events.

Meet the Author

Rob A. DeLeo

Associate Professor, Bentley University