What’s missing from the climate change legislation?

Let's be realistic -- we need adaptation, too

THE TORTUOUS ROUTE in the state Legislature of the most recent incarnation of climate change legislation gives cause for concern on two counts. The first reflects a failure in governance and due dispatch. The second is in the matter of scope and imagination. The two are not unrelated.

The passage of this climate legislation, focusing largely on policy aimed at mitigation (i.e. reducing the causes of climate change) is being played like a game of touch football with lawmakers, the administration, and some antsy self-interested lobbyists enjoying the game at the others’ expense. The only party not amused by the fandango on Beacon Hill is the general public, eager for clarity and direction.

It’s worth reminding  that tomfoolery of this sort comes at a price, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway made clear in their 2014 work of science-based fiction, The Collapse of Western Civilization – a View from the Future. Looking back from a position three centuries in the future, the narrator reviews – from the scientific and legislative records – the environmental collapse of the latter part of the 21st Century due to inaction on the part of the western industrial democracies. The fictional account was first published in Daedalus in 2013. Eight years later, with the legacy of the Trump regime and the caviling in our own state Legislature, nothing has happened to dispel the sense of a doom foretold.

Which brings us to the second point, the focus almost entirely on mitigation – reducing carbon emissions by changing our sources of energy, reducing energy demands, and by adopting cradle-to-cradle strategies dealing with the consumption and disposition of materials. These issues are indeed critical and what is contained in the legislation goes a long way to pursuing these strategies.

What is missing, however, is an understanding of where we are now, in 2021. Even if Massachusetts manages to adhere to the goals contained in the legislation, there are other parts of New England, other regions in the United States, and indeed other vast regions of the world that will not meet these standards and will not meet the requirements of the Paris Climate Accords of 2015. Even if they did, we are reliably assured by climate scientists that it will take at least a couple of human generations into the future to forestall or reverse the worst effects of our present and our past.

This is why it is essential that, in Massachusetts at least, climate adaptation measures be taken in parallel with the mitigation. What is missing from legislation and implementation at federal, state, and local levels is an adaptation, protection strategy at the scale of the problem that confronts us in the highly likely event that we will not be able to reverse course before the deluge.

Adaptation is climate-speak for protecting ourselves from the worst effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, torrential downpours, heat waves, and high winds. In its Climate Action Plan, the city of Boston is tinkering around on a neighborhood scale with sacrificial flood areas, short lengths of sea wall protection, and the discretionary incorporation of design features to protect individual buildings.

Michelle Wu is probably the most progressive thinker of all the potential mayoral candidates on the issue of climate change but even her manifesto, advocating quite rightly for social equity in these matters, does not get beyond neighborhood scale and single building protective measures.

Climate change is like a global pandemic scaled up and coming at us in slow-motion. If the COVID crisis has taught us anything it is that we (city, region, country) need to be organized and well prepared. Last Fall the Mystic River Watershed Association and others convened state agencies, municipal officers, hospitals, emergency services, and community organizations to identify key infrastructure and social vulnerabilities in the event of a big storm. This was an excellent exercise and alerted the participants to many potential weaknesses in the systems which make a network of mutual reliance and support possible in times of crisis. As rewarding as this exercise was and as admirable the convenors, it is clear that nature is no respecter of municipal or regional boundaries and this effort needs to dig deeper and to be spread wider to address the manifold challenges that we know are already at our door.

To entertain visions of floating residences on Charlestown’s Pier 5 and to run boosterish articles on creating a “resilient” new development in the South Boston Seaport is to misunderstand the systemic and interconnected imperatives inherent in a comprehensive adaptation policy. As resilient as these projects might be in themselves, they do not address the infrastructure on which a functioning city depends: transportation, gas, electricity, water and sewage, communications, and myriad support systems and people. If any one of these goes down, the most resilient building will be a hostage to fortune. If an essential worker cannot get to work, if the energy systems fail and if food supplies are interrupted, the city and the region will fail at the weakest link. To continue to develop buildings in the zones we know for sure will be vulnerable by the time this year’s newborns will be graduating from college is to saddle the next generation with an even more intractable challenge than we face today.

Meet the Author
In planning ahead to reduce the dependencies on infrastructural systems of hospitals and other essential services, it is critical to create redundancies in the system so that if one service fails another can take over. A comprehensive plan will protect systems, people, and connections as much as any individual building.  Now is the time to incorporate into the building and municipal codes the capacity to withstand tropical strength hurricanes and downpours as well as to anticipate the energy demands for weeks on end of high heat and humidity. By all means pass the climate change legislation and let the governor sign it into law. But if government fails in its responsibility to think ahead with a comprehensive and appropriately funded strategy for adaptation, we shall be calling for a planned retreat to add to the list.

Hubert Murray is an architect living in Cambridge and has worked on climate resilient planning and building in Massachusetts and overseas.