Boston’s global warming plans must prepare region for worst case scenarios
In a couple of recent columns—and several others over the years—I’ve looked at some of the specific threats that scientists expect Boston will be facing from global warming-induced climate change. While there’s plenty of room for debate about the anticipated severity and timetable of such threats, there is no longer any serious doubt that they are real.
Unfortunately, humans have trouble dealing with existential crises like an inexorably rising sea level and the relentless increase of the average air temperature.
We tend to try to plan for future situations based on what has happened in the past. What is, therefore, in the realm of our experience as individuals and as members of various groups. What we’re comfortable with and confident we can handle.
The many learned experts who have been working on the city of Boston’s various climate change initiatives are no less susceptible to this bias than anyone else.
Which is why the reports city government has been producing on making the city more “resilient”—to use the fashionable buzzword pushed by the Rockefeller Foundation and others of late—in the face of climate change all share a major flaw.
That is, despite understanding that global warming is by default—by its very nomenclature—a worldwide phenomenon, they treat the effects of the climate change it’s driving as essentially local.
Furthermore, they try to apply standard disaster preparedness and emergency management protocols as if global warming was simply a series of tractable crises of the type we’ve dealt with since time immemorial. Like the recent series of nor’easters (which were probably climate change-driven themselves).
So, sure, they reason. There will be power outages—some affecting critical infrastructure—so we’ll plan for that. There will be food shortages in some poor areas of the city that are already considered “food deserts” due to their lack of decent cheap supermarkets; so we’ll plan for that. There will be flooding; so we’ll plan for that.
Thus, the language that city officials (and an array of outside advisors and consultants) use in their climate change planning documents demonstrates that they’re either unable to see that previous human experience is insufficient to the task of grappling with global warming… or, more likely, that they’re unwilling to discuss the vast scale and centuries-long duration of the approaching crisis due to a combination of factors. Ranging from not wanting to be seen as alarmists to not wanting to anger top politicians and corporate leaders with big problems requiring expensive solutions.
For example, here’s an illustrative passage from the Climate Ready Boston Final Report, the big global warming preparedness white paper the city published in late 2016:
Members of the IAG [Infrastructure Advisory Group] have identified continued functionality of the city’s transportation infrastructure as a top resiliency priority. Many members have identified road and bridge functionality as a key critical requirement so citizens can evacuate; emergency vehicles can pass; maintenance trucks can reach impacted electric, communication, and water/wastewater assets for swift repair; and hospitals and other emergency facilities can continue to receive food, water, and medical supplies. In turn, the transportation system relies on continued access to electricity and communications systems, so tunnels may remain open, and any blocked paths are cleared quickly or detours swiftly communicated.
Note that it’s assumed that citizens will be able to evacuate the city if necessary. And that various kinds of critical vehicles will have fuel. And that parts will be on hand for infrastructure repair. And that food, water, and medical supplies will be available.
Climate Ready Boston’s series of reports and a raft of related studies certainly mention a variety of problems that the city will have to overcome to ensure that fuel, food, water, medical supplies, vital machine parts, etc. will be available as locals recover from each new storm, flood, or heat wave. Like making sure that Route 93 is no longer the main trade route for the city and that the portions of the highway that are susceptible to flooding be reengineered.
And they definitely allow for the fact that we’ll see more and more storms, floods, and heat waves.
But none of the growing array of reports and plans that city (and also state) government are producing consider this possibility: That at a certain point—especially if we continue along the climate change denial path that the Trump administration and the oil, gas, and coal industries are setting us on—Boston will be alone.
There will be no outside world to help us. Every city, every region, every nation on the planet will be engaged in a life-or-death struggle for survival as the effects of global warming get worse. And worse. And ever worse.
Because maybe humanity does not stop burning carbon in time. Because we do not replace our old dirty energy systems with new clean ones. Because we do not halt the despoiling of land, sea, and air. Because we do not reverse the “sixth extinction” of most species of plants and animals. Because we do not, in sum, stop the destruction of the human race itself and everything that matters to us in the world.
Hopefully, things won’t be so bad by 2100—which is the outer limit of the period seriously considered in city and state plans. Let alone in 20 or 30 years. But the minimal progress on climate change goals that have been made in the quarter century since the Kyoto Protocol was signed does not inspire confidence in human civilization’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to slow—let alone stop—the worst-case scenarios that keep any reasonably well-informed person up at night.
So if the city and the state that surrounds it want to talk about “resilience,” they have to be able to answer these questions… and many more like them besides:
✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) feed our already-growing population—when global supply chains are disrupted and ultimately destroyed, the oceans are dead, and much of America’s farmland has turned to dust bowls—given that we can’t even come close to feeding ourselves now? And what about all the climate migrants that will be heading north as parts of our continent become uninhabitable? How will we possibly feed them?
✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) keep our growing population plus climate migrants clothed, housed, healthy, and gainfully employed in that situation?
✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) produce enough clean (or dirty) energy to satisfy our growing power needs—including our vehicles—without outside help?
✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) produce the manufactured goods that we need—including medical supplies and the materials we’ll need to rebuild during a never-ending series of global warming-induced disasters—when we’re on our own?
✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) grow more food, support more population, and expand industry in the coming decades as we face the expected global warming driven fresh water shortages? Even as we grapple with more and more severe floods due to storms (fresh water), and storm surges (seawater).
✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) move the city, our state capital, and its critical infrastructure to higher ground—while buying time to do so with the best possible flood defenses we can build?
✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) help the entire population of the city to move to relative safety when global warming-induced climate change eventually makes our region uninhabitable, too?
Any planning process that fails to raise such questions is not worthy of the name. So both the city of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts had better step up their joint game… fast. Same goes for climate action groups that work hard to keep grassroots pressure on responsible government officials (and generally irresponsible corporate leaders). Work harder, grow your ranks, pursue mitigation efforts that might forestall the worst outcomes, become an unstoppable force, make positive change at least a possibility. If not a certainty.
Because if we can’t stop (or significantly slow) global warming, and we can’t find practicable answers to the above questions soon, then Boston is far from “resilient.” Let alone “strong.” It is completely unprepared to deal with global warming-induced climate change.
And all the reports in the world won’t save our city and our state from the grim fate that awaits us.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.