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Climate Change

BOSTON FIDDLES WHILE THE WORLD BURNS

City government continues issuing reports while UN calls for immediate action

 

October 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.

 

Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.

 

In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:

1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050

2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and

3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.

 

Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.

 

Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.

 

In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.

 

However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”

 

It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.

 

A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on Change.org on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.

 

But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.

 

The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.

 

The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”

 

The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?

 

“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.

 

If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.

 

This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”

 

The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.

 

But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.

 

Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.

 

And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.

 

But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.

 

If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

THE MERRIMACK VALLEY DISASTER: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT OLD PIPES

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

 

September 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The events of last week in the Merrimack Valley were unfortunate by any measure. Something bad happened to the natural gas distribution system in parts of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover that resulted in dozens of homes being damaged or destroyed by explosions and fire, at least 25 people getting injured, and one person (tragically, an 18-year-old) getting killed. The leading theory for the conflagration is that it was triggered by a pressure spike in area gas pipes. But until the National Transportation and Safety Board concludes its investigation—which could take up to two years—we likely won’t know the cause of that spike. According to ThinkProgress, the Mass Department of Public Utilities will be conducting its own investigation, and Attorney General Maura Healey will oversee that effort to ensure transparency.

 

The company responsible, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts—a division of NiSource Inc. of Indiana—was so slow to respond to the crisis that Gov. Charlie Baker put Eversource Energy in charge of the cleanup effort.

 

But the magnitude of the disaster is just starting to sink in. About 8,500 homes were affected, and its occupants are being told that it will take months to replace the cast iron gas pipes under city streets and restore service. Pipes so old, and so prone to rusting, leaking, and failure, that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started pushing gas utilities nationwide to replace them over a decade ago, according to USA Today. Yet despite being allowed to recoup such costs—which run about $1 million a mile—from their customers, utilities like Columbia have been slow to complete the needed work. Meanwhile, the thousands of residents that officials have allowed to return to their homes are forced to stay in apartments and houses that use gas for heating and cooking… with the gas shut off for the foreseeable future. As winter approaches.

 

This highlights the danger of using methane, an obviously flammable and explosive gas, as a fuel source for homes and businesses. Notwithstanding being in continuous use at millions of sites in the United States for well over 150 years, “natural” gas is not as safe as many people believe. According to the New York Times, “Since 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution episodes have occurred across the country, causing 221 deaths and leaving nearly a thousand people injured. …” And the reasons for such episodes are not always found.

 

Perhaps it could not be otherwise, since America has allowed private companies to control the production and distribution of natural gas from the industry’s beginnings. Sure, we call those companies “public utilities” and tell ourselves that federal and state government regulate them. But, like all corporations answering to the siren call of the market, gas companies exist to make profits for their shareholders. To the exclusion of all other considerations—be they health, safety, environmental, or economic. Even though the small local gas companies of the 1800s have long since merged to become large and powerful combines, and even though they are allowed to be monopolies in the areas they control, they continue trying to save money on costs and make as much profit as regulators allow. Often quite a lot, since the phenomenon of “regulatory capture”—where a revolving door sending top staff back and forth between utilities and regulatory agencies generally assures that utilities have fat bottom lines—continues unabated. Including here in the Bay State. Whether utilities provide good service or bad.

 

Which is why National Grid—another one of the seven companies that have gas monopolies in parts of Massachusetts—is getting away with locking out 1,200 union gas workers who are trying to get a better contract for the difficult and dangerous work they do day in and day out. And why Columbia, which has already been dinged for recent safety issues in the regions of the Commonwealth gas infrastructure under its control, according to the Boston Globe, was allowed to continue business as usual until the Merrimack Valley fires brought international attention to the consequences of its malfeasance. Leading WGBH’s Jim Braude to wonder aloud on the Sept 17 episode of Greater Boston what would have happened if the gas network in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover had been owned by National Grid. A company currently trying to service its infrastructure with ill-trained scab labor—some of them managers with little or no field experience. The better to bust the labor unions that protect the livelihoods of its workers, and permanently replace them with un-unionized workers that will make its stockholders even bigger profits.

 

If all these developments were taking place in a period where there were no demonstrable environmental consequences for burning fossil fuels like natural gas, they would be dire enough. But, unfortunately, that is not the case. True, burning methane as an energy source only produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, there are so many methane leaks in the production and distribution of both oil and gas that any relative advantage to the environment that burning it provides is mostly erased, according to a Washington Post article on a key study in the journal Science. Given that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So even the 2.3 percent of methane estimated to be leaking away into the atmosphere before it can be burned is enough to ruin its oft-hyped potential as a more “green” fossil fuel source that can be leaned on for decades while carbon neutral energy sources like solar are brought online on an industrial scale. Not because we don’t have the technology to do so faster, but because energy multinationals don’t want clean energy systems deployed until they’ve made all the money they can make by burning carbon.

 

Worse still, more than half of the natural gas being used in the Greater Boston area is now coming from fracked gas, according to Boston University earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips in a BU Today article. Fracking (more correctly, hydraulic fracturing) is an incredibly destructive and ecologically disastrous method of squeezing oil and natural gas out of vast underground shelves of shale rock by injecting massive amounts of water and any number of often-toxic liquid chemicals into them. Direct environmental impacts include ground, water, air, and noise pollution in those areas unfortunate enough to have lots of shale. And the technique has even been known to trigger earthquakes. Phillips also explains that fracked methane contains many impurities that may be making consumers sick. But the indirect impacts are far more problematic because fracked gas and oil have flooded the planet’s fossil fuel markets with cheap product at exactly the time we need to move away from burning carbon.

 

In a better world, the Merrimack Valley disaster would be a clarion call to move more decisively toward clean energy alternatives—at least in the affected communities as a useful demonstration project. In advance of doing so swiftly across the country, and in every corner of the globe. But we are not in that world. We’re in a world where energy corporations control the politics of the US and many other countries to their own advantage. And they want to ensure that humanity squeezes every last possible joule of energy out of fossil fuels like natural gas before allowing alternatives to finally become the dominant mode of energy production. Regardless of the fact that doing so will very likely result in a planet that’s unable to sustain advanced human civilization, and perhaps unable to sustain human life at all. If the worst global warming scenarios are allowed to become reality.

 

That’s why I have repeatedly called—most recently in a column about Eversource, the utility called upon to “fix” the Merrimack Valley crisis—for bringing energy companies to heel on both the environmental and economic fronts by winning the huge political struggles necessary to make them all genuinely public utilities. With a mission to provide cheap, clean, green energy like advanced wind, solar, and hydroelectric (ideally not from environmentally destructive mega-dams) power to America, and phase out all fossil fuel production, distribution, and usage as soon as possible. If we could accomplish that sea change in our energy system, other countries would be likely to follow at speed. And we might actually stand a chance of minimizing the damage from global warming, already on display with increasingly alarming frequency in the form of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut.

 

So if you want to help the Merrimack Valley disaster victims, certainly donate to the best local charities you can find. But also join environmental groups like Mass Sierra Club, Resist the Pipeline, and HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) that are working to end the ability of privately owned energy utilities to harm communities like Lawrence in particular and our planet’s ecosphere in general going forward. Furthermore, be sure to make your house, condo, or apartment as energy efficient you can and do whatever you can do to convert your dwelling from reliance on burning fossil fuel to using genuinely clean energy sources. Every little improvement helps. Just remember, we won’t really be able to ensure our survival as a species until the fossil fuel megacorps are stopped. Cold.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

SOME THOUGHTS ON TRANSPORTATION POLICY

Image courtesy of pxhere.com. Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain.
Image courtesy of pxhere.com. Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain.

 

August 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Transportation is a subject I address frequently in my columns. But, as is often the case in journalism, it’s usually necessary to write about it piecemeal given various editorial constraints. So I might cover flooding subways one week and a gonzo proposal for sky gondolas over the Seaport the next. But rarely do I have the luxury of looking at such a major policy area in its entirety. Which is nonideal because a good journalist is always interested to spark discussion and debate—and it’s difficult to have a proper conversation with readers if they aren’t aware of my general views on the topic at hand.

 

Such was the case a three weeks ago when I published a piece that took a dim view of Bird Rides dumping its dangerous electric rental scooters all over Cambridge and Somerville without first discussing the move with officials in either city… following a nationwide pattern of flouting relevant laws that is clearly its business model. About a day later, a few wags took to Twitter to slam me for having the temerity to suggest that motorized skateboards with handlebars might not be the ideal vehicles to allow on area streets in numbers. On both political and safety grounds.

 

I didn’t mind the hazing, of course. But it was vexing to watch Bird fans that clearly hadn’t even bothered to read the article in question—let alone my broad and deep back catalog—attack me as some kind of car-loving anti-environmental reactionary in the service of flogging their hipster transportation fetish du jour. Be they paid marketers or merely geeks with an idée fixe.

 

With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to run through my general views on transportation policy in this epistle. To clarify why I don’t think that any electric conveyance thrown at us by sociopathic West Coast frat boy CEOs is automatically the best way to save the planet while safely getting people around town with their groceries and pets. I will, however, leave long-distance intercity travel by land, sea, and air aside for now for the sake of space.

 

Carbon

It’s not possible to hold forth on transportation without first addressing the absolute necessity that humanity stop burning carbon to meet our civilization’s power needs. If we fail to shift from getting power from oil, gas, and coal to clean renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar, then we are well and truly doomed. Not in centuries, but mere decades from now. Among the largest sources for global warming inducing carbon emissions are cars, trucks, and motorcycles. And with carbon multinationals like ExxonMobil dominating American politics, it’s going to be extremely difficult to institute the major changes that will be required to replace those vehicles—and the “car culture” that has built up around them—with zero carbon alternatives that will be acceptable to a broad array of communities. Yet without such a transition, anything else we might do will merely be tacking colorful bunting onto our species’ collective coffin. That said, any decent transportation network will have to be based on electricity. Unless some of our cleverer scientists and engineers come up with sufficiently powerful and portable renewable power sources (tiny cold fusion reactors, harnessing evil spinning gnomes, etc.) that don’t require plugging vehicles into charging stations for periods of time every day or three.

 

Planning

We’re not going to be able to move millions of people to new green transportation alternatives without redesigning the places where they live and work. One appealing way of doing that over time is to build dense clusters of housing and offices around major multimodal transportation hubs that are connected to each other by mass transit. Which will, among other salutary effects, help solve the “last mile” problem of getting commuters from such hubs to their homes and workplaces in weather conditions that are only going to get more unpredictable and dangerous as climate change accelerates.

 

But while it’s become fashionable and profitable for developers to build such high-density enclaves for rich people, it is generally not being undertaken for everyone else. Until it is, it’s going to be extremely difficult to successfully introduce the transportation alternatives we need. Probably the toughest issue will be converting existing urban neighborhoods and suburban tracts based on square miles of individual atomized domiciles over to sort of more compact and connected urblets without upending people’s carefully constructed lifeways by government fiat. Though, ironically, the global warming-driven imperative of our moving entire cities like Boston away from flooding lowlands onto higher ground—and eventually northward to cooler climes—will provide us an opportunity to start development from scratch in many locales. Since given the choice between staying in aging housing stock with ever worsening service and transportation options, and moving to new clusters of high-rise and low-rise buildings hooked up to a robust grid, people will likely move of their own accord.

 

Alternatives

And what are the cheaper, ubiquitous, and more efficient transportation modalities that will get us to a carbon-free future? I think trains, trolleys, monorails, and similar mass transit options will still play a vital role in moving large numbers of people from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. In fact, I believe we need to massively expand rail lines to reach far out into the exurbs. And figure out ways to use such lines for cargo containers as well. Buses—with dedicated lanes—will remain vital in many areas. Especially where it’s too expensive or impractical to build out rail lines. Boats can also be very useful for the same purpose in most weather conditions in areas adjacent to oceans, lakes, and rivers.

 

And cars? Well, that’s a big complicated discussion, but here’s my brief take. Carbon-burning cars need to be relegated to museums and antiquarian societies for collectors and hobbyists. But there’s no getting around fact that despite all their myriad problems, most people currently like being able to jump into a car and go where they want to go. So what can replace that? At first, shifting over to electric cars will be a big help. Then there will be a debate over robot cars. And that’s a tricky one because that technology won’t work well at first, and will displace many driving jobs if not introduced deliberately without corporate malice aforethought. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you see me attacking “public-private” initiatives to shove such cars down people’s throats.

 

Nevertheless, society will gain much if we can make the new technology work. Because fleets of robot cars can likely replace the individually owned car entirely. Allowing people to get between areas well away from major transportation hubs at will—simply by using the future equivalent of a rideshare app to order a robot car for the trip. Robot trucks will be able to deal with moving cargo point to point. And simple electric golf carts—either robotic or not—will suffice for trips around neighborhoods.

 

We can then gradually reduce or eliminate motor vehicle traffic from many roads over time—allowing bicycles (on ubiquitous dedicated bike lanes) to really come into their own. As for electric scooters? In most locales it will probably be best if they remain an idiosyncratic vehicle choice for young individuals who like to stand out from the crowd, and not accepted as a serious transportation alternative. Because they’re not. Meanwhile, flying cars, jetpacks, and the like will have to be a topic for a future article.

 

Labor

Building out transportation alternatives needs to be seen as an opportunity for new job creation, not just an excuse for job destruction for the purpose of corporate profit extraction. Such jobs should be “good jobs” with living wages, shorter work weeks (something we’ll need worldwide to compensate for the rise of the robots), and generous benefits. People losing jobs in the existing transportation sector should be retrained at government expense and get priority placement in jobs in the new transportation sector. All of said jobs should be unionized.

 

Public

As many of these transportation alternatives as possible should be public. Leaving our transit future to private companies like Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird Rides, etc. is a prescription for disaster. Because all such corporations look out for their bottom lines first, and the public good second (if at all). And every entrant to that new sector has sought to end-run public planning processes and government regulators in a never-ending quest to make a fast buck—to the point of Uber purposely designing their payment algorithm so that their drivers would keep driving while making as little money as possible, according to Vanity Fair.

 

So if we’re going to ensure that commuters have a voice in a reasonably democratic and rational transportation planning process going forward, then we have to expand public transportation to control the commanding heights of its sector. And regardless, the role of privately owned vehicles must be minimized if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions enough to save ourselves from the worst depredations of human-induced global warming.

 

That’s my basic thinking on at least regional transportation. Happy to participate in civic dialogues on the subject any time.

 

Thanks to Suren Moodliar, co-author of the forthcoming A People’s Guide to Greater Boston [University of California Press], for ongoing ever-illuminating conversations on transportation, housing, and many other policy areas.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

‘WALK THE TALK’

Climate protest outside June 8 US Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston. Photo courtesy Mass Sierra Club.
Climate protest outside June 8 US Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston. Photo courtesy Mass Sierra Club.

 

Mayor Walsh needs to act faster to mitigate regional global warming threats

 

June 13, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Environmental groups protested Mayor Marty Walsh last week during the International Mayors Climate Summit and subsequent US Conference of Mayors meeting—demanding fast action to make Boston carbon neutral (achieving net zero CO2 emissions) and better prepare the city for the many threats to the region from the already-visible effects of global warming. Like the two “once in a generation” storms this winter that both quickly flooded our waterfront.  

 

According to WGBH’s Greater Boston, “The good news, for advocates who think the city is falling short, is that Walsh says he welcomes public pressure in this area—and that big changes to the way the city operates are coming. Soon.”

 

The bad news, of course, is that pols can say anything they want. But are unlikely to act until their feet have been held to the fire. So, kudos to area climate activists for continuing to do that.

 

Interestingly, the summit was scaled down from a huge confab that would’ve hosted thousands of public leaders from the US and China in 2017 to a smaller 2018 conference that featured “20 US mayors and four officials from cities in other countries, including China,” according to the Boston Globe.

 

Walsh is doubtless happy to blame the election of the Trump administration for the lack of State Department support for the conference leading to a year’s delay and the lower turnout. Democrats like himself and former Secretary of State John Kerry—who originally announced Boston summit plans in Beijing in 2016—are getting a lot of political mileage out of poking holes in Trump’s slavish support of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries that are directly responsible for global warming. While pointing to his pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord by 2020 as tantamount to ecocide.

 

Unfortunately, the Democrats have been no less slavish in their support of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries at every level of government. And the Paris agreement is perhaps the best example of that slavishness.

 

Because the Paris climate accord is voluntary. So, even in countries that ratify it, the treaty can’t force the fossil fuel industries and the governments they often effectively control to do anything. No surprise there, since the process that launched it—the annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—allows fossil fuel corporations to participate in everything from funding its meeting sites to directly influencing its negotiations and implementation rules, according to 2015 and 2017 reports by Corporate Accountability International (CAI, formerly INFACT). An advocacy group that previously helped organize the Network of Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals—a coalition of mostly third world NGOs that helped exclude nicotine purveyors from the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a World Health Organization treaty process. CAI and its allies have repeatedly called for the fossil fuel industries to be similarly banned from participation in the negotiation of climate change treaties. To no avail, thus far.

 

One can certainly argue, and many do, that having even a voluntary treaty on global warming is better than not having one at all. But if multinational energy corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, and BHP Billiton were willing to voluntarily phase their fossil fuel lines out of existence, I would think that they would be well on the way to carbon neutral status by now. After all, most of them knew about the dangers of global warming decades back. According to a timeline by Climate Liability News, Exxon knew in 1977, Shell in 1988, and those companies and many others formed the Global Climate Coalition specifically to cast doubt on climate science in 1989.

 

Almost 30 years later, it seems foolish to bet on companies that make obscene profits by selling fossil fuels to suddenly have a change of heart and agree to stop making those superprofits.

 

Circling back to Boston, Mayor Walsh drew fire from groups like 350Mass and Mass Sierra Club last week on largely the same grounds. The city is not doing much more than drafting plans to implement mainly voluntary measures to mitigate the effects of global warming in the coming years.

 

It’s also working on those plans—formally and informally—with major corporations that play a variety of roles in worsening global warming. From investing in fossil fuel industries to developing environmentally unfriendly buildings. And it’s potentially underestimating the threat from global warming by choosing to ignore more dire climate models in its planning that are still well within the mainstream of climate science. City government is also not addressing all the major systemic “tipping points” under investigation by climate scientists that could conceivably affect the Boston area and their interrelation to each other. Focusing instead on three imminent threats: sea level rise, air temperature rise, and more intense storms.

 

Major planning processes on minimizing the risks presented to us by global warming are absolutely necessary and a difficult undertaking at the best of times. Yet there’s little sense that Boston’s developing climate plans are going to result in the policy pedal being pushed to metal anytime soon. Hence, last week’s protestors’ event hashtag: #WalktheTalkonClimate. The environmental groups made clear that we need Mayor Walsh and the rest of city government to take swift action to reduce the many threats from runaway global warming as much as any one city or region can… and do less talking about the need to take swift action.

 

That means divesting the city of all financial holdings in fossil fuel corporations. And moving on the Boston City Council’s resolution of last fall unanimously supporting “Community Choice Energy”—a plan that would allow Boston to join with other municipalities in buying energy in bulk on behalf of residents and small businesses. Enabling the city to mandate a higher percentage of renewable energy in such purchases. Then creating regulations with real teeth aimed at mitigating the many likely harms to our city from climate change.

 

For example, Boston (and the Commonwealth) can enact regulations that would force developers of the millions of square feet of new building projects sprouting up around the city to prepare for flooding from global warming-induced sea level rise. Especially new construction in the city’s now massively overdeveloped waterfront. Hub solons can also pass regulations that would compel those same developers to power new buildings with genuinely renewable energy (i.e., not natural gas or nuclear). And regulations that would also make such buildings as energy efficient as possible.

 

Beyond that, the city should get going on actually building flood defenses and neighborhood cooling centers; and pressing ahead with operationalizing other big ideas currently under discussion in various city planning processes. Or outside of them in my case—as with my support for moving key city infrastructure to higher ground at speed, and eventually moving the seat of Massachusetts state government to Worcester.

 

Ultimately, properly preparing the city to deal with the negative effects of global warming is everyone’s job. Because politicians can’t do it all themselves. Nor should they. So, readers should contact the mayor’s office regularly to demand faster action on the issues mentioned above, participate in relevant public hearings and meetings to make your voices heard, and get active with any of the environmental organizations large or small that look to be fighting hardest in the public interest.

 

Just remember, Bostonians failing to be vigilant can result in city government dropping the ball on even fairly straightforward climate-related promises. Like former Mayor Thomas Menino’s plan to plant 100,000 new trees by 2020. As of this month, there’s been a net gain of 4,000 trees since the initiative was announced a decade ago.

 

In the same period, New York City promised to plant 1,000,000 new trees by 2017. And reached that goal two years early. They’re also well ahead of Boston with global warming preparations.

 

Worth considering why that might be. Before the next mayoral election.

TOWNIE: CITY ON A HILL

Worcester MA with covered wagon

 

Global warming will flood Boston. Why not move the state capital to Worcester?

 

May 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Many small American cities have boosterish metro research organizations that look like a cross between a public policy outfit and a chamber of commerce, and the Bay State’s second biggest urban area is no exception. The Worcester Regional Research Bureau (WRRB) was founded in 1985 during a period when all of Massachusetts’ major cities were facing a funding crisis caused by the tax-slashing Proposition 2 1/2 and needed to find ways to keep their local economies functioning with less funding from state government. Since that time, according to its website, the “Research Bureau has prepared over 220 reports and held over 200 forums on topics including public administration, municipal finance, economic development, education, and public safety.” Its board is like a who’s who of the Worcester power structure.

 

In March, WRRB released a 10-page report, “Brokering a New Lease: Capturing the Value of State Offices for Massachusetts.” Not exactly the kind of title that’s going to inspire headlines, and it didn’t—only receiving coverage in the Worcester Business Journal and Commonwealth magazine. But the white paper actually makes an interesting point: Why are the headquarters of the many state agencies mainly in the Hub?

 

Boston has very expensive real estate prices. And even though the state owns some office buildings around town, many agencies lease commercial space for their headquarters. So, WRRB reasons, wouldn’t it make good sense to move some of those HQs to Worcester? Saving the Commonwealth money, and helping the Worcester economy with lots of decent state jobs in the process?

 

Consider that, according to the report, Class A office space in Boston was running as high as $60.85 per square foot in 2017. It then points out that the “state pays an average of $37 per square foot across its Boston lease agreements, with a high of $73 per square foot near Boston City Hall and a low of $19 per square foot in Hyde Park.”

 

Meanwhile, “Brokering a New Lease” continues: “The [WRRB] consulted the City’s Economic Development Office and local real estate brokers and identified 275,000 square feet of available space across eight buildings that could feasibly house a state office. … The average rent was $21.31 per square foot, and one local broker said $22 per square foot would be a reasonable minimum estimate for new leases involving capital investment.”

 

A savings of $15 per square foot on average—which translates to my back-of-the-envelope estimate of $4,125,000 a year that would stay in the Commonwealth’s coffers—is nothing to sneeze at. It’s true that removing 275,000 square feet of the 1,675,806 square feet that the state currently has under lease in Boston, according to the report, would mean that the Hub stands to lose 16.4 percent of its state office space. Not an inconsiderable economic hit for Boston’s commercial real estate market, and something WRRB staff do not seem to be concerned about. But Worcester’s gains would potentially offset Boston’s losses from such a deal, when considering the state economy in its entirety.

 

Which makes the report’s rationale for moving some agency offices sound reasonable on cost-benefit grounds alone—although I can understand why many state employees might not want to move from more cosmopolitan Boston to a city with less social and cultural opportunities on offer. On the other hand, with a significantly lower cost of living, state salaries will stretch a lot further in Worcester County. To the point of allowing low-level bureaucrats, who couldn’t dream of buying so much as a condo in Boston these days, to buy a house out there.

 

But what interests me about the report is not so much its original subject as something I’m sure that WRRB staff hasn’t yet given the slightest thought. Over the last few years, I’ve written numerous columns and editorials sounding the alarm about what I feel is Boston’s woefully inadequate preparations for the several major global warming-induced crises that scientists expect coastal cities to endure in the coming decades. One of the most dangerous of those is sea level rise. Much of Boston is low-lying former wetlands, and unless we start building major harbor-wide flood defenses soon, we don’t have a prayer of slowing the Atlantic Ocean’s reclamation of those areas. And doing grave damage to critical systems like power, transportation, and sewage in the process.

 

Even if Boston does build huge dikes, and make other needed changes to the city design, it’s only a matter of time before the ocean wins. Since sea levels are expected to continue to rise for hundreds of years until, potentially, all of Earth’s major land-based ice sheets have melted into the ocean.

 

So why not move the state capital to Worcester—a city whose elevation is 480 feet—in stages? Starting with getting state agencies out to the city appropriately nicknamed the “Heart of the Commonwealth” in the manner the WRRB suggests. Then building the bullet train to Boston that former gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren is so excited about. And gradually transferring more and more of state government to the “City of Seven Hills” (the place really has a lot of nicknames). Until, eventually, we move the State House itself.

 

In addition to helping state government better weather global warming, having our capital in the middle of the state could go a long way toward healing the many divisions between eastern and western Massachusetts.

 

Don’t get me wrong; this is not the kind of proposal I’d make if we weren’t facing climate change dire enough to threaten the survival of the human race. But we are. Not today. Not tomorrow. Someday soon, though. We’re already seeing signs and portents now in the increasingly frequent “wild weather” that dishonest meteorologists like to prattle on about on Fox and its ilk. Including Worcester becoming more of a tornado alley than it already was—something I don’t think is nearly as much of a threat as the anticipated 10 feet of sea level rise Boston is facing by century’s end. More, if the land-based Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets start sliding into the ocean faster than the majority of climate scientists are currently projecting.

 

In past writing, I’ve suggested moving critical Boston infrastructure to the hills in and around the city. We will still need to do that. But growing Worcester while shrinking Boston is another smart move to consider. And why stop at just moving the state government? Why keep the city’s population exposed to ever more fierce hurricane- and winter storm-driven flooding when we can gradually move to a nearby city that could absorb quite a lot of our population before reaching capacity? A city acceptably far from the sea and major river systems, and high enough to not have to worry about being permanently flooded out (except, perhaps, in the worst possible scenarios).

 

Anyhow, food for thought. I’d be curious to hear what the WRRB staff—and other policy wonks and urban planners in “Wormtown” (loving these nicknames)—think about my proposal. I make it in earnest, and hope it is taken in the spirit with which I offer it. They can reach me, as ever, at jason@digboston.com.

 

Townie (a worm’s eye [ironic, no?] view of the Mass power structure) 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.

THERE WILL BE NO OUTSIDE WORLD TO HELP US

Boston Underwater

 

Boston’s global warming plans must prepare region for worst case scenarios

 

March 28, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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.

SEA LEVEL RISE IS JUST ONE OF BOSTON’S WORRIES

Image via Environmental Defense Fund
Image via Environmental Defense Fund

As Earth approaches several catastrophic global warming “tipping points”

 

January 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Before writing more columns examining Boston city government’s emerging plans to cope with the effects of global warming, I think a quick review of what area residents are likely to face in the coming decades is in order. Because it’s important to disabuse people of the idea that we’re dealing with “just” a handful of significant problems over time—a rise in air temperature, an increase of extreme weather events, and a rise in sea level—that those problems are isolated to just Boston or the United States, that they are going to continue until the end of the century and then stop, and that there are some simple things we can do to prevent those problems from becoming unmanageable.

 

The reality is far more frightening. According to Mother Jones, “In 2004, John Schellnhuber, distinguished science adviser at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, identified 12 global-warming tipping points, any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet.”  

 

There’s been much research and debate since that time about which systems can be considered tipping points and which ones need more research before we can be sure, but the Environmental Defense Fund has a page on its website with an overview of the latest science. It’s called “Everything you need to know about climate tipping points” and you should read it in full. But here’s a quick summary of the tipping points that the Earth is passing or on its way to passing. Largely due to humans continuing to burn CO2-producing oil, gas, and coal decades after it was known to be suicidal to do so.

 

1) Disappearance of Arctic Summer Sea Ice

The poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet. In the Arctic, sea ice has been melting much more quickly than it used to for much more of every year as the average global temperatures rise year after year. Scientists are now predicting ice-free Arctic summers by mid-century. The less of the year that ice covers the Arctic, the less sunlight is reflected back to space. Sunlight that is not reflected warms the Arctic Ocean, leading to other problems and more global warming overall.

 

2) Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Of particular concern to Bostonians because of our relative proximity to Greenland, the melting of its ice cap may continue for the next few hundred years until there is none left. Unlike melting sea ice that doesn’t add water to the world’s oceans, melting ice from land does. This will ultimately result in global sea level rise of up to 20 feet, and the process is underway.

 

3) Disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

This tipping point may already have been passed—with the West Antarctic ice sheet already starting to collapse. Like the Greenland ice sheet, it too is expected to take hundreds of years to finish melting, but when it does it could raise the global sea level up to 16 feet.

 

4) Collapse of Coral Reefs

With oceans already warming and becoming more acidic, the algae eaten by the coral that make up the world’s often huge and spectacular reefs is being jettisoned, resulting in coral bleaching. This process weakens the coral and hastens its death. Which is accelerating the destruction of marine spawning and feeding grounds globally with dire consequences for many nations whose economies rely on them—and for biodiversity. Scientists now predict that the remaining coral reefs will collapse before there is rise in the global temperature of 2 degrees from the old normal average. Most climate models show the world reaching that threshold before the end of this century.

 

Beyond these, there are several other expected tipping points being studied: the disruption of ocean circulation patterns from the massive influx of fresh water from melting ice (especially in the North Atlantic, which would play havoc with Boston’s climate), the release of marine methane hydrates (which would accelerate the global warming already being caused by the CO2 emissions considered the main cause of climate change), ocean anoxia (a process creating growing oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in our oceans that can no longer support most life, aka “bye bye seafood”), the dieback of the Amazon rainforest (caused by human activity like cutting down huge numbers of trees with devastating consequences for biodiversity coupled with the loss of a major CO2 sink), the dieback of the boreal forests (still being studied, but means the death of more vast forests in and around our latitude of the planet), the weakening of the marine carbon pump (the Earth’s oceans have been absorbing much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere, but through this process will become less effective at it), the greening of the Sahara (some positive effects would come from this, but many basic ocean life forms rely on nutrients from the desert sand blowing into the ocean and will be negatively affected by losing it), and the increasingly chaotic Indian summer monsoons (could result in extensive drought in one of the Earth’s most populous regions).

 

Other processes underway may also be potential tipping points, including the collapse of deep Antarctic ocean circulation, the appearance of an Arctic ozone hole (joining the existing Antarctic ozone hole in causing rising UV levels in the Arctic with various negative effects), the aridification of the US Southwest (as moisture moves to the upper Great Plains), the slowdown of the jet stream (which could leave more weather systems stuck in place for weeks at a time, including extreme systems like our recent polar vortex-induced cold wave, among other negative effects), the melting of the Himalayan glaciers (which help provide fresh water for much of South Asia’s population), a more permanent El Niño state (which could result in more drought in Southeast Asia and elsewhere), permafrost melting (which results in more CO2 and methane being released, accelerating global warming further), and tundra transition to boreal forest (with uncertain effects).

 

Adding the above to the general effects of global warming that we’re already experiencing—areas that got lots of rain getting less and areas that got little rain getting more rain storms for more of the year, hotter temperatures overall leading to an array of bad effects like tropical diseases moving north, and the “sixth extinction” of large numbers of species of animals and plants—and keeping in mind that this is happening everywhere around the planet, readers should understand that we’re not facing a localized crisis.

 

And remember, all the processes mentioned above are interlinked in complex ways that are absolutely not fully understood by our current science.

 

So Boston is not just going to “trial balloon and town hall meeting” its way out of this array of existential crises. Surviving even one of the major problems caused by global warming—like the flooding from rising sea levels I wrote about last week—is going to be very difficult… and very expensive. And who’s going to pay for it? Well, going forward, in addition to pointing out that we’ll have to devote an ever-increasing percentage of public budgets to these problems, expect me to call for the corporations that started and continue to profit from global warming—the oil, gas, and coal companies—to pay for cleaning up the mess they created. To the degree possible. Which might not be sufficient to the monumental tasks at hand.

 

Still, it will be critical for Boston to join municipalities like New York City in suing the carbon multinationals Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and others for redress. While divesting the city from all investments in those companies’ stocks. And suing, and ultimately deposing, governments like the Trump administration that are aiding and abetting these corporations’ destruction of the planet.

 

Failing that, Boston and all of human civilization is literally sunk… burned… and perhaps ultimately suffocated. Dying not with the bang of nuclear war—itself a fate we also need to organize immediately to avoid given the federal government’s return to atomic sabre rattling—but with an extended agonizing whimper.

 

It’s up to all of us to stop that from happening.

 

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.

THE SEAPORT FLOOD IS JUST THE BEGINNING

THE SEAPORT FLOOD IS JUST THE BEGINNING

 

Unless Boston builds proper defenses against global warming-driven sea level rise

 

January 17, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So, Boston’s Seaport District flooded early this month during a bad snowstorm in the midst of several days of arctic temperatures. And nobody could be less surprised than me. Because I’ve spent a lot of the last quarter century closely following developments in the science of climate change. And the “bomb cyclone” that caused the flooding, and the polar vortex that caused that, are both likely to have been caused by global warming. Yale University Climate Connections just produced a great video that features several luminary climate scientists explaining why at yaleclimateconnections.org. Definitely check it out.

 

No question, though, that it’s good to live in a region where local government at least recognizes that global warming is a scientific reality. The city of Boston is certainly ahead of most municipalities in the US in terms of laying plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to become “carbon neutral” and to deal with some of the anticipated effects of climate change. Particularly, flooding from inexorably rising sea levels and increasingly powerful and frequent storms. Which the more reactionary Boston TV newsreaders still insist on calling “wild weather.” But its plans are largely just that… plans. And they are still incomplete and, frankly, woefully inadequate to deal with the magnitude of the crisis facing us all.

 

Boston city government has initiated an array of climate change initiatives, including Greenovate Boston, a section of the Imagine Boston 2030 process, and—most germane to this discussion—Climate Ready Boston. They are all producing very nice reports grappling with some of the challenges to humanity presented by global warming in the decades to come. But the reports are written by planners and experts who are clearly pulling their punches for reasons that remain somewhat opaque. And in doing so, any good that might come out of the reports and the policy actions that will result from them is essentially undone.

 

A look at metro planning on global warming-induced flooding is a good way to illuminate the problem in question. The Climate Ready Boston program released a 340-page report in December 2016 that was meant to be a comprehensive assessment of the threats presented to the city by global warming—with plans for possible correctives. It does mention the idea of building giant dikes, storm barriers, and retractable gates (which they call a “harbor-wide flood protection system”) across Boston Harbor as the method with the most potential to save much of the city from major flooding. Which makes sense since Mayor Marty Walsh signed a 2015 agreement with Dutch officials to work together to manage rising sea levels, according to Boston Magazine. And the Dutch are recognized world experts on giant storm barriers and hydroengineering in general, lo, these last few hundred years.

 

But there’s no firm commitment for harbor-wide defenses in the report. Yet it should be obvious that they are absolutely necessary if Boston is going to continue as a living city for even a few more decades. At least Amos Hostetter of the Barr Foundation—who is a major player in Boston’s climate efforts—put up $360,000 for the UMass Boston Center for the Environment to study their feasibility last year, according to the Boston Globe.

 

More concerning than its waffling on building big dikes, the big Climate Ready Boston report chooses to focus on the possibility of sea level rise of no more than 3 feet by 2070—although it allows that a rise of 7.4 feet is possible by 2100:

 

 

The highest sea level rise considered in this report, 36 inches, is highly probable toward the end of the century if emissions remain at the current level or even if there is a moderate reduction in emissions. … If emissions remain at current levels, there is an approximately 15 percent chance that sea levels will rise at least 7.4 feet by the end of century, a scenario far more dire than those considered here.

 

 

Similar caution is on display with an October 2017 Climate Ready Boston report called “Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown”—focusing on tactics to protect two Boston neighborhoods on Boston Harbor at high risk for flooding caused by global warming. Once again, the authors’ assumption is that global warming-related sea level rise in Boston will be no more than 3 feet higher than year 2000 figures by 2070. Even though such estimates—which we have already seen are conservative by Climate Ready Boston’s own admission—also indicate that we could face 7-plus feet of sea level rise or more by 2100. And even higher rises going forward from there. Because sea level rise is slated to continue for generations to come.

 

What’s weird about such methodological conservatism is that a 2016 paper in the prestigious science journal Nature co-authored by a Bay State geoscientist says the lower figures that all the city’s climate reports are using already look to be wildly optimistic.

 

According to the Boston Globe:

 

 

“Boston is a bull’s-eye for more sea level damage,” said Rob DeConto, a climate scientist at UMass Amherst who helped develop the new Antarctica research and who co-wrote the new Boston report. “We have a lot to fear from Antarctica.” … If high levels of greenhouse gases continue to be released into the atmosphere, the seas around Boston could rise as much as 10.5 feet by 2100 and 37 feet by 2200, according to the report.

 

What’s even weirder is that the same UMass scientist, Rob DeConto, co-authored a detailed June 2016 report for Climate Ready Boston called “Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston: The Boston Research Advisory Group Report” with 16 other climate scientists that look at an array of possible outcomes for the city—and include a discussion of the higher sea level rise figures mentioned in the Nature paper. The report concludes with an admission that current science doesn’t allow for accurate predictions of climate change in the second half of the century. All the more reason, one would think, that models predicting higher than anticipated sea level rise should not seemingly be dismissed out of hand in other Climate Ready Boston reports.

 

The Globe also reported that a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says Boston can expect a sea level rise of 8.2 feet by 2100. Both 8.2 foot and 10.5 foot estimates are higher than the 7.4 foot estimate that Climate Ready Boston says is possible by 2100, and well above the 3 feet that it is actually planning for by 2070.

 

The same team that produced the larger Climate Ready Boston report authored the East Boston and Charlestown report; so they are doubtless quite well-aware of all this. Which is evident in this sentence about the (insufficient) extensibility of their proposed neighborhood-based flood defenses: “If sea levels rise by more than 36 inches, these measures could be elevated at least two feet higher by adding fill, integrating structural furniture that adds height and social capacity, or installing deployable flood walls. With this built-in adaptability, their effectiveness could be extended by an additional 20 years or more.”

 

The point here is not that the Boston city government is doing nothing about global warming-induced flooding. It’s that the city is potentially proposing to do too little, too late (given that most of the flood defenses it’s proposing will remain in the study phase for years, and many will protect specific neighborhoods but not the whole city when finally built), for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Though it’s probable that those reasons are more political and economic than scientific. Avoiding scaring-off the real estate developers and major corporations that provide much of the current city tax base, for example. The kind of thing that will make life difficult for politicians who then make life difficult for staffers and consultants working on global warming response plans.

 

Regardless, if experts like the Dutch are basically saying, Boston really needs to build the biggest possible harbor-wide flood protection system to have any hope of surviving at least a few more decades, then we can’t afford to do one of the more half-assed versions of the big cross-harbor storm barrier plan mentioned in the original Climate Ready Boston report—or, worse still, fail to build major harbor-wide defenses at all. If major studies by climate experts are saying that 3 feet of sea level rise by 2070 and 7.4 feet by 2100 are overly optimistic figures, then we need to plan for at least the highest reasonable estimates: currently, the NOAA’s 8.5 feet or, better yet, the Nature paper’s 10.5 feet for the end of the century. It’s true that we could get smart or lucky and avoid those numbers by 2100. But what about 2110? Or 2150? Or 2200? Sea level rise is not just going to stop in 2070 or 2100.

 

Are city planners and researchers willing to gamble with the city’s fate to avoid sticky political and economic fights? Let’s hope not. For all our sakes. Or the recent Seaport District flood—and numerous other similar recent floods—will be just the start of a fairly short, ugly slide into a watery grave for the Hub.

 

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.