Image via ELM Action Fund

October 2, 2015


When I heard that two former Massachusetts governors — Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld — are both pushing for a North-South Rail Link between North Station and South Station in downtown Boston, my first reaction was, “I guess they didn’t get my memo.”

The “memo” in question was my March 7, 2014 Open Media Boston editorial, in which I criticized a proposed “remediation strategy” by various local think tanks and officials in response to the negative effects of global warming over the next few decades. Said strategy largely involves ignoring the magnitude of the existential crisis facing Boston (and the planet), and sort of squirreling around its edges rather than tackling it head on while there’s still time to do so.

One of my key points was that even level-headed climate scientists are predicting a significant amount of sea level rise by 2100. Couple that with Boston getting slammed by ever more frequent “super storms,” and the net result of these linked disasters makes it a virtual certainty that Boston’s floodplain — which includes much of our present downtown area — will be reclaimed occasionally, and eventually permanently, by the Atlantic Ocean.

Funny thing about tunnels like the proposed North-South Rail Link, and about our famously sketchy Big Dig tunnels … they don’t work if they’re flooded. Much like New York’s subway system didn’t work after Hurricane Sandy.

So proposing any major infrastructure projects — let alone a rail tunnel — on a known floodplain in the age of global warming is a laughably bad idea. Especially when Boston has no real plan to slow the inevitable flooding of low-lying areas. And stopping the flooding is probably beyond our current technology, or any technology we are likely to develop in the coming decades.

But slowing the effects of rising oceans long enough to move key Boston infrastructure to higher ground by pursuing a “strategic retreat” strategy is possible (using tactics like our own version of Holland’s famous dike system). Unless global warming’s other negative impacts render our region uninhabitable within the lifetime of the current generation of children. In which case all bets will be off for our fair city anyway.

Assuming we don’t end up facing one of the absolute worst case scenarios, the best course of action that Boston regional planners and politicians can take going forward is to start strategic retreat projects immediately, avoid building anything significant near the harbor, and gradually develop the hills around the city as the new Boston. Starting with transportation hubs on that higher ground. That’s where the big money needs to go. To the projects that will help our city survive. Not to the rail link that should have been built decades ago.

Check out the full version of this column on Medium at: https://medium.com/apparent-horizon/.

Apparent Horizon is the first column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ network director and a professor of critical media, visual art and political economy at the Global Center for Advanced Studies.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.