Preparing for the Rising Tide – Across New England

Seth Kaplan

The Boston Harbor Association has a powerful message about the very real threat of sea level rise driven by global warming.  Their report, “Preparing for the Rising Tide”, is a dramatic wake-up call about the fundamental threat to the historic and economic heart of Boston.

The report starts with very solid science that shows how the homes, businesses and cultural institutions (like the New England Aquarium) that sit on the waterfront are now on the edge of entering, and have in some cases already entered, a very real danger zone.  A zone where the flooding and catastrophic damage that Hurricane Sandy brought to the New York region would tear across our coastline – with the prospect of worse to come.  Indeed, had Sandy hit only 5 ½ hours earlier than it did, when tides were high, the floodwaters would have reached Boston City Hall, nearly ½ mile inland from the City’s waterfront. In other words, Boston got lucky compared to New York City and other communities that were brutally whacked by the storm.  And this near miss begs the question:  do we really want to leave the vitality of our coastal communities to chance?

The report provides a few key lessons:

  • Many vulnerable places, like the entrance to the UMass Boston campus, key MBTA stations like the one at the New England Aquarium and sections of waterfront buildings like the Long Wharf Marriott are in very real danger, today, from the severe storms that are becoming an unfortunate, and all too frequent, visitors to the Northeast.
  • Indeed, some of these vulnerable places would have suffered very real and painful damage if Sandy had slightly changed course and struck Boston instead of New York, or if Sandy had arrived just a few hours earlier.
  • As climate change continues to worsen due to the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, a build-up that grows a little bit every day, the likelihood of a severe flooding event increases. In a very real way the march of time is our enemy here – with each passing year, as we continue to pump enormous quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the chance of a catastrophic flooding event grows.
  • Addressing this fundamental problem will require an integrated approach that reaches across all aspects of society, the economy and government – fundamentally transforming the way we plan, use our land and water resources, build, travel, manage our buildings and use energy – in order to make our communities more resilient and able to handle inundation and other impacts from the changing climate but also to reduce the emissions that are causing the problem in the first place.

In other words, while it remains critically important to tackle the root causes of climate change by reducing energy waste and cleaning up our energy supply, that’s not enough any longer. The emissions we produce today from driving our cars and heating and lighting our buildings will produce effects that are beginning to materialize now – as with Superstorm Sandy – and that will present ever more daunting challenges for future generations. We therefore need to brace for impacts that already have been set in motion. And we must adapt a broad range of infrastructure and institutions to make our communities more resilient to those impacts.

Conservation Law Foundation, as a group with roots in Boston and nearly 50 years of work here, applauds the work of the Boston Harbor Association in preparing and releasing this Report.  As a regional organization that works across New England, we recognize that the Report reflects an absolutely vital case study that provides guidance for planning and preparations in Massachusetts’ largest city, while also providing an example of the kind of sober analysis and planning that needs to unfold from Connecticut’s Long Island Sound coastline to the frigid waters of Downeast Maine.

This Report is a reminder that we must act now to protect our communities from the harm that has already been done – and we need to act on emissions reductions to prevent even worse and more catastrophic harm beyond the massive flooding outlined in TBHA’s chilling maps.   This is the mandate of the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act that has been on the Commonwealth’s books since 2008. Having had the foresight to enact this law the question becomes whether we here in Massachusetts will have the courage to truly implement it.  TBHA’s Report, which looks at both the impacts that are unavoidable and the even worse impacts if massive greenhouse gas emissions continue, provides a compelling reminder of the  consequences of inaction.

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