Global warming is no longer an abstract theory. Forget about the hockey-stick-shaped graph correlating the rapid rise in temperature with the fossil fuel-based increase in carbon emission in recent years. The data have real-life implications for every single one of us, and we all need to see it that way. That was the dire message reinforced by last Tuesday’s New England Council meeting on the economic impact of climate change in New England.
As a person who loathes the cold (why do I stay here?), on above-normal warm days in winter I used to joke, “If this is global warming, bring it on.” It’s no longer a laughing matter. Gathered participants sat in the Aquarium’s tented platform beside the Boston Harbor (part of the Gulf of Maine). Green New Deal co-author Senator Ed Markey pointed out that the very harbor of which we are so proud is the second fastest warming body of water on the planet, after the Arctic. As the seas warm, the problems for cod and lobster fishermen worsen. As the magnitude of the storms increases and water levels rise, it might not be long before the pier at nearby Long Wharf, where my son’s architecture firm was once headquartered, will be under water. (It has been flooding during king tides for years.) Markey said, “there is no more important subject we should be talking about.” But, as one sustainability expert in attendance quietly added, “there is no more important subject we should be doing something about.”
We experience climate change in different ways. Warm days this winter had the blossoms on flowering trees and shrubs opening prematurely. When spring finally emerged, most buds shriveled before opening. Several days this week, the skies over Greater Boston were gray, a haze, according to local meteorologists, from wildfires faraway in Canada. For us the problem was more aesthetic; not so for residents of Alberta, Canada who had to evacuate.
Have your pollen allergies been worse this year? The Northeast has been hardest hit because the region is warming more quickly than elsewhere. With winters not getting cold enough, pollination is starting weeks earlier and extending weeks longer.
In Boston, during the last two years we’ve had more than 20 days of 90 degree or more weather. Experts predict the number of extreme heat days to jump to 80 days a year by 2050. The local health care facilities on which we depend are challenged by this trend. Such severe heat events increase heart and respiratory problems, among other health incidents, adversely affecting the elderly and those in poorer urban areas, where many still lack reliable air conditioning. Whether in heat events, hurricanes or floods, we expect hospitals to respond. Yet many hospitals nationally have been ill equipped to deal with climate-related problems and sometimes forced to evacuate patients. Mass General /Brigham projects spending $300 million across its 30 campuses over the next decade to upgrade its facilities to meet these climate change challenges. Other facilities with fewer resources are doing little.
Excessive heat in the western United States has increased wildfires there, causing loss of lives and property. Drought has shrunk the level of the Colorado River, endangering cities and farmland in the west. Just this week, Arizona, Nevada and California announced a plan to cut water use by a third, but the problem extends well beyond those three states.
In the past nine years, the warmest on record, 90 percent of counties have been damaged by climate crises, costing $1.2 trillion in property damage and thousands of lives – in both red and blue states. One report predicted the economy will shrink by ten percent by the end of the century if we fail to act.
Some forward-thinking leaders are developing concrete proposals if we are only open to them and willing to pay for them. Consider the concept of a harbor barrier wall similar to that in Venice or the strategies presented in Boston Living with Water, an open international design competition for changing Boston’s built environment to achieve resilience in the face of climate change and rising sea levels.
Over the centuries, Boston has done her best to defy Mother Nature, cutting down hills and filling in the Back Bay and parts of the South End. If we don’t adopt proportionate remediation, the natural world will reclaim what we have expropriated. Tunnels built during the Big Dig to handle past floods surely won’t be able to handle floods from extreme weather of the future. Our resiliency will be severely challenged by 2030, and projections for 2070 and beyond are dire indeed.
Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act included the largest government effort to respond. The $369 billion approved in that historic legislation could, according to Goldman Sachs, cost three times that amount but leverage as much as $3 trillion in economic activity. Outrageously, Republicans are holding hostage raising the debt ceiling to their goal of cutting those funds. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. We all have a vested interest in retaining and expanding such initiatives, whether we care only about ourselves or about future generations.
As a wise and accomplished architect pointed out to me, if we don’t look out for future generations, Boston will have the climate of Georgia and the terrain of 1630 Boston. Welcome back, Shawmut Peninsula.