October 29 marks the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. The cost of the largest Atlantic hurricane ever was the tragic loss of 159 human lives and $68 billion in damage. Experts predict 10 Sandy-like storms by the end of the century, and chances are the Bay State will be slammed by at least one. The Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists forecasts that Boston should expect today’s once-a-century coastal impacts to become once-a-year outcomes during that time period. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recently named Boston eighth among the world’s major cities most threatened by flooding due to sea level rise.
The prevailing view among meteorologists is that superstorms are the product of climate change and the attendant warmer and warmer oceans that energize such storms. At its annual meeting in Boston this year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science agreed that climate change is producing extreme weather. We’re experiencing weather on steroids and we have to prepare for its uncertain and possibly catastrophic effects.
The current challenge is not so much about saving the planet from heat-trapping gases as it is about saving us from a warming planet. It’s not throwing in the towel, but rather facing the realities of living with, coping with, and adapting to the effects of global warming caused by emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants and motor vehicles. With so much carbon pollution already in the air and our traditional fossil fuel energy production and use patterns locked in, we have no choice but to live with its consequences. Sure, we need to continue to reduce air pollution and build renewable energy projects using the sun, wind, and tides. And we need to continue to increase energy efficiencies in cars, trucks, utilities, and appliances. But we also need to adapt to the effects of climate change.
With 85 percent of Massachusetts’ 6.7 million residents living within 50 miles of the coast, we are vulnerable; we need a comprehensive adaptation management plan that will show us how to lessen storm impacts to our built and natural environment and how to use both to protect us. Specifically, we need a plan that assesses the vulnerability of the commonwealth’s electrical grid, buildings, roads, airports, dams, water supplies, and sewage treatment plants and then recommends ways of strengthening them. We need a plan that recognizes the protective value of our beaches and wetlands, forests and rivers, and then explains how to use their natural resiliencies to buffer people from the disastrous impacts of stronger, more frequent storms. Finally, we need a plan that identifies our most vulnerable human populations and determines how best to insulate them from the near-certain ravages of superstorms.
Last summer, President Obama said: “Those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it—they’re busy dealing with it.” It’s now time for Massachusetts to deal with it and prepare a plan that guides us in living with the effects and unpredictability of an ever-warming planet.•
Jack Clarke is director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon.