The Time for Action is Now: How Climate Change and Rising Sea Levels Threaten Boston’s Future

Over the past few decades it has become more apparent that the earth’s climate is changing, with humans playing a large role in the issue. People all over the world will be affected by the consequences of a global warming, with coastal cities like Boston being the most impacted by rising sea levels.

While a changing climate is a natural phenomenon that has occurred throughout Earth’s history, we are currently experiencing changes much more drastic than in the past. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are at all-time highs and year after year records for temperature are broken.

“Far and away the most significant climate influencer is the combustion of fossil fuels,” said Julie Klinger, an International Relations professor at Boston University. “There’s an overwhelming scientific consensus that this is causing climate change. I think there needs to be greater public awareness of that.”

Sea level rise is a consequence of the changing climate, which is due to “an overall global warming, which means that the average temperature of the world is increasing by up to a few degrees Celsius or up to a dozen degrees Fahrenheit,” said Klinger. “What this means is that summers are hotter and winters are not as cold. That increases the rate of melting of the polar ice caps.”

The ice caps are melting at rates faster than anyone had predicted, even exceeding the predictions made by the International Panel on Climate Change. If this trend continues, global sea levels are estimated to increase by 3-6 feet by 2100, a level that would change the city of Boston dramatically. Currently, the city is experiencing an annual sea level increase of 2.81 mm.

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Areas such as Back Bay, Logan Airport, Boston Harbor and Charlestown would all be impacted greatly by such a rise.

“Probably the biggest concern for our city is what will happen when there are storm surges and where will all of this flooding go,” said Rachel Eckles, a junior who is a member of Divest BU. “Places like BU, right along the Charles, and the harbor front are at high risk for large amounts of flooding.”

While discussions and movements have begun throughout Boston to address this issue, not many concrete steps have been taken yet.

“There are some pretty serious things that the city of Boston needs to take into consideration if it hasn’t already, which is what is going to happen to the airport, what is going to happen to the significant portions of the city that are composed of landfill and what is going to happen to the people who are impacted,” Klinger said. “What’s the plan there. These are questions that we have to start addressing. They are not easy questions to address but the sooner we start talking about them the better.”

Organizations such as the Boston Harbor Association are attempting to start the climate change discussion now. The non-profit association was originally created to help clean up Boston Harbor and encourage people to use it. Recently, their efforts have shifted to addressing sea level rise.

“Our relationship with the harbor is going to continue to change as sea level rise increases and climate change impacts intensify,” said Rebecca Hearst, the Climate Project Manager at the Boston Harbor Association. “We are focused on educating people on how climate change will change the format of our city and making sure the city of Boston and its residents are prepared for coastal flooding.”

While Boston does not have any concrete plans in place yet, it is beginning to address the issue. The goal is to eventually establish areas that could be controllably flooded by surges, rather than create concrete structures such as walls and levees.

“The city of Boston is currently going through a long-term planning process that they’re calling Climate Ready Boston with the goal of helping the city of Boston prepare for the long-term affects of climate change,” said Hearst.

Student groups around the country are attempting to address these climate change questions as well, such as Divest BU, a student-led campaign to encourage the school to stop investing money in fossil fuel companies. On November 20th, Divest BU attempted to raise awareness of the issue by playing “Sea Level Rise Limbo” in front of the GSU to challenge students to see how low they could keep sea level rise.

“By getting large institutions like BU and other universities and large churches to divest, it sends a message to society that our school does not want to support these industries,” said Eckles.

This connection between fossil fuel emissions and climate change is not new information. For decades, people have known about a global warming that was occurring, yet the issue has only continued to intensify.

“We keep putting the blame on ourselves but we’ve known about solar panels since the 50’s, we’ve known about wind turbines for probably just as long and we’ve known climate change is an issue since the 70’s,” said Eckles. “We could have done more earlier and now we’re digging ourselves deeper into the hole and need to do more drastic things. [Students] have a special position in this situation in that we will probably be the leaders fixing these problems.”

So what can be done to slow this process? While it looks to be impossible to reverse the changes that are already occurring due to climate change, their severity can be reduced by both individual and group efforts.

“There’s a lot we can do on an individual level,” said Klinger. “We can take steps to reduce our carbon footprint and the carbon impact of our lifestyles. That has to deal with really simple things that environmentalists have been talking about for decades. Conserving electricity, taking steps to reduce the amount of meat you consume, reducing air travel.”

The situation has reached a point that individual reduction is no longer enough. Factories and companies are contributing to CO2 concentrations in immense amounts. Because of that, it must be a group effort to reduce the consequences. Past history has shown, that collectively large changes can occur, such as the switch to automobile transportation earlier in the century.

“There’s only so much that individuals can do before you need policies directly intended to produced that set of outcomes,” Klinger said. “I think the good news here and the lesson to be learned here is that it took a tremendous effort on the part of lobbyists, citizens, policy groups in order to to transform the landscape of the United States such that it could even be feasible for automobiles to be the primary mode of transportation. So if we did that for the car, surely we can do that for something else.”

For large changes to be seen, many people must band together and collectively fight against climate change.

“I think that to actually have an impact we need to have really big commitments and fundamental changes in how our energy system is set up and how infrastructure is built,” said Hearst. “I think once people are aware of how drastic it is and start educating themselves about all of the different things at play, they can start doing personal lifestyle changes but also advocating more broadly for the really big changes that are going to have to happen if we are going to be able to survive as a species. It’s not looking good.”


The Time for Action is Now: How Climate Change and Rising Sea Levels Threaten Boston’s Future

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