Researchers, legislators collaborate to reduce effects of sea level rise in Boston

Mystic River that runs through Medford is pictured with two swans. Ava Iannuccillo / The Tufts Daily

Boston has become one of the first cities in the United States to have a city-wide Green New Deal, as the climate crisis seeps into the daily lives of residents. Environmental researchers, community leaders and legislators collaborate under a ticking clock in the hopes of preventing Boston’s neighborhoods from submerging.

In 1857, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts contracted workers to begin leveling hills with steam-powered engines and build a new neighborhood over a small saltwater bay. They were not thinking that the sea could someday rise and wash their hard work away. Now, Boston is the eighth most vulnerable city in the world in terms of the overall cost damage from rising sea levels, according to a study conducted by the World Bank

“The most we can do right now is slow down the rate of climate change, without doing something as risky as geoengineering, not reverse it,” said Paul Kirshen, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who researches climate adaptation methods for the city. “We may only have to deal with three feet instead of seven feet of sea level rise.”

Kirshen explained that even if carbon emissions were eliminated today, enough greenhouse gas emissions are already in the atmosphere that Boston would still face significantly more sea level rise-induced flooding in the next few decades, a claim supported by a recent Climate Ready Boston report.

In August 2020, Boston City Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu released a Boston-specific Green New Deal, the first of its kind. The 49-page document, spearheaded by lead author Nina Schlegel, outlines an intersectional approach to battling climate change, with solutions ranging from affordable housing and public transportation to racial and economic justice.

“I’m really proud of my team and a huge coalition that came together to propose the first city-level Green New Deal in the country,” Wu said. “We put forward principles for a Green New Deal and a just recovery, 15 policies that Boston could implement that we hope could be [an] inspiration or example for other cities to take on as well.”

Wu warned that the impacts of climate change have already arrived.

“A couple of months ago, I was standing on Morrissey Boulevard at high tide to draw attention to the fact that regularly at high tide, a major stretch of roadway is impassable to first responders or residents trying to get to work or school,” Wu said. “I had my boots on and the water was up past my ankles standing in the middle of the road.”

Justin Hollander, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts, spoke to Boston’s development in spaces that are likely to be affected by climate change.

“A lot of the city is built in an unsustainable way,” Hollander said. “People talk about the city of Boston being progressive and addressing climate change, but when you look at a lot of the new developments in the Seaport District, [they are] basically at sea level.”

According to Hollander, Boston has historically relied on the private market to respond to environmental threats. He added that many communities consisting of people of color and low-income families are especially vulnerable to the effects of the sea level rise. 

Researchers like Kirshen are actively working to push legislators to integrate climate adaptation research into urgent action to protect coastal communities.

Kirshen’s research has been instrumental in the development of the Resilient Boston Harbor Initiative, which takes an equitable approach to climate adaptation. The initiative creates sustainable jobs by investing in elevated green community spaces and flood-resistant buildings along the city’s waterfront. These structural changes aim to alleviate the cost coastline families would have had to bear, as they protect the communities at risk.

One of Kirshen’s studies published in May 2018 considered the use of a natural harbor-wide barrier to protect Boston communities from flooding.

“[The study] actually became the official policy of the city in October of 2018,” Kirshen said. 

Kirshen’s intersectional approach to climate research is an example of an important collaboration between researchers, community leaders and local and statewide legislators. Yet, even with new legislation in place, Boston still has a long way to go.

“We know how to get our emissions to zero, we know how to do mitigation and adaptation planning,” Kirshen said. “We know the answers; it’s just a lack of political will.”

He encourages students to get involved in politics and vote for candidates that will represent their values.

“Volunteering on a campaign is one of the best things you can do,” Kirshen said. “We do not have effective leadership, [and] it also reflects the will of the voters.”

However, following a new wave of political engagement with record turnout from voters in the 2020 election and rising youth activism, this dynamic may be changing. 

Wu echoed this sentiment. “Everyone has a role to play in demonstrating and agitating and pushing for our progress to match the scale and urgency of this moment,” Wu said. 

After becoming the first woman of color to serve as the president of the council, Wu has decided to run for mayor this year. Wu said she is inspired by the students and youth activists who frame the climate crisis not as something to run away from or simply mitigate, but as an opportunity to advocate for justice. Emanating the vision of her Green New Deal for Boston, she explained that the climate crisis cannot be addressed without climate justice. 

“This is about reaching out and grabbing our best, strongest, most vibrant collective future together and that’s how we are framing all of our policies,” Wu said. 


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