It is a reality more ubiquitous than the abundance of campaign signs studding lawns, fences, and windows in many corners of Boston as the Sept. 14 preliminary mayoral election draws close.
The climate crisis, so vividly underscored this summer by ominous and extreme weather patterns and a dire report warning of the need to act, has become a front-and-center issue in the race, with each major candidate laying out a plan to combat and mitigate its impact.
The plans vary wildly in length and specifics, but they all acknowledge that the climate catastrophe is a problem that needs tackling. There are some recurrent themes in the various initiatives: the need to cut carbon emissions, invest in green jobs, and foster sustainable development.
Elizabeth Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said climate policies will have to be part of a path to victory for any mayoral contender, as Boston, a coastal city built partially on wetlands, is one of the US cities most vulnerable to sea rise. And Henry said the issue is more prevalent in this mayoral contest than in any other race in the city’s history.
”I don’t think you’re going to be able to win this race in 2021 by paying lip service to climate issues,” said Henry, whose group has endorsed City Councilor Michelle Wu.
Plenty is at stake: No corner of the city will be spared from climate challenges, including the stomping grounds of those vying to be the city’s top pol. Rising seas, more stormwater flooding, and more 90-degree days all pose very real and complex problems in the city. In Dorchester, for instance, home to mayoral candidates Annissa Essaibi George and John Barros, the average high tide may pose flood risks to Malibu Beach and the Savin Hill Cove shoreline. Stormwater flooding also could threaten neighborhoods in and around the Interstate 93 corridor, according to city projections. Morrissey Boulevard, which is near the cove, already floods regularly.
In Roxbury, where Acting Mayor Kim Janey lives, many areas are already 2 to 5 degrees above the Boston median temperature during stifling days, and the drainage system could be overwhelmed by heavy rains, according to the city, posing flooding risks to the streets just north of Malcolm X Park, which is about a 10-minute walk from Janey’s Copeland Street home.
City projections also warn stormwater flooding could pummel Mattapan and Roslindale in the future, where Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu live, respectively.
Even if all emissions ceased today, the effects of global warming would continue, but some of the worst effects could be slowed or avoided — adding urgency to the issue.
In laying out their climate plans, several candidates noted that the city’s poorest communities are often the most affected by climate change, linking the notions of environmental and racial justice. Multiple candidates addressed mitigating urban heat islands, increasing the city’s tree canopy, and nurturing green, open spaces in the city.
Wu’s environmental policies have been detailed in a 49-page document that calls for Boston to commit to citywide carbon neutrality by 2040, have the city run on 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and achieve a net-zero municipal footprint by 2024. Among the several climate experts interviewed for this article, the consensus was that Wu had the most detailed and thorough climate policy plan of the field.
“You got to have timelines and you got to have targets,” said Philip Landrigan, director for the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College, who was one of several climate experts who described Wu’s plans as the most detailed and thorough. “If you simply express aspirations and don’t have targets and timelines for them, you don’t get very far.”
Janey is among those to link climate justice and racial justice, and her campaign highlights some of her moves as the city’s acting executive in recent months as evidence of her commitment: the appointment of the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, the founding pastor of New Roots AME Church in Dorchester, as the city’s new environmental chief; a $4 million allocation for a green jobs program; and $48 million to make buildings more efficient in the city, among a slew of other city investments.
There is no mention of deadlines or stringent emissions goals on her campaign website, where the emphasis is on what she has done, not what still needs to be done. But last month, Janey made a major announcement that could change the trajectory of the city’s climate crisis response. Janey is now seeking to withdraw a downtown Boston Harbor plan from a state review process, saying issues of equity and resilience were not adequately addressed in the city’s original plan, which was approved in 2017.
In particular, she focused on climate change and the threats it poses, citing the landmark report issued earlier this summer by the world’s top climate scientists who warned the window for acting to prevent the worst consequences is closing quickly. Janey said she also wants to ensure the waterfront is more welcoming to all city residents and is calling for net-zero carbon requirements for new developments.
Essaibi George, meanwhile, is emphasizing the need to promote a green economy and wants a planning process that prioritizes climate resiliency.
She also wants to invest in green spaces and has proposed to increase the parks department budget by about $9 million, which is about a third of the current department budget, create a Transportation Office of Information & Innovation to find data-driven solutions to transportation problems, and make the city’s fleet more electric.
Joan Fitzgerald, an urban planning and policy professor at Northeastern University, found Essaibi George’s plan, which does not include any timelines, to be the weakest among those of the five candidates and called Janey’s plan “lukewarm” and “not very well laid out.” Fitzgerald, who has not endorsed a candidate, did applaud Janey’s appointment of White-Hammond.
For sure, talk is cheap. Campbell has pointed out that the city has commissioned almost 40 different environmental plans in recent years, but less than 10 percent have been completed, while half haven’t even started implementation.
Campbell has said that “environmental justice is also economic justice.” She wants to make sure that all infrastructure projects align with the city’s climate policies. She is also calling for the electrification of city vehicles, the creation of a climate commission, the transformation of regional rail and improvement of public transit, and the reinvigoration of green spaces. Campbell wants full carbon neutrality for city operations by 2035.
Barros has called the climate crisis one of the most pressing social justice issues facing the city, saying he wants to accelerate the city’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral before 2050, strengthen emission standards for all new developments, advocate against public transit cuts, increase the city’s tree canopy, and foster more solar power installation.
He also wants to direct more resources toward projects that would protect shoreline communities in South Boston, East Boston, and Fort Point and says he would commit 20 percent of the city’s capital budget, or about $660 million, to climate resiliency projects.
Scott Lussier, an environmental studies professor at Suffolk University, liked that Barros highlighted specific locations where he would invest.
“People can envision where the work needs to happen,” he said.
In a city like Boston, more than two thirds of carbon emissions come from buildings, with transportation making up the vast majority of the rest, said Bill McKibben, a well-known environmental activist who has endorsed Wu in the campaign.
”It’s really hard work to retrofit existing buildings so that they produce less, but it’s not by any means impossible,” he said.
New York City has passed a law requiring a retrofit of all large buildings to make them more energy efficient. Cities need to help property owners with financing for such a move, McKibben said.
“An awful lot of work that has to get done this decade has to do with the implementation and deployment of technologies that we have now but are not really deploying,” he said.
Complicating matters, there are limits to what municipal officials can do to fight climate change. For instance, last year, the state’s attorney general nixed a bylaw passed by Brookline residents that banned the installation of oil and gas pipes in new and substantially renovated buildings, a move aimed at reducing carbon emissions. The AG said the bylaw was inconsistent with state law.
Massachusetts, said Fitzgerald, the Northeastern professor, is a state that doesn’t allow cities to have a more stringent building code than state law dictates. Even regarding public transit, MBTA officials, and not the mayor’s office, hold the power to make any substantial changes to its network.
Lussier, the Suffolk professor, said mayors can pull the policy and spending levers to help combat and mitigate the crisis and convey to the public that “we can all do our part.” But Boston alone cannot stop sea level rise or curb global warming, he said.
“We need to focus on what we can do,” he said. “What we can do is plant more trees. We can increase our stormwater infrastructure to get the water out of the area. We can raise the barriers.”
Peter Frumhoff, the director of science and policy at the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said that combating the climate crisis will cost billions and future mayors will have to consider who will pay for it. He thought the city should consider filing lawsuits against fossil fuel companies to seek damages for causing the crisis.
“The next mayor has got to really scale up plans to prepare for the rising seas and other extreme weather that this city and every city is going to experience,” he said. “That’s going to require a lot of work.”