Massachusetts has invested much political and financial capital in trying to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. On Wednesday, it invested in some insurance, acknowledging our new reality — storms are stronger and getting stronger, and the seas have begun to rise and will rise much more.
In the face of that, the Healey administration unveiled ResilientMass — an update to its 2018 climate adaptation plan with 127 state agency actions to respond to the changing climate. This includes the creation of a new Office of Climate Science and efforts to make the MBTA more resilient to tunnel floods and other impacts from climate-fueled weather extremes.
Massachusetts has long stood out as one of the few states without a state climatologist. The new Office of Climate Science, already staffed with three experts, marks a dramatic change.
“This summer brought dangerous weather impacts to our communities, and the impacts have been devastating,” Governor Maura Healey said in a press release. “ResilientMass ensures that Massachusetts is well positioned for federal funds, while continuing our nation-leading work on climate.”
In some ways, ResilientMass may feel familiar — a plan full of plans on a topic that has been the subject of more talk than action. And yet, the state and many climate advocates say it’s also an important step forward, taking transformative steps that will touch every aspect of life in Massachusetts.
New building standards, for instance, will be developed to make sure buildings are prepared for increased flooding and extreme heat. This will require a shift in thinking — health codes currently include minimum heat standards, ensuring residents stay warm enough on the coldest Massachusetts nights. New codes will also look at the other end of the spectrum to protect against the hottest days.
“The list of proposed actions is comprehensive, but as we all know what really counts is what gets implemented, not just planned,” said Amy Boyd Rabin, vice president of policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts. Another aspect of the plan — the release of a public Action Tracker website — is also a welcome addition, she said.
A new heat alert system, to be developed and implemented by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services alongside other agencies, will notify residents when dangerous heat is heading their way. The state also plans for expanded tree planting in some mid-sized cities and more shading in parks in communities suffering from urban heat islands.
New design standards for the MBTA will take the risks of climate change into account addressing flooding risks.
The plan is based on findings of the state’s 2022 Climate Change Assessment, which reviewed the latest climate science to determine what Massachusetts should expect. Already, severe weather has increased in the state, with the heaviest storms carrying 55 percent more precipitation than they did in 1958. Lightning caused $20.4 million in damage between 2002 and 2022.
As heat and humidity rise, the hottest days will also feel hotter. The hottest summer days statewide from 1950 to 2013 felt like 81 degrees Fahrenheit. By 2050, those days could feel like 94 degrees. By 2070, 99 degrees.
The biggest risk the state faces, according to the plan, is from inland flooding — a risk that became all too real this year, as communities across central and western Massachusetts experienced dramatic floods, including in Leominster where nearly a foot of rain fell in a matter of hours.
“We really need a coordinated approach,” said Katherine Antos, undersecretary for decarbonization and resilience at the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, noting that unlike coastal floods, no overarching entity exists for inland flooding. “A key action of the ResilientMass plan is developing a framework that brings all of these local, state, and federal agencies together to coordinate their activities,” she said.
The plan also touches on adaptation on the state’s farms, including the expansion of a program that provides free climate audits for farmers to better understand and respond to the risks their operations face.
The plan also calls for the streamlining of salt marsh permitting, which Emma Gildesgame, a climate adaptation scientist at The Nature Conservancy, called a much needed step.
“We know that salt marshes have an absolutely critical role to play in protecting coastal communities and habitats and wildlife, and that permitting is a huge barrier,” she said.
Even if all human-caused emissions were to stop today, the climate would continue to warm for decades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). That’s because the oceans are storing a huge amount of excess heat deep below the surface, heat that will eventually be brought to the surface. A study last year found that if all emissions stopped immediately, there is still a 42 percent chance that the Earth would exceed the United Nation’s Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 2.7°F.
Because of this, climate advocates and policymakers are increasingly turning their attention to adaptation — the need to prepare shorelines for rising seas, and recognize the realities of more deadly heat, extreme rainfall, drought, and other symptoms of a warming planet.
Melissa Hoffer, the state’s climate chief, said this plan acknowledges those risks, harnessing the power of cross-government collaboration to prepare.
“This is the year that changed everything,” she said.