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Food shortages? Floods? Experts detail climate change fallout

A HUBweek panel was held on Wednesday on the effect of climate change on Boston.Catherine Cloutier/Globe Staff

A substantial winter storm hits the Boston area, and coastal areas are submerged. The Charles and Mystic rivers overtop their banks. Homes fill with freezing water. Widespread electricity outages darken neighborhoods.

The food supply diminishes, while people huddle without running water or heat. People who try to leave are trapped in cars on traffic- and snow-clogged interstates.

This frightening scenario could soon be a reality, thanks to climate change, experts said Wednesday afternoon at a HUBweek panel.

Sea levels are rising, setting the stage for flooding. And, as land and sea temperatures tick up, more devastating nor’easters are expected, said James McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University.


With more development along coastal areas, “there’s less opportunity for that water to go some place that’s not harmful,” warned Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

The question of how Boston would cope with either a serious winter storm or a hurricane was the topic of the sobering panel at Harvard.

One issue that often arises in natural disasters is that residents do not react to warnings quickly enough, said Jennifer Leaning, a professor of health and human rights at Harvard, during a videotaped statement played during the session.

Evacuating the city in the case of a natural disaster might not be the answer, said Young, who questioned where residents would go.

“The big failure in New Orleans was not that we didn’t get everyone out of there,” he said. “It was the failure to cope with the people who stayed.”

Part of the city’s resilience plan is to make sure residents of the area are informed about the consequences of a such disaster and where resources would be available locally, said Atyia Martin, Boston’s chief resilience officer. The city is partnering with community and faith-based organizations to achieve this, she said.


Neighborhood of Affordable Housing Inc., an East Boston residents’ organization, for example, has met with residents to discuss how they can survive if the airport tunnels are flooded and they can’t access the city. The program explained how people could access emergency resources within their community, said Martin.

“In thinking about the longer-term effects of climate change, we bring all those organizations into the conversation,” said Carl Spector, director of climate and environmental planning for the City of Boston.

Planning, both long-term and short-term, is key to coping with an impending disaster, said Young.

Boston has started requiring climate change preparedness in its zoning codes, said Spector. New buildings must be designed with flood-safe features, like electricity panels or generators located above ground level.

Alan Berger, a professor of landscape architecture and urban design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took the planning a step further, saying the city of Boston needs to be redesigned to have its high-density urban core in places away from the waterfront.

In addition, Berger said in a videotaped statement, the area needs to harden its flood barriers around its most critical infrastructure, such as power plants, the airport, and food distribution centers.

While there will likely be political backlash to such ideas, Young said, a serious storm could change people’s minds.

He urged city officials to be prepared to move swiftly to make changes following a storm.

“Every storm is an opportunity to reimagine your community,” he said. “The storm tells you where your problems are.”


Nidhi Subbaraman of Globe staff contributed to this report. Catherine Cloutier can be reached at catherine.cloutier@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @cmcloutier.