UMass report cautions billions needed for local climate change preparations
A report to be released Friday by the University of Massachusetts points to the challenges the city and the region face in funding solutions to combat climate change, with local neighborhood projects expected to amount to $2.4 billion.
The report warns of the dangers of projected sea level increases in future years and decades, as recent winter storms produced nearly three feet of ocean storm surge and flooded neighborhoods from East Boston to Dorchester.
“The broad conclusion here is that we’re going to need to make some very substantial investments in resilience,” said David Levy, a management professor at UMass Boston and lead author of Financing Climate Resilience: Mobilizing Resources and Incentives to Protect Boston from Climate Risks. The report is slated to be released Friday morning at a climate adaptation forum hosted by the UMass Club.
City and regional policy makers have worked in recent years to develop climate resiliency plans, but they remain in the preliminary stages. Meanwhile, projections show ocean levels around Boston could increase several feet over the next century and cause routine flooding, affecting 90,000 residents and $80 billion worth of real estate.
A separate UMass team is looking at the feasibility and usefulness of a 4-mile barrier wall that would be constructed in the Boston Harbor that could protect the city’s coastal areas from storm surges. Estimates for that project range from $7 billion to $15 billion.
“We have to understand that the cost of inaction will be far larger,” Levy said. “But how do we fund this? How do we finance this in ways that are politically feasible, in ways that make sense economically and equitably so that people can afford to pay?”
Levy said his team’s review of neighborhood-level projects — what he called the front lines of the resiliency plan — can be implemented more immediately but, like the barrier wall, are costly. Short and medium-term projects could range from $1 billion to $2 billion once completed, according to the study.
The challenge of regional policy makers will be to find mechanisms to fund such projects, so that the burden will not be placed on the residents who already live in neighborhoods likely to be affected by future storm damage. Such low-income communities, according to the report, tend to have lower rates of insurance, less resilient housing, fewer options for evacuation and relocation, and worse access to health care.
“They also tend to be marginalized in the decision-making process,” the report states.
The report recommends a layered approach of federal, state, city, and private financing strategies, including:
■ A statewide carbon tax and an increase to the state gas tax that could support a climate resilience fund.
■ The possibility of a Boston climate resilience fee based on water and sewer bills, which could fund city general obligation bonds.
■ The creation of climate-focused District Resilience Improvement entities, modeled after Business Improvement Districts, which would capture revenue from those who would most benefit from resiliency actions.
■ The creation of a Climate Resilience Finance Implementation Working Group for the metro Boston region, to advance climate adaptation measures.
UMass officials are also looking at separate ways to govern a regional resiliency approach.
Austin Blackmon, the city’s environmental chief, said the UMass report will help to address what he called a regional need to explore funding options, and ways to get “creative” in identifying revenue sources. That includes establishing a governing structure that will be able to carry out those plans — for instance, he suggested, an agency that will be able to seek bonds for funding.
In the meantime, Blackmon said, the city continues to explore ways to protect neighborhoods. The city’s budget for next year includes spending for a portable wall that could be erected in emergencies along the East Boston Greenway, to protect flood zones in that neighborhood, as well as funding to begin a process of lifting Main Street in Charlestown, to protect that neighborhood from increasing water levels.
“These are first steps. We have a lot more work to do,” he said, pointing out that East Boston and Charlestown were the first neighborhoods the city targeted in a climate resiliency report.
Magdalena Ayed, of the Harborkeepers, an East Boston-based coastal resiliency education group, said local residents will have to be involved in the planning of resilience projects, and also in searching for ways to fund them, saying they will be most affected.
During a recent tour of the neighborhood, she pointed to the area of flooding by the Greenway, which is by new luxury housing units in development. The portable wall will be welcome, she said, even if its effects may be limited.
“How much water will it really keep out?” she asked, as she pointed to other sites in the neighborhood with flooding problems in recent years – the parking lot by the Shaw’s in Liberty Plaza, the only grocery store in town; the playground and soccer field by the Umana school, listed as an emergency shelter.
Just months ago, floodwaters crept up to the steps of the school while schoolchildren were still inside.
LoPresti Park, across the street from the mixed-use housing development Maverick Landing, was under water after the storms.
“We’re going to find ways to address it, but how are we going to finance that?” she asked. “What’s the next step?”