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After UN report, experts look at how to build a climate-resilient Boston

Paul Kirshen, of the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass Boston, hosted a discussion on ways to make Boston more resilient in the face of a warming climate. The event, part of HUBweek, was held in downtown Boston.
Paul Kirshen, of the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass Boston, hosted a discussion on ways to make Boston more resilient in the face of a warming climate. The event, part of HUBweek, was held in downtown Boston.(Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff)

As he looks over Boston from a downtown high rise Tuesday, UMass-Boston Professor Paul Kirshen sees a city that needs to change or brace itself for the worsening effects of climate change.

“So we have a major storm and with sea level rise there’s going to be flooding, and that flooding is going to penetrate inland right here perhaps to the Greenway. The original Boston coastline started at Faneuil Hall,” Kirshen said. Beyond that, “it’s all fill, it’s all low right now. It’s all vulnerable.”

Kirshen joined David Cash, UMass Boston dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, and David Levy, a UMass Boston professor of management for a HUBweek panel on “Building a Climate Resilient Boston.”

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The discussion was held just a day after the release of a stark United Nations report on global warming which calls for urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The report warns that there are only a dozen years left for changes to be made before warming hits a point of potentially devastating consequences.

And yet, even if dramatic changes are made globally, many impacts may now be unavoidable, he said. Adaptation and mitigation will be critical factors to Boston’s future.

“Even if we stopped all emissions of greenhouse gases today we cannot reverse climate change. We have to live with the effects of climate change for centuries,” said Kirshen, who also serves as academic director of UMass Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab.

The question of what climate change could mean for the city is already being studied.

Over the past several months, the Sustainable Solutions Lab has produced three reports that consider how the region could deal with issues caused by climate change, including increased precipitation and coast storms, higher sea levels, seasonal flooding, and increased temperatures.

“What these reports have tried to do was put feasible options on the table,” Cash said. “The response has been positive. Both the state and the city are leaning forward and are also looking for creative, innovative policies.”

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One report looked the feasibility of a harbor-wide barrier system in the case of severe storms. Another analyzed financing needed to build a more resilient infrastructure. Another addressed governance and policy changes.

Levy said he was cautiously optimistic.

He sees the business sector waking up to the need for preparation after seeing the kinds of disasters that have devastated other regions of the country.

“It’s costly if we do nothing. There’s a good reason why we need to invest,” he said. “NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — estimated the total damages nationwide in 2017 [from weather-related natural events] were over $300 billion dollars in the U.S.”

When it looked as if Hurricane Sandy might hit Boston in 2012, Cash said he and others knew Boston wasn’t prepared and would suffer significant damage. New York took the full force of that storm. Boston got lucky that time, he said.

Now there’s an opportunity for the city to be thoughtful and forward looking, not complacent.

“You look at New York, you look at Miami, you look at Houston, you look at North Carolina and Puerto Rico,” Cash said, “all of which have suffered the kinds of storms that predictions say we’re going to suffer at some point. We have an opportunity to step back and say, ‘what worked in these places and what was problematic in these places and how can we learn from those examples.’”

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Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.