Enjoyed this suffocating string of 90-plus-degree days?
How would you like a summer full of them — a heat wave like this week’s, that lasts not just a few days, but for a whole season? Yeah, me neither.
Between 1971 and 2000, Boston averaged 11 days per year when the temperature topped 90 degrees. If we don’t get a handle on the climate crisis, we’ll be subjected to 40 such days by 2030, and 90 super hot days by 2070. Even if, by some miracle, we succeed in radically reducing carbon emissions, Boston will still see at least 20 days per year above 90 degrees by 2030, according to the most optimistic of the city’s projections.
Too many of us still think of climate change in terms of melting ice caps and rising seas, a crisis unfolding in some faraway time and place. That’s one of the reasons so many of our supposed leaders get away with their inaction or, worse, their cynical denialism.
But the climate crisis we face is an urban one, too, its effects visited upon not just those living near rising oceans, but residents of land-locked neighborhoods. Extreme heat touches everyone — especially the most vulnerable among us.
“The image of climate change is not just a polar bear in the North Pole, it’s a kid with asthma who is struggling to breathe in hotter summers or a family forced to evacuate from public housing,” said Chris Cook, Boston’s chief of environment, energy and open space.
It’s Cook’s job to prepare for the myriad ways the climate crisis threatens the city. Some of his challenges are obvious: Sea level rise and more frequent storms put several Boston neighborhoods in danger of catastrophic flooding. Even if Boston attains its goal of zero net emissions by 2050, protecting lower lying parts of the city will cost billions.
But the climate crisis affects cities in less obvious ways, too. Think of all the things that go wrong on Boston’s hottest days and you’ll get the picture: More crime and conflict on the streets; higher rates of suicide; spikes in emergency room visits, and hospital admissions for mental illness and other ailments; higher death rates, particularly among elderly residents; and a long list of other unthinkables that must be thought about.
We’ve been way too slow to grasp this fiercely local dimension of the crisis.
“Climate change is a public health problem,” said pediatrician Aaron Bernstein, codirector of Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment. “Even within the world of medicine, we are just starting to grapple with that.”
To the public health consequences of climate change, add the strains of population growth: Cook and Bernstein expect the city to swell as other parts of the planet — and this country — become less hospitable. More Bostonians mean more pressure on housing, schools, the electricity supply, and, if you can bear to imagine this, the transportation network. And those strains will be felt more keenly by poorer folks who can’t afford to just pick up and move, or leave the AC on for days.
OK, so all of this is pretty depressing stuff. But Cook somehow retains a sunny outlook. Because this is a crisis, he firmly believes, that cities can do something about. More nimble than the federal government — especially in its current worse-than-useless iteration — cities can take it upon themselves to build protections against climate change, like the proposed berm at Joe Moakley Park in South Boston to keep the surrounding neighborhood from flooding. And Cook is serious about making the city carbon neutral by the middle of the century.
It will be hard and costly to do, but if we can swing it, the benefits would multiply: Getting people out of their cars and onto better public transportation not only cuts emissions, but lowers rates of heart disease and obesity as well. Planting many more trees in the city not only improves air quality and stormwater management, it also improves the mental health of those nearby. Eating less red meat helps reduce greenhouse emissions, but it also lessens the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
“We know the work ahead of us now,” Cook said. “It’s daunting but achievable.”
I admire his capacity for hope, even if it requires a more charitable view of voters — and those they elect — than I can summon. I fear temperatures must rise way higher before some in that stubborn lot decide it is finally hot enough to act.