Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday with winds of 155 miles per hour and a storm surge of 10 feet.
Two days before, the UN science body released a report that, with greater certainty than ever, painted a future that is more disruptive, more devastating, and more challenging than previously thought.
The resilience of Florida’s Gulf Coast will be apparent in coming days. But we already know about New Orleans, New York City, Houston, San Juan. All are large metropolitan areas that have been hit by major storms and unprecedented flooding. All suffered billions of dollars of damage and long recoveries. They did not prepare sufficiently to minimize the damage; they did not govern for climate resilience.
When, not if, Boston joins that list of cities challenged by our changing climate — coastal flooding, sea level rise, and severe storms — will we have taken the necessary steps to prepare? Or will we see large-scale damage to our homes and schools, our utilities and public transportation, and our economy, impacting vulnerable communities especially hard? The answer will largely rely on what kinds of governance — laws, regulations, community engagement, investment strategies, as well as government entities — we put in place preemptively.
Boston has dodged the worst of what climate change has already thrown at the Eastern Seaboard, and that gives us the enviable ability to be proactive, not reactive. We can learn from lessons that other cities have learned the hard way.
Two key challenges will be particularly important to address. One is that when almost all of our building codes, zoning laws, stormwater regulations, and coastal management policies were developed, it was assumed that the climate was relatively constant. In fact, our climate is changing and dynamic; the only certainty is that the threat is accelerating. Another challenge is that our political boundaries are largely irrelevant in the face of climate impacts. Flooding and heat waves do not respect municipal borders.
To respond, policies need to shift fundamentally.
First, governance needs to incorporate forward-looking and constantly-evolving climate science. We have already seen the City of Boston, the Green Ribbon Commission, and the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition rely on cutting-edge projections on sea-level rise and precipitation projections to guide their planning. We must take this a step further and fully integrate scientific research on climate impacts into all state and municipal decision making. Service providers need to consider how climate change will impact the people they serve. Climate vulnerabilities should be factored into capital expenditures.
Second, our legal, policy, and regulatory frameworks need to be upgraded to advance climate resilience. We should require new buildings to be more resilient and create incentives to renovate old buildings. These changes can provide benefits besides flood protection. For example, new open space and parks can also act as barriers to flooding or “sponges” during a storm. The Boston Planning and Development Agency has already taken steps in this direction by launching the development of a flood resiliency zoning overlay district that will spark innovation and creative, resilient development.
Finally, we also need to seriously consider transformative changes in governance that acknowledge our interdependence. We did it when we created the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority that governs water delivery and sewer services in 61 communities, and ISO-New England, which manages the power grid in the six New England states. Those two regional governance innovations have led to a cleaned-up Boston Harbor and a reliable grid. A regional entity that comprehensively addresses climate-induced flooding would drive collaboration across municipalities and, with the state, unleash innovation and a range of financing opportunities. We need to be able to coordinate prioritization, planning and financing, and construct and maintain projects at a larger scale than we have before. Strategic investments can have a catalytic impact across the region.
Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Maria were devastating. Through wise planning and bold transformative governance in a world of climate change, we can avoid the most significant impacts of hurricanes, sea level rise, and extreme weather. But that transformation needs to start yesterday.
David W. Cash, dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston, and Rebecca Herst, director of the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass Boston, are members of the team that recently released a report, “Governance for A Changing Climate: Adapting Boston’s Built Environment for Increased Flooding.”