"Climate changing" - Article, Masssachusetts Sierran, Fall 2006

Tired of the forced evacuations, widespread flooding, and power outages that have come with our recent spate of severe weather events? Well here’s a little-known study which should be of interest to all citizens of Massachusetts, not just the weather-weary, not because it offers a proverbial ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary forecast (it doesn’t), but rather because it points to the urgency of acting promptly to curb global warming pollution.

Released back in February 2005, CLIMB (Climate’s Long-term Impacts on Metro Boston) was the first study commissioned by the EPA to take a look at the specific impacts of climate change on a large metropolitan area. Scientists from Boston University, Tufts, and the University of Maryland used forecasts from two Generalized Circulation Models - huge computer programs (there are only ten in the world) that predict how our planet will respond to the rapid warming trend we are now experiencing - in order to simulate how more frequent severe weather events would affect the Metro Boston area. Some of the salient predictions are eerily prescient of recent flooding events:

* Property damage from coastal flooding, plus the cost of emergency services, could total $94 billion during this century;

* Homeowners in metropolitan Boston’s 100 and 500-year floodplain could sustain flood damage averaging between $7,000 and $18,000 per home;

* River flooding related to global warming is expected to impact twice as many properties and double the overall cost of damage during this century;

* Global warming will reduce water quality in rivers and streams making parts of them uninhabitable for fish and aquatic species;

* During and immediately after extreme weather events, motorists could spend an estimated 80% more hours on the road due to traffic delays.

Although the study focused on Metro Boston, no corner of the state has been spared from recent extreme events in all four seasons. Days before CLIMB’s release Cape Cod bore the brunt of the Blizzard of 2005, dumping up to three feet of snow in one fell swoop and helping make the winter of 2004-2005 the snowiest winter on record for the Cape. In October 2005 one torrential rain storm after another forced evacuations across the state from Williamstown to Worcester to Taunton, wreaking havoc on the state’s dams. And of course there were the Floods of 2006 from this past May – “biblical” according to Governor Mitt Romney – which caused our state’s worst flooding in 70 years. An estimated 14,000 homes in 44 communities, primarily in the Merrimack River Valley, were damaged by the record rains.

Dr. Paul Kirshen of Tufts, lead author of CLIMB, notes that this weather is entirely consistent with a rapidly warming planet. “All the climate models are predicting an increase in extreme events, and these [local] events are in line with those future predictions,” he says. Philip Warburg, President of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), agrees with this assessment. “It’s hard to attribute any individual event to global warming, to make a direct linkage,” he says, “but if you look at events in total it is very hard to dismiss the trend.”

So what to do? CLIMB’s authors analyzed three different future scenarios for Boston: “Ride It Out,” with no adaptive actions to climate change taken; “Build Your Way Out,” with limited actions taken; and the “Green” scenario, with aggressive pre-emptive actions taken. Not surprisingly, mitigation proved quite beneficial, with the “Green” scenario halving some of the expected costs, while the “Ride It Out” scenario was by far the most expensive of the three.

Which of course is why environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and CLF have been arguing for pre-emptive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for many years. “We’ve got a problem on our hands today that we’ve got to deal with now and not at some future hypothetical point,” says Warburg. “We [in Massachusetts] have some extraordinary opportunities through offshore wind, energy efficiency, and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.”

At the press conference announcing the report, Dr. Kirshen was more succinct with the moral: “Take action now.” With the recent weather we’ve experienced, it’s hard to argue with him.

 Erik Gehring is a freelance writer and photographer, climate activist and longstanding member of the Sierra Club. Visit him online at www.erikgehring.com to see a more comprehensive listing of extreme weather events. And you can learn more about the CLIMB study online at www.tufts.edu/tie/climb.