The local advantage of climate change

Posted by Doug Struck March 18, 2014 06:25 PM

By Doug Struck
Globe Correspondent

Climate change issues are so oppressively overwhelming that the thrashing of politicians can seem like meaningless huffery.

But it has become increasingly clear that local officials make a difference on these issues. Certainly the most important action would be a national price on carbon, but that will not happen as long as 56 percent of congressional Republicans ignore 97 percent of the scientists who study the climate.

menino.jpegSo with the federal government largely gridlocked, preparations for the inevitable consequences of climate change have varied widely according to the foresight—or lack of it—of local officials. In Florida, for example, Tea Party Republican Rick Scott, a governor who doesn’t “believe” in climate change, has done nothing in four years to prepare even as seas have risen nine inches on his beaches, barrier islands are disappearing and major cities regularly flood.

New York state and city, on the other hand, have been aggressive in their preparations. Just this week, state officials ordered that the state’s electric grid be hardened to withstand the assaults of climate change. Poles will be strengthened, high-voltage wires put underground, backup systems installed, and floodwalls will be built around transformers and substations.

Many local officials realize they will be left to deal with the higher seas that wash over harborwalks, the storms that flood buildings and overwhelm sewage and electrical systems, the heat waves that prompt blackouts and threaten the poor and elderly, and the new invading pests that bring diseases and attack existing greenery.

Massachusetts and Boston, by most accounts, stack up very well on this issue. In Boston, former mayor Thomas Menino will be remembered for many things, but among his bigger legacies will be a raft of moves aimed at preparing for climate change.

Boston was the first major city to require that all new large-scale building projects meet green building standards, in 2007. It has mandated that downtown developers account for rising seas and changing climate. Taxis are slowly going hybrid, traffic lights are going LED, bike-share racks are popping up along streets, gardens have sprouted on rooftops, and the city is busy planting as many trees as it can.

Meanwhile, Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration has been equally ambitious. It has required utilities to favor and buy renewable energy—requirements that have been essential to the sprouting of solar farms and wind turbines. (In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage has tried repeatedly to repeal a similar law, using arguments in studies paid for by fossil fuel companies.)

Massachusetts has promoted biofuels and tidal power, boosted clean energy jobs, given rebates for solar installations, touted mass transit and set an aggressive goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. Its energy efficiency programs are rated top in the nation. While the federal government avoids even thinking about carbon cap-and-trade, Massachusetts is part of a regional cap-and-trade program that applies to all its power plants.

“Cities and states must be the incubators of next generation of thinking on energy and climate,” said George Bachrach, a former state senator and president of theEnvironmental League of Massachusetts. “We don’t think any state is better situated, with the intellectual capital and progressive politics, as Massachusetts. It’s worked out fairly well.”

Which is not to say perfectly, Bachrach adds. “It would be nice if we had a 21st century transit system that gets people out of their cars and to their jobs,” he noted. Budgets for the state’s environmental agencies have been cut too much, he contends. And 12 years on, Cape Wind is still struggling to be the nation’s first off-shore wind farm.

With the two top environmental advocates—Menino and Patrick—leaving office, the commitment of their successors to preparing for climate change is uncertain.

But “I’m fairly optimistic,” Bachrach notes. “There’s a part of me that thinks we have already reached the tipping point” of momentum on climate adaptation. “I think we have to keep at it.”

(Photo: Mayor Menino meets the press. From