In December 2016, Climate Ready Boston, an initiative launched in 2015 by Mayor Marty Walsh to prepare the city for climate change, released a 400-page report detailing findings and recommendations aimed at protecting Boston against climate change risks and impacts.
“As the century progresses, the effects of climate change will grow,” writes Mayor Walsh a letter introducing the report. “Those changes might seem overwhelming, but Bostonians are practical and creative. We work together to solve problems. And our response to climate change is no exception.”
No area of Boston will be exempt from future climate impacts, whether that’s the gradual flooding of coastal neighborhoods that will occur over the next 50-100 years, the increasing vulnerability of communities to future winter storms, or residents grappling with a lack of air conditioning during hotter summers.
Because individuals, local businesses, and neighborhoods will be affected in so many different ways, the citywide response requires much more than just a single approach. For that reason, there’s an ongoing collaboration not just at the municipal level, but also between local nonprofit organizations and university researchers to inform effective planning.
In May 2016, the Boston Research Advisory group, a team of New England’s top scientists working with Climate Ready Boston, released a Climate Projections Consensus that discussed the likely impacts of climate change, but did not offer specific recommendations. The final 400-page document is part of a more comprehensive citywide plan called Imagine Boston 2030, which envisions the future of the city over the next 15 years. Addressing climate change is a top priority.
The Climate Ready Boston report is the culmination of months of work between scientists, policymakers, consultants, and communities throughout Boston. It’s a manifestation of what citywide engagement looks like, and is an important first step to building a resilient future.
“The city has to work on a number of different scales on this issue,” said Mia Goldwasser, climate preparedness program manager in the City of Boston’s Office of Environment, Energy and Open Space. “It’s not just one thing. It’s a number of different levels from the community to the coastline and everywhere in between.”
To address all of those different levels, it’s necessary to engage people across Boston’s myriad of diverse communities – from Seaport to Charlestown to East Boston.
Goldwasser and her colleagues incorporated a variety of viewpoints as they put together the comprehensive climate action plan, which includes recommendations for preserving Boston’s shorelines, building more resilient housing, workplaces, and transportation systems, and – perhaps most importantly – expanding public education on climate risks and the needed actions.
“We want to make sure our recommendations reflect the priorities and interests of the people who need to implement them,” Goldwasser said. That starts with helping members of some of the most vulnerable communities believe resilience is possible by having their voice heard.”
Magdalena Ayed, community organizer at the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) in East Boston, says that one of the main challenges of her job is to elevate concern about climate change in neighborhoods that are already facing day-to-day financial and social hardships.
“We recognize that our populations are more vulnerable,” Ayed said. “They’re not in a position to care about sustainability. They’re just struggling.”
For example, in the winter of 2015, Boston was hit with more than 100 inches of snow, and public transportation shut down for days in a row due to the unexpectedly bad winter.
Many working families in East Boston lost their jobs since they had so much trouble getting to work. Ayed says these struggles are likely to continue if a more robust climate plan is not developed.
Fortunately, NOAH has earned a grant from the Kresge Foundation for a three-year program called Climate CARE, or Community Action for Resilience Through Engagement.
The program has three parts: strengthen community engagement, partner with the city to advance its Climate Action Plan, and create an Adaptation Planning Working Group to target local decision-makers like the utility Eversource and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). The overall goal is “to facilitate coordinated, affordable climate resilience plans,” according to the Climate CARE summary sheet.
Throughout 2015, Ayed has been collecting feedback from a core group of community representatives from each of East Boston’s neighborhoods – Maverick, Jeffries Point, Eagle Hill, and Orient Heights – to make sure the work that comes out of Climate CARE is as beneficial to the community as possible. The representatives are paid $50 for their participation in 2-hour brainstorming meetings.
Ayed says it is important to make sure food and babysitting are offered at these meetings to make participation feasible. “We feel we need to support people if we want to engage them,” she said. “If you compensate them, they now feel like they’re worth more than just a mouthpiece.”
Through Climate CARE, Ayed is helping to develop several different pilot projects that will address the needs of East Boston residents as climate change impacts their community. The projects are focused on energy efficiency, disaster preparation, and social resiliency.
Climate CARE is also partnering directly with the city to make sure the needs of East Boston are met by future climate actions. By doing so, Ayed also hopes to develop greater trust between citizens and the city government.
For their part, the city is working to integrate East Boston’s input into their resiliency plan through Greenovate Boston, an initiative that is directly linked to Climate Ready Boston.
Greenovate Boston makes it possible for residents across Boston to stay up-to-date with climate news and participate in “a diverse and inclusive network that makes it possible for every Bostonian to contribute to the City’s greenhouse gas reduction goals,” according to the Greenovate Boston website.
The December report has an entire section devoted to East Boston’s present and future risks and what can be done to address them. Many of these recommendations emerged directly from the Greenovate network and from collaboration with local partners like NOAH. Additionally, one of Climate Ready Boston’s strategies is to prioritize the use of minority and women-owned businesses for resilience projects.
“Something this report is trying to bring home is that this is for now and it’s for Boston,” Goldwasser said. “We want to bring it down from a theoretical and global level to a local level.”
Magdalena recognizes that localization is an important step forward for East Boston and for Climate CARE.
“[The city] has entrusted us with helping them and vice versa,” she said. “Whatever comes out of these pilots will be instrumental in informing our community’s adaptation plan and the city’s as well.”
“Something this report is trying to bring home is that this is for now and it’s for Boston. We want to bring it down from a theoretical and global level to a local level.” – Mia Goldwasser
The non-profit Climate Action Business Association (CABA) is another example of how local engagement can stimulate collective action on climate change. The organization’s goal is to address the climate crisis by working with local businesses to become more sustainable and to be more effective climate change advocates.
CABA was founded in 2012 and is based in Boston, but works with businesses around the country to help them develop their own climate action plans within the city’s larger resilience strategies. In the past year, they’ve gone from having 28 members to 78 members, which reach across multiple sectors of the community – from companies like the Gentle Giant Moving Company and Somerville Sustainable Cleaning, to investment firms like Green Century Funds and Balanced Rock Investment Advisors. Each of these member businesses takes a different approach to sustainability, but all of them are invested in creating a more sustainable future.
“Our portfolio is so wide-ranging,” said Polina Malozemova, internal sustainability coordinator. “Each company comes in with their own hopes of what they will get out of this organization. The amount of time and resources they can dedicate is different.”
For every business that comes in, CABA helps them conduct an energy audit using a sustainability data management tool, the Sustainable Performance and Reporting Kit (SPaRK), which assesses impacts related to greenhouse gas emissions, energy, waste, and water to help its users develop a business plan. Later, CABA follows up with members to determine how businesses will follow through on that initial plan while also sticking to company values.
Malozemova says that among participating businesses, she has seen an increasing dedication to sustainability. “People don’t come in because they feel like they ought to do something,” she said. “People believe in what they do and that contributes to our success.”
A common thread that the staff observes between their members is a sense of solace in working alongside a like-minded community. The staff facilitates this by holding community events at the organization’s headquarters at Boston’s historic Old West Church.
“Lots of small businesses in the Boston area have a stake in climate change and how it affects their livelihood,” said Joe Carpenter, director of operations and sustainability. “When you come together as a community, you’re much more effective as a group.”
This is particularly true when the community is focused on a central issue, like sea level rise. Earlier this summer, CABA launched a Building Action on Rising Seas (BARS) campaign to educate local businesses about sea level rise and extreme weather. The purpose of the 10-week campaign was to disseminate understanding of climate preparedness while also surveying the current situation.
CABA representatives talked to more than 500 small business owners and found that only 20% of people were aware of the need to prepare for climate risks, while only 10% were aware that resiliency efforts were happening locally. Carpenter expects awareness to increase as additional BARS campaigns are conducted in future years. “Getting out there, talking to people, and understanding their mindsets is one of the most important things,” he said.
Malozemova says the BARS campaign is primarily about creating awareness, which will hopefully lead to better climate resilience on a personal level, especially since most of CABA’s members do business with people in their own communities.
“We’re giving voice to the people that live here,” Malozemova said. “It’s about ensuring that the people who are actively involved in creating wealth in local communities create the kind of landscape they want to operate in.”
A more hopeful future
What Climate Ready Boston, Climate CARE and CABA have in common is a dedication to Boston’s sustainable future. It’s an overarching goal within each group’s individual mission that will require collective action from all sides.
“The upside [of climate change] is that it’s forcing municipalities in cities and governments to coalesce. It gives people like us an opportunity to find out what the needs [of East Boston] are,” and to inform the city to take action on those needs.” – Magdalena Ayed
Over the next few years, all three of these initiatives will continue to collaborate with one another and to engage their respective communities. They will be targeting policymakers and stakeholders who want to effect change citywide, small businesses hoping to become more climate resilient, and members of the workforce that are just taking it a day at a time.
For Ayed, addressing climate change impacts in Boston is all about creating partnerships.
“If we don’t achieve partnerships, we’re not going to build resiliency,” Ayed said. “The upside [of climate change] is that it’s forcing municipalities in cities and governments to coalesce. It gives people like us an opportunity to find out what the needs [of East Boston] are,” and to inform the city to take action on those needs.”
Even in the face of a looming threat, there is a sense of hope and optimism that Boston will adapt to climate change and become a better city. Spreading this sense of hope is especially important for members of the community who avoid talking about climate change, either because they deny it is happening or have developed a sense of fatalism, believing there’s nothing more that can be done to adapt.
Goldwasser hopes that as the city begins to implement some of the advised recommendations, more people across the city will start to believe in a brighter future for Boston.
“The projections are scary, but it’s important to know that the city has time to deal with those impacts as long as we start now,” Goldwasser said. “It’s important to take on climate preparedness in a way that makes the city of Boston a better place for everyone.”
Photo credit: Gwendolyn Schanker