Has the Battle Begun? A Look at One of the Front Lines of the Adaptation Issue

A story in today’s Boston Globe makes clear that, at least in states where it is permissible to use the words “climate” and “change” in the same sentence, the battle over adaption may no longer be hypothetical. The neighborhood known as East Boston is one that might appropriately be described as having unfulfilled potential. Last month, at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Mayor Menino pledged to revive East Boston, specifically calling out five projects that have been on the drawing board for some time.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that East Boston is a waterfront community. Indeed, arguments have long been made that, with the cleanup of Boston Harbor and the revival of other areas of the waterfront, East Boston should not be left behind. In that sense, the waterfront is, of course, a benefit.

The question now is of course what happens to the waterfront in fifty years. Will it still be waterfront or will it be land under the ocean? Today’s Globe story includes a map developed for The Boston Harbor Association, which purports to show the potential impacts of rising sea levels on Boston’s waterfront communities. It’s not a pretty picture. (Well, actually, it is, but you know what I mean.) Some East Boston residents want the potential impacts of sea level rise addressed before significant projects are built in East Boston.

As we noted last fall, the Commonwealth, as part of its implementation of the Global Warming Solutions Act, is trying to address adaptation comprehensively. The Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs issued the Climate Change Adaption Report in September 2011 (It also has a pretty picture, shown here, on the impact of sea level rise.) However, while the Adaptation Report includes much discussion, none of its recommendations have been operationalized to date and a lot of work will have to be done before regulations or – dare I say – guidance is issued.

Thus, for some time, these issues are going to be addressed on an ad hoc basis in the context of individual projects. At a certain level, I understand the concern and I’m all in favor of reasonable foresight. On the other hand, is ad hoc decisionmaking a way to decide how close buildings can be built to the water, or whether they need to be built on stilts? The state MEPA office is going to face this issue with increasing frequency in the coming years. Since I don’t believe in preemptive rants, I’ll hold off until we see how MEPA actually starts to handle these types of projects. They do have a lot of discretionary authority.

This really is a stay-tuned situation. All I can say now is that those who put their heads in the sand are likely to drown.

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