In Boston, who will bear climate change burden?
Increase in extreme heat days poses threat to already-vulnerable residents
Boston is in for more severe storms, damaging floods and dangerously hot days in the coming years, experts say.
“It’s very real. Climate change is already happening. There’s ample evidence of it,” says Paul Kirshen, a professor of climate adaptation at UMass Boston’s School for the Environment. Kirshen recently led a research group of experts in developing new Boston-focused climate change impact projections. Their findings informed the first phase of the city’s “Climate Ready Boston” report issued in June.
While all Bostonians will feel the impacts of extreme weather and increased flooding, they may be felt hardest in the city’s communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods. These residents already face a slate of challenges and inequities that will make it harder to withstand heat waves and bounce back after disasters.
“Everyone will be affected by climate change, some people disproportionately so,” says Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, minister at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, who has been an outspoken leader on climate change. “We need to make sure that no one is sacrificed, no one drowns, no one dies alone in their home of heat exhaustion.”
Not just the floods — the heat
Sea level rise and vulnerable coastal homes and property often come to mind first in regards to climate change, but extreme heat — the leading weather-related cause of death in the U.S. — may be a more immediate threat in densely-populated city interiors like Boston’s.
“We are on the edge of one of the hotter zones in the city,” says David Queeley, director of Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation’s Eco-Innovation Initiative in Dorchester. “So for us, the issue isn’t necessarily sea level rise — it’s heat. As those 90-degree days go up, it’s going to be harder and harder for people to get around. Where will people go to cool off, and how do we begin to cool off the neighborhood as a whole?”
Boston’s temperature has topped 90 degrees an average of 11 days annually over the past several decades. This past summer there were 20 such days. By 2030, experts say up to 40 scorchers per year could be the new normal. And when today’s teens are senior citizens in 2070, summer in the city could be nonstop swelter, with possibly three straight months of days over 90 degrees, including up to 33 over-100-degree days.
Elders, pregnant women, young children and people with disabilities and respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable to the impacts of extreme heat and extended heat waves.
In addition to the health dangers, White-Hammond says she worries about the effects of increased heat on water bills, water scarcity and food access.
“For some people, this is their access to healthy food,” she says, recalling how last summer’s heat took a drastic toll on her neighborhood’s community gardens. “We’ve done a lot of work to get more healthy food in our communities, and if those are put at risk, that could be a challenge.”
Boston communities rise to the challenge
Boston is a city of neighborhoods, with diverse enclaves containing both deeply-entrenched and newly-arrived residents.
As various city agencies work to stay ahead by creating climate change plans — Climate Ready Boston’s newest report was released Dec. 8 — community leaders are ramping up resident involvement to ensure that the most vulnerable Bostonians won’t be overlooked.
Diverse voices are crucial in devising responses that protect all residents.
In Roxbury, Alternatives for Community and Environment has long been championing environmental justice through fights like keeping hazardous waste out of Boston’s low-income communities and pushing for fair public transit access.
To ACE executive director Kalila Barnett, climate change planning is one more area for grassroots vigilance.
“When plans are being made at the city and state level, factors that create an unfair impact have to be taken into account, so that already-burdened communities will not also bear the heaviest burden of climate change,” she says.
ACE is part the Green Justice Coalition, a group of Boston-area environmental, community and labor groups. Formed in 2008, GJC is committed to creating green jobs in home-weatherization projects and is now zeroing in on “energy democracy,” to ensure that not only the wealthy benefit from the opportunities of clean energy like wind and solar.
“As we make a shift to renewable energy,” says Barnett, “if there’s still a big economic gap and continuing racism and oppression, then we’ve still failed.”
Other place-based organizations in Boston are involving local residents in projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the culprit behind climate change — as well as ease climate impacts. As an added benefit, some of these projects bring savings to households in need.
In Codman Square, Queeley helps residents of the 46-acre “Eco-Innovation District” secure low-cost or free home weatherization retrofitting. His group is also working to put more trees and water-collecting rain gardens in the neighborhood, among other projects.
Across town in diverse and immigrant-rich East Boston, an area vulnerable to flooding as well as rising heat, local organizers are aware of their neighborhood’s unique risks, says Chris Marchi, director of community building and environment for Neighborhoods of Affordable Housing.
“There are some underlying challenges in East Boston that make the prospect of climate change effects more scary,” he says. “People are just establishing themselves in this country, so they don’t have an extensive safety net. They’re working in low-wage industries. There’s linguistic isolation.”
Marchi says it’s clear that residents are concerned about climate change, but they need to know actions they can take now, ideally ones that bring benefits in the present and future, he says. It’s important to “take community issues and put them up front,” he emphasizes.
For example, house-to-house survey of East Boston’s older housing stock helped identify a simple heat relief fix: opening the upper sash of double-hung windows. And neighborhood canvassers are able to take note of residents who would need assistance in an evacuation, or a wrench to turn the gas off.
Calling communities of faith and color
Even with Boston’s rich array of grassroots groups and several city agencies led by people of color, the face of climate adaptation still is typically white. Rev. White-Hammond says she finds herself often the only African American in the room for important discussions on environment and equity.
Mapping heat vulnerability
Mapping heat vulnerability
Cities already are hotter than non-urban areas. Their extensive asphalt and pavement, relative lack of tree canopy and densely clustered buildings create a known “urban heat island” effect that also means less cooling relief at night.
A recent Trust for Public Land report on mitigating the urban heat island effect in Boston includes a Heat Vulnerability Index analysis revealing census tracts that may be at a particular disadvantage in rising heat, based on factors such as a high number of disabled and elderly residents and elders living alone, low tree cover and lack of access to air conditioning.
Of 11 census tracts showing the highest heat vulnerability, five are in Roxbury. The rest lie in Mattapan, East Boston, Chinatown, South End, Fenway and Roslindale.
“There’s been so much focus on Boston along the waterfront,” said Darci Schofield, TPL’s Urban Program Director for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. “And it is a major issue. However, there are some climate risks happening today in the urban core, in communities of color, relating to heat and to transportation.”
As part of its “Climate-Smart Cities” program, TPL has developed a Boston-specific mapping tool to examine where temperature hot spots or flood zones overlap with social vulnerability or critical infrastructure. The maps can help prioritize where to implement solutions such as bolstering transit access or increasing tree cover. The “Decision Support Tool” was designed with city governments in mind, but is accessible to the public as well.
“We need to grow the number of climate leaders in our community and get them at those tables,” she says.
In January, White-Hammond will begin a Barr Foundation-funded fellowship to work with the Green Justice Coalition. There, she will focus on expanding her work organizing communities of faith, particularly black churches, to engage with environmental issues.
She’s confident that her communities, once called, will come on board.
“I don’t think the problem is a lack of interest,” she says. “People are engaged. They want to garden, they want to save energy. They get it, and they’re willing to change. I‘ve found that if you give people a way to engage, they respond in a lot of different ways.”
Community leaders interviewed by the Banner generally say the city is doing good work to address climate issues. Many praise the city’s new Office of Resiliency and Equity, made possible by a Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities initiative grant, and particularly its director, Atyia Martin.
A Boston native and woman of color, Martin, whose previous experience includes directing the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Boston Public Health Commission, appears tailor-made for her unique role of advancing racial equity as a foundation for the city’s resilience to stresses and disasters.
Her department’s recently released “Blueprint” outlines an ambitious strategy to embed racial equity across an array of city initiatives including climate preparedness, as well as aging, small business and transportation.
Climate Ready Boston’s newest report acknowledges potential inequity in climate response. The report includes neighborhood-level vulnerability analyses along with a set of short- and longterm resilience strategies.
Global warming and scientific consensus
The vast majority of scientists have agreed for decades that carbon dioxide (CO²) and other gases emitted when fossil fuels burn act as an atmospheric trap for heat, known as the “greenhouse effect.” Increased emissions of these greenhouse gases have led to abnormal global warming. This slow warming may be imperceptible year-to-year, but over time causes sea level rise from warming water and melting ice, along with weather changes and hotter local temperatures.
Climate change is evident already, but how much global temperature will rise and how severe the effects will be are still uncertain. The answers depend on how much nations cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing oil and gas use, and whether adaptation efforts such as increasing tree canopy, creating cooling green space and preparing for rising seas can temper the impact.
The Boston climate projections depict three scenarios, with the most optimistic assuming significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions and the worst-case scenario assuming “business as usual” with emissions continuing to increase.
The best hope now, Prof. Kirshen and others say, is to reduce or slow climate change. But it can’t be stopped. Because of the greenhouse gases released already, the warming effect will continue for centuries at least.
Keeping tabs on city response
Will the reality of city actions match the ideals of the resilience blueprint?
Boston’s communities of color are ever-wary, with wounds still raw from historic city planning injustices such as the failed I-95 expansion plan that decimated black neighborhoods, and current fears that gentrification and new development are exacerbating the city’s troubling income inequality.
Barnett of ACE is concerned about the “digital divide” in light of how much the city’s information strategy relies on the Internet.
“How many people may be missed if [communication] doesn’t happen through other means?” she asks, questioning also whether information is conveyed adequately in multiple languages.
In another potential gap, Barnett notes she has not seen anything addressing climate change in the city’s planning for Roxbury’s Dudley Square.
“That seems shortsighted,” she says.
White-Hammond wonders how well the best of equity intentions can be enforced across the city’s myriad departments.
“Atyia Martin has an amazing lens on equity,” the minister says, “but it needs to trickle down to everything the city is doing.”
Some temper concern with hope that the climate change challenge represents a chance for the city to get things right.
“There’s a tendency in all cities to think of their downtowns as the most valuable areas,” says Codman Square’s Queeley. “I say the measures in Boston should be put in place in the most vulnerable neighborhoods first — and there’s an opportunity [now] to begin to do that.”
This story by Sandra Larson was written with support from the New America Media Climate Change in Communities of Color Fellowship Program.