Image via ELM Action Fund


A North-South Rail Link Won’t Do Any Good Underwater


When I heard that two former Massachusetts governors — Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld — are both pushing for a North-South Rail Link between North Station and South Station in downtown Boston, my first reaction was, “I guess they didn’t get my memo.”

The “memo” in question is a 2014 editorial from Open Media Boston, in which I criticized a proposed “remediation strategy” by various local think tanks and officials in response to the negative effects of global warming over the next few decades. Said strategy largely involves ignoring the magnitude of the existential crisis facing Boston (and the planet), and sort of squirreling around its edges rather than tackling it head on while there’s still time to do so.

One of my key points was that even level-headed climate scientists are predicting a significant amount of sea level rise by 2100. Couple that with Boston getting slammed by ever more frequent “super storms,” and the net result of these linked disasters makes it a virtual certainty that Boston’s floodplain — which includes much of our present downtown area — will be reclaimed occasionally, and eventually permanently, by the Atlantic Ocean.

Funny thing about tunnels like the proposed North-South Rail Link, and about our famously sketchy Big Dig tunnels … they don’t work if they’re flooded. Much like New York’s subway system didn’t work after Hurricane Sandy.

So proposing any major infrastructure projects — let alone a rail tunnel — on a known floodplain in the age of global warming is a laughably bad idea. Especially when Boston has no real plan to slow the inevitable flooding of low-lying areas. And stopping the flooding is probably beyond our current technology, or any technology we are likely to develop in the coming decades.

But slowing the effects of rising oceans by pursuing a “strategic retreat” strategy is possible (using tactics like a Boston version of Holland’s famous dike system). Unless global warming’s other negative impacts render our region uninhabitable in the lifetime of the current generation of children. In which case all bets will be off anyway for our fair city.

There will be more opportunities to tackle this issue afresh in this column, (and through the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism) going forward, but for now here is a reprint of my original editorial outlining the case for a strategic retreat in the face of the global warming crisis.

Read on …

Massachusetts Global Warming Response: the Case for a “Strategic Retreat” for Boston
Originally Published in Open Media Boston on March 7, 2014
Since Boston’s near miss by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, I have seen calls for a “remediation” strategy in and around the city in response to the anticipated negative effects of global warming in the decades to come — including Gov. Patrick’s January announcement of $50 million for “climate change preparedness” in Massachusetts.
While I certainly support ideas like enjoining the developers of new buildings on Boston’s floodplains to site their HVAC and generator systems above the first floor to allow them to survive future flooding, or trying to improve defenses at coastal power plants and water treatment facilities (as the Mass. Water Resources Authority has done at its Deer Island facility), I don’t think that’s really dealing with the magnitude of the existential threat our city is facing.
Especially since two of the nearby coastal power plants are nuclear — Plymouth and Seabrook. Causing visions of Fukushima-like events to dance in my head (and ironically, Seabrook won’t even get any of Patrick’s money since it’s in New Hampshire).
In an age when “100-year” super-hurricanes and blizzards can happen every decade or less, when our part of the North Atlantic is slated to get higher sea level rises than other parts of the world, and when every single Massachusetts county was already hit by at least one “extreme” weather disaster last year alone, it seems irresponsible to act like tinkering around with a few systems here and there, passing non-binding regulations that don’t force developers to make meaningful preparations in new and old buildings in known danger zones, and throwing token amounts of money at such efforts is really dealing with the magnitude of the coming crisis.
Add to these issues the fact that Boston doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that Massachusetts is 47th out of 50 states in agricultural production, and that we rely on food from states and nations due to become deserts and dustbowls as temperatures climb, and it becomes clear that we need to think bigger if we want to there to be functioning city in this area by 2100.
We must also definitely remember the 900-pound gorilla of global warming for every coastal city on the planet: the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets. If they melt and slide into the ocean faster than expected, then we’ll see average global sea level rises of up to 20 feet from the Greenland ice and 200 feet from the Antarctic ice. You read those figures correctly. Yet while local global warming experts often speak about a potential sea level rise of three feet in the Boston area by 2100, the higher current projections easily top six feet and puzzlingly are less frequently discussed. And few of those experts speak at all in public about what will happen to our region (and the planet) if Greenland and Antarctica melt quickly.
Even assuming that such really mind-blowing sea level rise doesn’t happen for centuries — or hopefully ever — it seems that we still need to think more seriously about a) moving critical infrastructure inland, b) building massive coastal defenses around the city (like they’ve done in London and like they’re doing in Venice), and c) gradually moving the city itself inland to higher ground.
This approach is called a “strategic retreat” in global warming planning circles.
The first project would involve getting our utilities and other critical services away from the coast and reorienting our public transportation hubs away from the floodplain of downtown Boston. It may also mean rebuilding our elevated railway systems and de-emphasizing (and eventually abandoning) underground transit tunnels. We should take the opportunity of such action to switch over to zero carbon power alternatives, and to vastly increase public transportation systems and eliminate the need for automobile use by as much of the population as possible — helping slow down global warming in the process.
The second project would require building huge dikes, locks, and related systems to allow the city to reduce massive coastal flooding from storm surges for as long as possible. Prior to significant melting in Greenland and Antarctica at least.
The third project would be to move the city to the west, north and south to higher ground around its current boundaries. This could require a new wave of municipalization that might absorb currently independent cities like Arlington, Belmont, Brookline, Cambridge, Everett, Somerville, Milton, and Watertown. It would certainly require rezoning on a huge scale, repurposing of current parklands (like Blue Hills Reservation) for major development, and an acceptance of the fact that much of the current City of Boston is going to be reclaimed by the sea over the next century plus.
Doing all this in Boston and the many cities like Boston worldwide will require a level of public and private investment that could balloon into the largest expenditure in human history.
But what is money when measured against the potential for the dislocation and immiseration of the largest percentage of humankind since the last Ice Age?
There’s already too much talk of money in this conversation as it is. For example, part of the problem with the remediation studies being done by climate experts is that they rely too heavily on cost-benefit analyses. But the failing of such analyses is that they try to assign a cost to disasters and a cost to “riding out” or forestalling those disasters — and then recommend what will give current society the most bang for its buck. But some disasters are too large to clean up after, or slow down. So then what? The current answer seems to be to ignore worse or worst-case scenarios outside of research papers (for example, one of the same experts calling for remediation strategies for Boston in recent discussions has also looked favorably at the option of retreat in his past research), and just discuss the ones that are considered manageable. Which is the equivalent is saying that the Earth is about to be destroyed by a giant asteroid, but let’s plan for a hailstorm instead.
And it’s not like Bostonians would be able to stop with the three projects outlined above. Global warming is a multidimensional crisis and all possible dimensions need to be grappled with if human civilization is going to continue something resembling forward progress.
This editorial doesn’t even touch on other major issues like groundwater contamination from coastal flooding, ocean acidification, thermohaline circulation changes, the potentially extreme deleterious effects of methane release from arctic permafrost and northern ocean floors as temperatures continue to rise, desertification and “dustbowlification” of agricultural lands from the middle latitudes to the equator, increased precipitation and humidity in the higher latitudes, heath hazards from ozone depletion, unprecedented species migration and extinction, the spread of tropical diseases to the higher latitudes, and many others besides. Including the increased possibility of wars over resources, territory and position that could conclude with nuclear, nanotech, robotic, biological and chemical weapons finally being tossed around in numbers high enough to exterminate the human race before the planet does.
Continuing along the current path of bare acknowledgement of the magnitude of the changes being caused by global warming in the Boston area is, therefore, not the way to go in the opinion of this publication.
Serious conversations leading to serious action to deal with the projected problems caused by global warming are the way to go. In Boston and everywhere.
Open Media Boston is very interested in advancing discussions along the lines laid out here in the years to come. So we encourage experts that have studied the issues at hand — especially climate scientists — to submit articles, essays and broadsides for us to review with an eye towards publication for a general audience. We’re also very interested to participate in public discussions on these matters in pretty much any forum. So if your community organization, media outlet, government office, or academic department is planning events on global warming, and is looking for journalists to join panel discussions, we’d love to talk to you. We’re also happy to talk to anyone about co-sponsoring events with a rational scientific outlook on global warming.
Beyond that, we’d like to see much more public debate leading to a consensus on whether Boston and Massachusetts will respond to global warming by retreat, remediation, or doing nothing at all. At the moment it seems like the city and state are doing a bit of remediation and a lot of nothing at all. There is some public pressure on local politicians to up their game on global warming response, but not nearly enough.
To succeed, protests will have to move well past what well-meaning white upper middle class kids from elite colleges can do in scattered highly-scripted public actions for earnest (if compromised) national environmental organizations, and become a society-wide uprising.
Of course in that scenario, maybe humanity would put the brakes on global warming fast enough to stabilize our planetary ecology and obviate the need for moving Boston or any of the more extreme defensive measures that will be necessary to try to maintain our way of life at some tolerable standard.
Unfortunately, right now we’re on track for energy corporations to oversee humanity’s burning all the carbon we possibly can and sealing the fate of our species.
Sorry, but that’s the inevitable outcome of a global political economic system based on profit. Corporations will always go where the biggest profits are to be made- and the biggest money remains in digging up and burning coal, gas, and oil. That’s not going to change unless we move away from capitalism and towards a more democratic political economic system. And huge global movements are required for that change, too.
So there it is: global movements for environmental, social, cultural, political and economic democracy, or another 15–25 years burning all the carbon we can — and then … end game. Assuming little or no change, we’re going to have to move Boston to higher ground.
There will be even worse to come in that future, I’m sad to say.
But I remain hopeful that grassroots movements can change everything for the better and allow for a brighter future. Starting here at home in Boston. A flawed, but excellent city that is the economic, intellectual, and cultural powerhouse of both Massachusetts and New England. A truly global city. An irreplaceable acme of human endeavor that we can’t afford to lose.
What do you all think?

Apparent Horizon is the first column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ network director.

Copyright 2014 and 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.