Column: Addressing the impact of climate change

Staff file photoCody Hodgkins walks back after trying to move a flooded vehicle from the parking lot at Cripple Cove at high tide during a January 2018 storm in Gloucester.

There are three proposals before Beacon Hill lawmakers that could help pay for how we cope with the impacts of climate change. All should be considered.

Climate change is the existential threat of our lifetime. It affects everyone, everywhere, and everything. And because certain Washington politicians are unwilling to deal with it, and President Trump still calls it a “hoax,” state and local governments are forced to face climate change on their own.

In Massachusetts, we’re not only fighting the causes of climate change, but also figuring out how to live with them.

While we’ve reduced the commonwealth’s carbon emissions by 21.4 percent, based on 1990 levels, and need to aggressively push to achieve zero emissions, we also must learn to adapt to the effects of climate change – including hotter days, accelerated sea-level rise, and stronger storms — all significant in a place we call the Bay State. And they come at great cost.

As a member of the state’s Coastal Erosion Commission, we found that the replacement cost for the buildings and contents exposed to our quickly eroding shoreline was more than $7 billion — and that was four years ago!

According to estimates from the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists, during the next 26 years, over half the amount of property the $7 billion represents will be chronically flooded, affecting 14,000 Massachusetts residents.

Between 2005 and 2017, increased flood risks eroded $273.4 million worth of Massachusetts home values, according to the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that researches the effects of rising seas.

Most vulnerable, however, are people – on whom we can never apply a price tag.

Presently, 85 percent of Massachusetts’ 6.9 million residents live within 50 miles of the coast.

As a Chelsea native who grew up learning to swim at nearby Revere Beach, and whose neighbors “worked down the docks,” I can attest that coastal residents aren’t all rich or living in second homes.

So what do we do and how do we pay for it?

Today, 160 Massachusetts cities and towns are painstakingly drafting municipal vulnerability preparedness plans, documenting their exposure to climate change and considering how they’ll defend themselves. The local blueprints are funded by a climate change bond signed by Gov. Charlie Baker last summer. This bond assigns $501 million to adaptation measures that also include repairs to dams and seawalls, restoration of wetlands, and the commonwealth’s own adaptation road map.

Eventually, all 351 cities and towns will outline their adaptation strategies.

After the plans are written, the expensive work of implementation begins. We’ll need to pay to protect, strengthen and in some instances relocate threatened people and their homes, their streets, culverts, utilities, water supplies and wastewater treatment plants – many of which lie at sea level.

And that’s where the Legislature comes in as it considers this enormous expense.

Two proposals come from Gov. Baker, and one from House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Baker’s choices include changing how the state spends $40 million it receives each year through membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a market-based compact of nine states that prices carbon emissions from power plants and sends the proceeds back to the participating states.

Under state requirements, that money is mostly used for energy conservation and efficiency. But Baker wants the Legislature to give him the option of also spending some RGGI money on climate change adaptation – not a bad idea, but not at the expense of existing energy efficiency programs.

Baker’s other bill imposes a fee on some real estate transactions that could bring in $1 billion for adaptation work – that too is a good idea.

DeLeo also wants to spend $1 billion to improve the state’s resiliency to climate change. His idea is realized through a 10-year borrowing plan – the Legislature should take it up.

These are not either-or notions. There needs to be a sense of urgency on Beacon Hill when it comes to funding climate change work, especially as recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the National Climate Assessment say we have about 12 years to figure this stuff out before things start to fall apart.

Although the Baker and DeLeo propositions seem expensive, the cost of delay and inaction is greater – and that’s not an option we can afford.

Jack Clarke is the director of public policy and government relations at Mass Audubon and a Gloucester resident.