The day after tomorrow, today

It’s time to have a serious conversation about climate change

It’s time that we at MIT have a serious conversation about climate change. The simple fact — which we all know but seem to avoid thinking about — is that the consequences of climate change are already happening, and will get a lot worse during our own lifetimes.

Almost a year ago, superstorm Sandy — whose destruction was magnified by warmer atmospheric conditions and sea level rise — brought massive suffering and roughly $68 billion in damages to the residents of coastal New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Boston was spared the brunt of the wreckage that time. What about this year, or the year after? What about 50 years from now?

77 Mass. Ave. sits a whopping nine feet above sea level. When Atlantic hurricanes and nor’easters threaten to flood our region, the Charles River Dam is here to protect Cambridge from Boston Harbor water levels up to 11.6 feet above sea level. Sandy caused a storm surge of nine feet in lower Manhattan, where it struck during high tide, and flood waters crested at 14 feet at Battery Park. Luckily for Boston, our Sandy dose came during low tide, and the storm was not as intense here, bringing a storm surge of only about five feet. But if this storm surge (five feet) were to hit Boston during a typical high tide (five feet) in 50 years (when New England sea level will likely be ~2.5 feet higher than today), the Charles River Dam could see a water height of 12.5 feet. That’s right: a Sandy-like storm in 2060 has the potential to overwhelm the Charles River Dam and flood large swaths of Cambridge and Back Bay.

This is not just an alarmist thought experiment; these predictions are the results of a computer simulation prepared by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, including an MIT alumnus, for the Boston Harbor Association’s “Preparing for the Rising Tide” report. It is simply a risk assessment of what the Boston area is liable to face in the not-too-distant future.

So let’s imagine what would happen if a Sandy-like storm were to hit Boston and flood waters rush past the Museum of Science. Within a few minutes, most of our campus would be flooded. The lowest-lying areas would lie under four to six feet of water. With damage to power supplies and research equipment, research and class activities would slow to a crawl.

How long would it take us to fully recover from such an event? What would we rebuild and what would we abandon? Would the MIT Investment Management Company call for federal recovery funds and lobby for improvements to the dam and the sea walls? Perhaps the administration would propose lifting the entire campus up on stilts, or relocating to Worcester? More to the point, how would such a catastrophe affect our long-term capability as a world-class academic institution? The very real potential of a devastating storm — amplified by climate change — striking Boston poses a serious threat to our integrity as an institution, and therefore the value of our education.

If you find this exercise too unfathomable, consider the millions of people living in the coastal floodplains of Southeast Asia and on low-lying ocean islands who have already been displaced, either temporarily by storms exacerbated by rising seas, or permanently by chronic coastal flooding. Their homes are literally disappearing. Islands in the Bay of Bengal on the coasts of India and Bangladesh have already been abandoned for more reliably dry land, and the homes of some four million residents on ~100 other islands are significantly threatened by rising seas — all after only 19 cm (7.5 inches) of sea level rise since 1901. The president of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, recently penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times describing how, earlier this year, his small Pacific island nation saw the flooding of its airport in the capital city when tide waters crested the sea wall. Will we wait until a global warming-enhanced storm significantly disrupts our own city to declare that this is a crisis, and act like we mean it?

As the latest IPCC report makes clear, we’re on the fast track to a future of major climate disruption. So what’s a school to do? The traditional approaches of “greening” our campus and producing detailed scientific reports for policymakers have not sufficed. What should MIT — its students, faculty, staff, and administrators — be doing differently to meaningfully help prevent climate change?

First, we need to face this topic head-on. Climate change is critical to all of us, it is happening right now, and it will continue to happen as long as we continue “business as usual.” At some point, we will not be able to avoid talking about it. The citizens of the Marshall Islands who are facing permanent displacement from rising sea levels certainly cannot avoid it. Businesses and state agencies that deal with risk assessment are beginning to include climate change impacts in their planning decisions. In the coming years, these issues will move more and more to the forefront of political discussions, whether deliberately out of precaution or reluctantly in reaction to crises. Only by actively engaging with each other right now will we have any chance of averting the most dire consequences of climate change.

Second, we need to use all of the academic authority and political capital we have as an institution to make climate change a key issue of public discourse. The public, both in our own community and around the world, looks to MIT for guidance on issues related to science and technology. A bold, public statement by our institution on the urgency of the climate crisis (for instance, by divesting our own endowment from fossil fuel-extracting companies) would serve as a call to action to make the difficult but necessary transition of unshackling our society from fossil fuels. These two steps are just the beginning, and I hope that moving determinedly against the problem will inspire all of us to bring together our collective talents to find and enact bold solutions to the threats of climate change.

As Loeak pointed out in his New York Times letter, leadership and action by prominent entities have the power to tip the scales of public perception and usher the world towards steps that will create a more livable planet for future generations. He lamented that “For too long, others have used American inaction as an excuse not to act themselves.”

We must foster this political will by standing with front-line communities whose very existence is imminently threatened by climate change. This is nothing short of a moral obligation. And if we wait too long, the flood waters of global warming will rise to our own campus.