The realities of climate change
Climate change is no longer a futuristic apocalyptic scenario: it’s happening here, and it’s happening now
Boston has found another ice rink, and it isn’t at TD Garden.
In 2018, East Boston neighborhoods experienced unprecedented flooding with waist deep waters pouring through the streets. High tide measurements encroached upon 15 feet above sea level, a mark that had been eclipsed twice before — once in early January 2018, and also during the blizzard of 1978. Floods were accompanied by wind gusts peaking over 70 mph and freezing temperatures, creating sheets of ice.
Weather events like this are generally referred to as “100-year storms.” However, in the last two years, there has been an increase in the frequency of severe incidents. The southern United States and Central America experienced an unusually potent hurricane season that tore through the Atlantic in 2017. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Katia, and Nate occurred within a two-month span, and cost billions of dollars in repairs and humanitarian aid.
This increase in storm intensity can be attributed to the effects of anthropogenic climate change, which a majority of the scientific community has deemed a humanitarian crisis. Global climate change increases Earth’s atmospheric temperatures, leading to warmer oceans and a rise in sea levels. We can’t say climate change is responsible for a greater quantity of natural disasters, but it threatens to increase the frequency of severe events that do occur.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall twice from inception to dissolution. Unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico “refueled” the storm after its first pass on the Texas coast. It was downgraded from a Category 4 storm to a Category 1, but the rain and flooding of the Category 1 iteration is what caused the major damage to Houston’s infrastructure — not necessarily the Category 4’s wind.
Warmer seas are an issue themselves, but possibly worse are the sea levels that continue to rise worldwide. Eroding coastlines threaten to displace over 140 million people by 2050. The northeastern United States may see waters rise up to 1.5 feet by then, making weather events like in East Boston commonplace.
A new field of climate research — called impact attribution science — seeks to assign a numerical percentage of the storm’s intensity to climate change. It’s a new field, so models are still young, but researchers say that anywhere from 20–40 percent of Hurricane Harvey’s rain can be traced to climate change. This translates to approximately $25–50 billion incurred due to anthropogenic amplification of this disaster.
So, what can we do?
We are at a point where complete avoidance isn’t plausible. The strides we make to combat climate change now shift from total prevention to increasing resilience to its effects, and mitigating further practices that contribute to overall warming.
Americans have huge carbon footprints — a consequence of rapid industrialization with little concern for the environment. Curbing personal consumption of resource-intensive goods such as meat and plastic, reducing individual car usage, and lowering daily electricity demand are all ways to reduce per capita emissions, but the large strides will come from regulation.
Heavily industrialized firms are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. They are able to do so essentially without penalty, using consumer demand as a pass to put sustainability on the back burner. Market-based tools, like taxes that increase the cost of using carbon-intensive fuels, are regulatory schemes that price the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions, namely from firms. These tools have garnered support from economists and professors. Implementation is an issue of legislative complications and politics.
At the federal level, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), has introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). This puts a fee on the use of carbon-intensive fuels, with the revenues reallocated to the public. This act is projected to reduce national emissions by 40 percent in the first 12 years, and create over two million jobs. It has support on both sides of the aisle, but not yet enough to pass.
Another proposed federal bill is the Green New Deal (H.R. 109), proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). This act is a proposal to put the United States on a hardline towards carbon-neutrality. It highlights the positive outcomes stemming from an increase in national sustainability, but is having trouble garnering conservative (and center-leaning democratic) backing due to its radically progressive tone.
At the Massachusetts state level, Sen. Michael Barrett and Rep. Jennifer Benson have proposed two bills: An Act to Combat Climate Change (S.1924) and An Act to Promote Green Infrastructure and Reduce Carbon Emissions (H.2810), respectively. These bills both promote a steadily-increasing price on carbon, and using that revenue to advance our communities.
Climate change has recently become an issue on the left side of the political spectrum with deniers on the right: a major hindrance to environmental progress. But rising sea levels and warmer oceans don’t care who gets more votes this November. It’s happening around us now and unless we act, today’s children will live in a much different world than the one we’ve enjoyed.
So get involved: write letters, call your representatives, and tell everyone you know to do the same. Let them know that sustainability and action is a priority. Urge them to support comprehensive climate legislation.
We have less time than you think.
Jonathan Sampson is junior at MIT studying mechanical engineering. He is also co-director of the MIT Climate Action Team, an MIT Energy Club committee.