Dealing With Threats From the Sky

Two days ago Boston was hit by a fairly serious snowstorm.   The city got 24″, while surrounding towns got up to 30″.   It was the 6th heaviest snowfall since the National Weather Service started tracking these things in 1935.   The governor declared a state of emergency, and everyone stayed home.

Leo and Frances in snow-covered Arlington

Frances and Leo off to school in snow-covered Arlington

Then yesterday almost everything opened up again, and today even the schools are back on.   The roads were all clear, and the highways were actually dry.  Pickups with plows are so common that there was never more than a couple of inches on the roads.  In my neighborhood snow blowers are pretty common too – everyone had cleared their driveways and sidewalks, even though the snow was waist-deep in places.    No one in the area lost power, even though most towns still use overhead power lines.   The electric utility has recently been strengthening the lines with steel cables, and has gotten efficient about pruning trees to keep them away from the lines.

The storms are getting worse – 3 of the 10 largest have been in the last ten years – but it’s just not a big deal.  Well-to-do and well-organized cities like Boston have little to fear from climate change.

For example, Massachusetts just passed a $20M bond bill to buy out threatened shoreline houses and replace the properties with parks.  Plum Island is particularly vulnerable.  They have been systematically studying the problem, and now have records of shoreline changes down to a fifty foot resolution.  They plan on implementing a managed retreat where buildings are pulled back from dangerous conditions.   $20M won’t buy a lot of beachfront property around here, but a house that’s about to fall into the sea is hard to sell otherwise.  The town of Scituate did get flooded in this storm:

Flooding on Oceanside Dr, Scituate (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Flooding on Oceanside Dr, Scituate MA (Jesse Costa/WBUR), click for story

Yet it’s considered cheaper for the state to prevent the floods than it is to have to rescue people and storm-proof public services.

The state also offers generous subsidies to renewable energy in order to cut CO2 emissions.  Several houses on my street now sport rooftop solar panels.   The payback time is only five years, even here in gloomy New England.  The state gets 10% of its electricity from renewables today through a program called the Renewable Portfolio Standard, and plans to increase it by 1%/year thereafter.   I’ve signed up for 100% wind power from Viridian Energy at 14 cents/kWh, only a couple of cents more than the baseline.  Viridian was Bruce Sterling’s term for bright green environmentalism, and it seems to have caught on.

Even agriculture is adapting.   I learned from “America’s Founding Fruit – the Cranberry in a New Environment” (Susan Playfair, 2014)  that cranberries need about 1700 chill hours (temperatures between 32 and 45F) in order to flower properly, and that’s getting dicey as winters warm.   Local farmers are already buying land in New Brunswick as a hedge, and some are even expanding to Chile.  New varieties are also being bred that can tolerate the shifts in growing seasons.   Sensors are being put out into fields to measure temperature and water levels, and computers are using that to drive irrigation pumps and sprinklers to avoid frost.

So if you have the money and you have a reasonable political process, you can deal.   And if you don’t?  If you’re Mexico suffering from drought, or Bangladesh suffering from floods, or the Maldives getting drowned?   Well, you better hope that the rich countries, the ones that benefited from CO2 pollution, can help you out, because they sure don’t want climate refugees.

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