National Climate Assessment: Sea Levels Pose Threat To Massachusetts Coast

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — Climate change is here and its impacts are affecting more people than ever. And with the release of the fifth National Climate Assessment on Tuesday, the White House is hoping to give Americans some detailed and practical information on how they can expect their communities to change and adapt.

"It is the most up-to-date and comprehensive assessment of how climate change is affecting all of us here in the United States. It is your guide to climate change in the U.S," Allison Crimmins, the director of the first National Climate Assessment update since 2018, told reporters Monday. "The assessment shows that more and more people across the US are experiencing climate change right now, right outside their window. And a lot of them are experiencing it through extreme weather events. In the 1980s, the country experienced on average a $1 billion disaster every four months. Now we see one every three weeks."

The new report does not make specific policy recommendations, but rather considers how climate change is already playing out across the country, what more might be expected in the coming decades, and what the federal government, states, municipalities, nonprofits, homeowners and others can do to prepare for greater impacts and respond to extreme weather events.

Crimmins said she hopes the report "will not just be a book on a shelf gathering dust" and that people around the country will use the interactive atlas being released alongside the report to drill down on the ways that climate change is affecting their neighborhoods.

"This is a guide or a tool that we want people to use to inform climate decisions," she said.

"A water utility manager in Chicago can understand the extreme rainfall that's coming so that they can design sewers that don't overflow. Or an urban planner in Texas can tell where to locate cooling centers to give people refuge from the extreme heat. Or a hospital manager in the southeast can get ahead of the diseases that ticks and mosquitoes are bringing into their region," Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said. "This is how people across America can prepare for and respond to the climate crisis."

David Reidmiller, an author of the climate assessment's northeast chapter, said the most pressing threats to this part of the country are "heavy precipitation and flooding, followed by sea level rise and coastal inundation, given how concentrated so much of our economies and livelihoods are in the coastal zone in the Northeast."

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The threats that climate change, particularly sea level rise, poses to coastal communities and economies was highlighted at the state's annual Investor Conference earlier this month.

Michael Goodman, the former head of the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center who is now senior advisor to the chancellor on economic development and strategic initiatives, said as part of his presentation on the Massachusetts economy that while population and labor force growth are expected to be slow statewide over the rest of this decade, growth rates for both are projected to be stronger in coastal areas.

That will make coastal resilience essential, Goodman said. He included a chart from a 2020 study that considered how sea level rise will decrease property tax revenues in Massachusetts coastal communities. The researchers chose Massachusetts to study because of the state's "high exposure" to sea level rise (SLR) and the budgetary reliance on property taxes for municipalities -- property taxes constitute 41 percent of local revenues in Massachusetts, but an average of 60 percent of local revenues among coastal municipalities.

"In absolute terms, 3 ft of SLR threatens 1.4% ($104 million) of current property taxes of 89 coastal municipalities by chronically inundating over 15,000 taxable acres currently valued at $8.89 billion," the report said. "Six feet of SLR threatens 12.5% ($946 million) of current property taxes of 99 coastal municipalities by chronically inundating almost 37,000 taxable acres valued at $64.4 billion."

Sea level rise could affect almost half of all Massachusetts residents in coming decades. Already about 43 percent of the state's population lives in coastal communities, and the populations in most of those cities and towns are expected to increase.

Massachusetts state government recently undertook its own exercise of considering how more-frequent extreme weather will impact the Bay State and what government can do to prepare and respond.

The state's updated (and federally-mandated) Statewide Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan identified flooding from precipitation, coastal flooding and erosion due to sea level rise as the most significant hazards to Massachusetts.

Massachusetts is planning for sea level rise of up to 2.5 feet by 2050 and 4.3 feet by 2070 (both compared to 2008 sea level) if global emissions are not significantly curtailed. The current annual average damage to coastal buildings in Massachusetts is about $185 million, but the new report projected that amount will nearly double by 2030 due to changes in sea level and storm surge.

Written By Colin Young / SHNS

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