There could be enough water in Boston for boats to float through parts of the Back Bay and fish to swim across the Public Garden if a super storm were to hit Boston years from now. That was a worst-case prediction displayed on color-coded maps in Faneuil Hall today as part of a forum on the potential impact of climate change.
The maps detailing potential flooding, on stage as part of a “What If Sandy Happened Here?” forum, factored in rising sea levels and suggested that by 2050 a severe 100-year storm could also send floodwaters lapping into Central Square and Harvard Square in Cambridge.
“Sandy was a warning,” US Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat long active in climate change legislation, said as about 150 people filled the Great Hall, where he led a town hall-style meeting on the costs Greater Boston could face if a super storm hits.
Cast as a gathering to contemplate the havoc climate change could cause, the meeting drew together speakers who focus on the issue and an audience that included many area activists.
“This reaffirms the need to put greater energy and greater effort into convincing others that this issue is significant,” James Kaufman, president and CEO of The Laboratory Safety Institute, a health, safety, and environmental affairs nonprofit in Natick, said after the hour-long meeting.
Maria Cooper, president of the environmental group Green Decade Newton, said the forum was “all the more inspiring because we can see that people are getting it. This is urgent stuff that we need to address in our everyday lives.”
The audience was mostly middle-aged and older, which prompted Yuan Tian of Beijing, a 22-year-old doctoral student in economics at Boston University, to say during the public comment period that she wished more people born in the 1990s and beyond had attended because climate change is most important “for our generation.”
A contentious issue between Republicans and Democrats during much of this year’s political campaigns, climate change took on a heightened role when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey little more than a week before Election Day. A few days later, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed President Obama’s re-election bid, saying he was the better candidate to take on climate change, which Bloomberg believed might have contributed to the destructive storm.
In Faneuil Hall today, speakers acknowledged the setting’s many reminders of Boston’s historic past, and spoke of what they hoped would be a revolution to come in environmental awareness and legislative changes.
“We have to put in place measures that will protect us,” said Markey, who coauthored a 1,200-page bill, approved by the US House in June 2009, which would have overhauled the nation’s environmental policies. The bill did not make it through the US Senate.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, introduced the speakers today, and said that if those who resist believing in climate change do not grasp the potential dangers to public health and the environment, they will still have to face the economic impact.
Markey noted that in 2011, “Americans endured 14 extreme weather disasters that each cost $1 billion or more.”
Paul Kirshen, a University of New Hampshire research professor who is a visiting scientist at Tufts University, referred to the flooding predicted on the color-coded maps prepared on behalf of the nonprofit Boston Harbor Association and said the result would be lost wages and lost tourism, in addition to the flooded subways and streets.
“Climate change is real,” Kirshen, whose research examines ways to adapt to the anticipated changes ahead, said at the end of the meeting. “It’s extremely serious.”
Just as challenging are the political hurdles faced by those who want to change governmental policy, the speakers said.
Markey recounted his own difficulties getting legislation approved in the US House, and pointed out that “Republicans turned climate change into a punch line at their national convention” in Tampa in August.
Still, Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, insisted that “the human spirit is a fighting spirit. We don’t ever give up.”
All of the speakers emphasized the growing costs of severe weather during the past few years.
Given the effect on industries ranging from insurance to tourism, Mindy Lubber, a former regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, argued that the time is approaching when discussion of climate change must move away from the political arena.
“We’ve got to change the debate,” said Lubber, who now leads Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental advocates.
With a nod toward the uniformity of support among those gathered in the audience, she added that “we can’t keep just talking to our friends who agree with us.”