Boston's Environment Chief Attends Paris Climate Talks

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Leaders from around the world are gathered in Paris this week for the United Nations climate change conference. Among those heading to the conference is Austin Blackmon, Boston's own chief of environment, energy and open spaces.

Blackmon will represent Boston as it's recognized for its community engagement work when it comes to curbing climate change.

Our Morning Edition crew spoke with Blackmon at City Hall hours before he boarded a plane for Paris, about what steps Boston is taking to prepare for climate change.

Interview Highlights

On Boston's engagement of the community in the fight against climate change

What really puts us on top is the fact that we have several programs that allow our residents to have access to incentives, letting them know how they're able to access money to retrofit their homes, or get free resources from our utilities to replace light bulbs with LEDs to also improve their energy efficiency.

On Boston's readiness for the anticipated sea level rise associated with climate change

I think that there's always more that we can do, obviously, we're a city of over 600,000 residents. The plans that we have in place are, first and foremost, to make sure that we have adequate evacuation plans in place and we've just gone through the process of updating those and so that's really, really, you know, crucially important.

We've got an MOU with the Dutch, a memorandum of understanding, so we've basically agreed to work with the Dutch and learn from their experience from the floods that they experienced in the 1950s and the parameters that they have in place. And very similar to us, I think they've got a four-part plan. Right now, the city of Boston's really, really in great shape for two parts of that plan: That evacuation piece, making sure that we have plans in place to get everyone out of the city should we face a really severe, critically damaging storm. And make sure that we have plans in place to get people back to normal as quickly as possible. I think the city is in really, really great shape on those two components.

The other two parts of that Dutch plan is: If you can, block as much water as you can, number one. Number two, if you can't block water, make sure that you have the ability to store water. We're also doing some more technical analysis through a program called Climate Ready Boston to really understand the most vulnerable parts of the city.


On Boston's capacity to block or store sea water in the event of a historic storm surge

Those are important questions that we're going to be answering as part of that technical analysis. One option I think that is frequently talked about is, you know, having a seawall. That might not necessarily be the best solution. One thing that's important to recognize is not every single building in Boston needs to be the highest resilient form of building.

On the vulnerabilities inherent in a city of Boston's age and the potential solutions

We have a great historical nature here in the city of Boston. We have to really understand where those vulnerabilities are and the answers are really going to be very specific to the use-case for that building and whether that's going to be the most appropriate use-case for that building 25, 35, 45 years from now based on what we see with sea level rise. ... I think that seawalls on a harbor-wide basis are one solution. But that might be an extraordinarily expensive solution, for instance. Or it may also cause some additional impacts to the environment of the harbor, access, so economic impacts in terms of shipping in and out of the harbor. So it may come with some pretty large challenges. So as part of this technical analysis and understanding what the vulnerabilities are, it might make more sense to take immediate action to protect maybe one neighborhood or a series of buildings that have critical uses that, if they were to be affected right now, we would definitely need to protect them.

On whether Boston is ready for a storm the likes of Hurricane Sandy

If a storm of that caliber were to hit the city of Boston, we have very, very good resources in place, very, very good evacuation plans. I think as we saw last winter, obviously there would be challenges but the city is committed to making sure that our residents are able to get back to a position where they're able to thrive as quickly as possible. And we're going to continue to improve upon those plans and the projects that we're going to be doing to make sure that that transition is as smooth as possible as we move forward.

This article was originally published on December 02, 2015.

This segment aired on December 2, 2015.


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Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.


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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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