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As the Climate Action Plan is reviewed and updated in 2014, we’ll post here to let you know about Bostonian's conversations and ideas about climate action. We’re kicking off with a three-part series. The first post is an overview of climate change and its effects on Boston. The second post will be on our progress on climate change so far and what we need to do to reach our 2020 and 2050 goals. The third post will be on how you can help with the Climate Action Plan.

What’s all this climate change business?

From scorching heat waves to superstorms, to the polar vortex, what isn’t climate change these days? It boils down to weird – and sometimes scary – weather patterns due to steady warming of the planet. Over the long-term, Boston may see more storms like Superstorm Sandy, intense summer heat waves, and a steady rise in the sea levels around the world. Climate change is also accelerating, meaning the earth will warm faster and faster this century. The map below shows how much the earth has warmed since 1950 (red = above average temperatures; blue = below average temperature):

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Why is climate change happening?

Two words: greenhouse gases, or GHGs for short. GHGs are released whenever people burn fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and natural gas, to power our lives, from driving our cars, electrifying our homes, and heating our offices. You may have heard GHGs referred to as "carbon pollution," "carbon footprint," or fossil fuels, as well. Carbon dioxide is just one specific type of greenhouse gas.

For example, when you flip a light switch, a power plant miles away burns a fossil fuel to generate and then deliver electricity. When you heat your home in the winter, natural gas or oil must be delivered to your boiler, where it's then burned. Any time a fossil fuel is burned, GHGs are released into the atmopshere. As fossil fuels are burned, GHGs are released and then trapped in our atmosphere.  As the sun's rays enter our atmosphere, greenhouse gases trap more heat. That's where the term "greenhouse gases" come from:  like a greenhouse, GHGs make the Earth hotter and hotter.

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What does it mean for me?

Have you noticed the high tides lately? Boston's high tides are about a foot higher than they were 100 years ago, and water might rise another six feet by the end of the century. Why is that?  When the Earth's surface warms, two things happen: Our glaciers, like those in Greenland and Antarctica, begin to melt faster, so oceans have to have more water. Also, as water heats up, it expands, which means our oceans now take up even more space than before.

Our coast is already vulnerable to flooding because Boston was mostly built on land that used to be the Harbor (hence the neighborhood names: Back Bay, South Bay, etc. These places used to actually be bays!). It's not just 100 years from now:  We're at risk even today.  If Hurricane Sandy or last year's snowstorm, Nemo, hit a bit earlier at our high tide, Boston would have seen some serious flooding.

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In addition to flooding, heat waves and above-90 degree days will happen a lot. By mid-century, our weather might be more similar to southern cities', like D.C. or Charleston, SC. Our most vulnerable citizens – mainly the elderly and the low-income - have the least number of resources to cope with climate change - imagine a heat wave hitting houses without air conditioning! In the end, handling climate change is a matter of survival:  A warming atmosphere affects wind and rain patterns, which then affects plant and animal habitats - and eventually, where people can live.

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If this is so huge, why should Boston do anything? Or for that matter, why should I do anything?

Everyone has to do their part because everyone burns fossil fuels, from the individual to the neighborhood to the city to the entire country. Moreover, since Boston is a global leader, we must set an example for other cities. The City of Boston set a goal to reduce its GHGs by 25% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 through its Climate Action Plan, or the CAP. Boston is also preparing for the impacts of climate change. The year 2100 and six feet of sea level rise might seem far off, but big problems need a lot of planning upfront. Not to mention all the other climate problems that are already happening.

What about things that affect me now, like jobs or money or making my neighborhood a better place to live?

Climate action is more than just stopping bad things from happening. It’s also about making good things happen by creating a healthier, cleaner, and more economically prosperous City--things that come naturally with our efforts to reduce GHGs. The table below shows just how climate action can improve our lives and neighborhoods:

Climate Action

Reason 1

Reason 2

Weatherizing and weather-proofing a home

Can cut our energy bills in half.

Lowers GHG emissions

Biking to work

Makes us healthier and less stressed out

Lowers GHG emissions

Organizing a climate action event

Makes us closer to our neighbors. Fosters a sense of community.

Lowers GHG emissions

Planting trees

Creates a first line of defense against storms and flooding. Keeps us cool during heat waves.

Absorbs GHGs, cleans our air, and many more!

So what should I do? What is Boston doing?

Stay tuned for our second post, in which we’ll detail our approach to climate change and what you can do! In the meantime, check out actions you can take on our resource page. As a teaser, here are a couple of charts that might be able to give you some idea of how the City is thinking. Chart 1 shows Boston’s GHG emissions per person compared to some other cities. New York City has such low emissions because of cozier living spaces and much less driving - that's where we'll need to be by 2020. And then there’s Stockholm, Sweden's individual emissions. That’s about where we’ll need to be by 2050. These examples show that we can create a low-carbon future ourselves without making drastic sacrifices: Stockholmians have one of the highest standards of living in the world!

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Chart 2 shows where our emissions come from as of now. We’ll go into greater depth on this stuff in our next post. If you were making policy, which areas would you focus on? As a citizen, how does this chart impact your knowledge of where you can lower your GHGs? Leave your comments in the discussion box below!

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