Should we fight global warming to save our urban infrastructure? Alexis Madrigal suggested this approach in an article for The Atlantic. In this article, I’m bringing that idea down to the ground level. Communities that deal with racial disparities in environmental health – also known as environmental justice communities – may become the places that suffer most.

Environmental justice health risks and global warming go hand in hand. For example, when sea levels rise, leaky storage tanks may yield their oily contents, disturbing the low-income neighborhoods where the tanks reside.

Scientists sometimes present global warming impersonally. This approach has led to criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But scientists can also use data to make research relevant to audiences without biasing or oversimplifying their results.

On September 24, I saw global warming data presented persuasively during a tour called “Sea Level Rise in East Boston.” Common Boston, an interest group within the Boston Society of Architects, organized the event.

Roadway support removed during Boston's Big Dig
This roadway support was removed during Boston's Big Dig. Credit: xianstudio

To set the stage for the tour, Torrey Wolff and Neenah Estrella Luna showed visitors maps of potential flooding in East Boston and Chelsea, two communities where activists are seeking environmental justice and sustainable development. The projected floods resulted from a combination of storm surges and sea level rise.

In a global warming context, sea levels increase for multiple reasons – including oceans warming, icebergs and glaciers melting, and ocean circulation changing to create massive waves. Luna referred to the highest waves as “wicked high tide.” (In Boston slang, “wicked” means “very.”)

The term “wicked” was well-chosen. Although there’s considerable uncertainty in the projected flooding, none of the scenarios look manageable for East Boston or Chelsea. The maps showed the lowest projected flooding, a sea-level increase of 2.5 feet by 2100, could lead to massive damage during storms. Wolff said these storms might occur bimonthly.

Homeless person in Boston
A homeless person sitting in downtown Boston. Credit: juliaf

Kim Foltz described the economic challenges of salvaging the shoreline. East Boston and Chelsea were built on landfills connecting smaller islands in the Boston harbor. These low-lying areas are being gentrified but are still home to a largely international population. Many of the recent immigrants are from Central America, South America, or North Africa. Foltz added that over half of East Boston’s population is Latino.

The hands-on demonstration showed the risk of sea level rise more powerfully than the maps could accomplish. Wolff asked the group to plant flags on Constitution Beach to discover the potential effects of storm surges in the year 2100. Near the beach, storm surges – estimated conservatively at 1 meter – could cover public transit tracks and reach houses and businesses that are hundreds of feet from the water now. The businesses near Constitution Beach include a Latino supermarket, a tool lending store, and a Burger King.

The tour leaders didn’t discuss what might happen to these neighborhoods if they are flooded. I’m concerned that these seafront properties, which developers eye with acquisitive interest today, could become tomorrow’s slums. If homeowners abandon the houses they cannot repair and buildings are sitting vacant, crime might increase. Given the stories that came from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this idea is not farfetched.

Wolff painted a relatively optimistic picture, saying buildings could be built on piles or reconstructed so that they can lift up during storm surges. She said these innovations are becoming common in the Netherlands but are unusual in the United States.

The amount of capital required to complete this transformation of the shore would be immense, since many buildings in East Boston and Chelsea are former industrial sites. Building hills and sea walls would probably be more affordable than redesigning buildings, but either option could be costly. Foltz said that planting water-absorbing vegetation or introducing parks and wetlands could act as a stopgap measure to save some of East Boston and Chelsea.

Although few environmentalists might support the slogan “Save Burger King!,” it may be time to rethink how we talk about the resources low-income areas could lose. Global warming could wipe out our beaches, seaside restaurants, low-lying urban neighborhoods, and international grocery stores.

Although Chelsea and East Boston may never become high-crime ghost towns, curbing our appetite for the activities that cause global warming could help ensure those supermarkets will still be there for immigrants who may be escaping global warming elsewhere in the world.

Asking architects to demonstrate the effect of sea level rise on local beaches, stores and restaurants could help galvanize support for the changes we may be forced to make later – one way or the other.

With global warming, there is no “opt out” button. Either we face the situation or we don’t. Creative uses of data can help us see what could happen to our communities.

Originally published at Scientific American

green eye
If we don't see our environment, that may be because we don't think it matters.

The road to forgetfulness is paved with good intentions.

If we know something is good for us, that is no guarantee we will take action. In the context of environmental and social issues, I’m interested in actions and results. Good intentions don’t mean that the rubber will hit the road.

There’s a growing discussion online and offline about what kids lose by spending so much time indoors. Asking young people questions about their neighborhood ecosystems shows that they often are not aware of the ecosystems around them.

However, I don’t see this as a question of lacking a sense of place or belonging. It’s a question of selective perception. Young people perceive the things they need to notice for survival and social approval (and for some other reasons). If something isn’t relevant, they may overlook it. They learn what matters by talking with their friends, families, classmates and teachers.

In the urban environment where I lived before college, I didn’t need to know about edible plants. I was aware of industrial pollution because I could smell steel mill exhaust. Occasionally, it was not safe to swim in Lake Michigan. So I needed to know about pollution when beaches were closed.

But the water advisories weren’t very important to me and other teenagers I knew in Chicago. We often thought about jobs, appearances, grades, friends and sports because those were the priorities of our communities. Street safety was also relevant. Edible plants were not part of the story.

Instead of regretting young people’s lack of connection to their ecosystems, we should look at the messages we give them. If they realize environmental knowledge is relevant to their lives, that’s when the story will change. If we talk with young people about environmental issues in a way that relates directly to their lives and interests, we can shift the story from “it’s good for you” to “it matters to you.” Making environmental communication relevant requires a shift in perspective.

Speaking of shifts in perspective, I decided to write this post after visiting the “Eye Spy: Playing with Perception” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. This exhibit, a series of optical illusions, includes a quote which summarizes the take-home message of this post.

We perceive what we expect to perceive and what we think is expected of us. – Ray Moses