Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Boston's Undersea Airport

I have been meaning for several weeks to write a more substantive review of philosopher Dale Jamieson's important book Reason in a Dark Time. Jamieson examines with exceptional rigor the history of climate change policy, and the scientific, economic, and ethical complexities of it as a policy issue, all in an effort to explain how it is that the global polity and its leaders have so thoroughly failed to address this mother of all public policy issues. The book is illuminating, but also therapeutic: though we may all feel guilty, as I do, for our collective failure, and its implications for those who will come after us, Jamieson lets us see a certain inevitability to this course of events, which is in real ways bigger than us all.

One of the uses of Jamieson's discussion is his professional attentiveness to choosing terms carefully. For example, he makes a careful distinction between two sorts of prevention: abatement, which would mean eliminating some measure of greenhouse gas pollution, and mitigation, which would reduce its impacts, by increasing forest lands to absorb more carbon, for example. Both of these measures are to be distinguished from adaptation, which presumes effects of climate change--higher temperatures, raised sea levels, displaced rainfall--and seeks to address those effects--by building sea walls, for example, or relocating populations. While policy makers have discussed, ineffectually, various means of abatement and mitigation, setting ambitious goals but failing to meet them, adaptation has been a touchy subject. Marshall Islanders don't want to hear about adaptation, which in their case means extinction or relocation, and taxpayers in Miami or Boston aren't keen either on adding huge public works projects to their budgets.

In that framework, then, it is interesting to consider last Monday's publication, by MassPort, of its climate change plan for Boston's Logan Airport, a large regional facility perched precariously at sea level in Boston harbor, facing the North Atlantic and clearly endangered by the rising oceans and increasingly severe storms that appear to be built into its future. Some highlights:

  • Goals for abatement are impressive: 40% less greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (over 2012 levels, rather than the more standard 1990 benchmark), and 80% reduction by 2050--a very ambitious program. How to achieve it? Well, airplanes, which emit a lot of pollutants, are much fuller now than 15 years ago, so Logan sends out more passengers on fewer flights, which has led to an 8% emissions reduction since 2002. That neat trick can't be reproduced indefinitely, however, and emissions have already gone UP more than 5% from 2012-13. DOWN 40% in the next 5 years is hard to imagine, and down another 40% by 2050 is harder still--unless air travel is seriously curtailed,or some entirely new (hydrogen-based?) power source is developed.
  • There's a second way to measure the airport's carbon footprint--the energy the airport itself consumes--and here the goal of 25% reduction by 2020 may be less fanciful: greener buildings, installation of solar panels, and gas-powered buses are known ways to reduce energy consumption. But these abatements are all serving an inherently profligate technology--air travel--an 'inconvenient truth' MassPort is in no position to address.
  • Meanwhile, given the inexorable fact of emissions and energy consumption, what about mitigation? That's what environmental groups like the Audubon Society are asking, but the report contains no answers. Carbon capture? Still experimental, though China is working to develop practical models. Tropical rainforest protection? Exotic and expensive, but if every airline ticket contained a surcharge for forest protection, air travel would externalize less of its hidden costs to the planet, and forests would be permitted to do their work of mitigation (instead of being cut down to produce beef for McDonalds ...).
  • But the real work of the plan--as opposed to these somewhat fanciful aspirational goals for abatement--concerns adaptation: Logan will soon have gates and dikes to channel overflows, and pumps to clear submerged runways. "Critical equipment" in buildings will be elevated. All this to address rising sea levels of 2-6 feet (though many projections imagine levels twice or three times that high by century's end), and storm surges like Sandy (which narrowly missed taking out not just Logan but much of downtown Boston).
In short, Massport is taking small steps toward prevention (and announcing much larger goals with no real plan to meet them). But it is also preparing to operate an airport that will someday, maybe soon, be below sea level--Schiphol west--in a landscape that may look like Holland's. That's a sobering thought the report glosses over, but the rest of us might think about. 

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