U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, responding to the massive damage inflicted by superstorm Sandy, was the host for a meeting about climate change on Sunday, Nov. 4, at Arlington Town Hall, which Markey described as an "emergency."
Markey and two other speakers issued a call for action to address the potential impact on the Bay State of future storms linked to climate change. The packed auditorium, estimated at first at 300 but revised to 487 based on a headcount from Markey's staff, included people from at least seven neighboring communities as well Arlington residents.
The speakers urged reframing climate change as not just an environmental issue but also a high-priority economic, health and national-security concern with local as well as worldwide effects.
In addition to Markey, speakers included Arlington resident Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a "leading coalition of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups."
Markey said Superstorm Sandy sent us a powerful warning, creating an "educational moment … not unlike 9/11 [and] the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."
He added, "What we learned from this superstorm [is that] our nation needs a bold plan of protection and prevention against the worst effects of climate change … not only in our country but around the planet." The situation is urgent. We need to telescope the time frame in which we respond to climate change."
Markey noted that in 1775 Paul Revere warned that the British were coming by sea. In 2012, the sea itself is coming. Had Sandy’s storm surge hit Boston, it would have inundated Faneuil Hall and parts of Back Bay and caused catastrophic damage to all our vulnerable coastal cities and towns.
The oceans are much warmer than ever before off New England. Warmer water supercharges storms as we’ve just seen this week. It also makes the oceans rise higher and sea level is rising faster along the Eastern seaboard than almost anywhere else in the world.
Consequently, Markey believes we need better safety measures based on a realistic assessment of our infrastructure. This can only happen if we accept the reality of continuing sea level rise and growing climate instability with bigger and more destructive storms.
Markey noted that while some think we can’t afford the cost of responding to climate change, extreme weather events impose their own tax. Sandy’s will run to $50 billion, and that’s just one storm and one type of climate change disaster.
We will pay for climate change impacts one way or another, he said, and failure to plan and act rapidly increases long-term costs. It is time to "supercharge [this] issue to inject it into the national dialogue," he said.
Knobloch drew a parallel between Sandy and the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which burned 65 acres of downtown Boston and led to massive infrastructure and policy changes to reduce fire hazard.
Massachusetts is extremely vulnerable to climate change, he said, and while our state is a national leader in climate-change response, there is long way to go. If we act, we are in a position to inspire other states, he suggested.
"Anger, frustration, passion here and across the country need to be unleashed," he said, if we are to take the necessary action in time.
Lubber cited Ed Markey's 25-year history of talking about climate change and called it "the greatest existential issue we all face."
Climate change, she said, has been "ghettoized as an issue for tree huggers" and turned into a partisan battle. Instead, we "must speak to this issue on all fronts."
Much of the world wonders why the United States has failed to grapple with climate change. If we continue in this direction, Lubber suggested, events such as Hurricane Sandy "can be the demise of our economy."
In 2011, U.S. insurers paid out $32 billion in claims for storm damage driven by climate change, she said. This year’s extreme drought across the middle of our country caused losses amounting to billions more.
Lubber pointed out that anyone who has an insurance policy or pays taxes pays twice for environmental disasters. Insurance rates go up, and in some cases insurance companies pull out. Ultimately, the government is the insurer of last resort, and then taxes go up.
According to Lubber, it’s time to recognize that this is a world crisis and, to Knobloch, the task now is to "swiftly reduce greenhouse gas [emissions] from every source."
Markey concluded that this is our generational challenge and it will require a marathon, not a sprint.
State Senator Kenneth Donnelly, Democrat of Arlington, opened the event, followed by state Rep. Jay Kaufman, Democrat of Lexington. Kaufman noted that only Markey could generate such a big turnout on 24-hour notice and that the large crowd spoke volumes as to the importance of the issues and the level of commitment among those present.
Former state Senator Mike Barrett, a Democrat running again for a seat after other endeavors, said that the top three issues he's encountered in campaigning this year have been jobs, economic concerns and climate change, in that order, with climate change running a very close third.
Helping to increase the audience were members of the First Parish Unitarian Church who were invited at walk over for the 11 a.m. event.
This story was published Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, and updated the same day with a revised crowd count.