By Michael Kuser
LOWELL, Mass. — Adapting to climate change in New England calls for building resilience into both the region’s infrastructure and its people, and women are particularly suited to help face the challenge.
So said participants at the New England Women in Energy and the Environment’s 4th annual panel discussion in the “Women Shaping the Agenda” series July 26.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s Executive Order No. 569 nearly two years ago called for an integrated strategy on climate change, calling it not just an environmental but a cross-government, cross-sector issue, said Katie Theoharides, assistant secretary of climate change in the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
“You name it, this issue touches everything,” Theoharides said in her keynote appearance.
Theoharides said Massachusetts’ plan for climate change adaptation will be issued in September. Her office is also working with the state’s Emergency Management Agency to update its hazard mitigation plan, which will be folded into the climate plan.
“The state has focused on moving from standalone climate change plans and reports to incorporating those types of actions, and their funding, into the mainstream,” Theoharides said. “That effort has formed the basis for an environmental bond bill (H.4599) that is still in conference right now.
“Most of our resiliency language that we put in there will not be conferenced because it was previously agreed to by both the Senate and the House, so we’re very excited to see the executive order actually getting codified into state law.”
By coincidence, lawmakers finalized the environmental bond bill on the same night Theoharides spoke.
It’s also important to work with other states, she said, as in the “phenomenally successful” Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the country’s first effort to set a cap on emissions from the power sector and reinvest carbon allowance auction proceeds into strategies to reduce energy consumption and thereby continue making gains to reduce emissions.
“We’re very focused on science and data as tools to use in governing … which has helped us deal with climate change in a nonpartisan way,” Theoharides said. “We don’t make it a blue state/red state issue.”
Follow the Money
Using the plan as a guide for the state’s spending on climate change will help build on progress made so far, as “it’s important to figure out where the money all goes,” Theoharides said.
“One of the first things I learned about in state government was how the budget process works, how procurement works,” she said, adding that her agency early on determined how to tap existing funding streams to support climate initiatives. “We’re not going to have a giant pot of money right away to do this work; we need to build that pot of money. In the interim, figuring out ways to use the existing money more strategically and to get the priorities into that funding is important.”
Elizabeth Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said the lack of money usually poses the biggest obstacle to implementing climate change adaptation programs, and that she was “very excited” to see the state increasing environmental funding.
“We’re also working to link carbon mitigation and climate adaptation in a really fundamental way,” Henry said. “We see this core problem of carbon as also potentially being part of the solution. So we’re advocating to put a price on carbon … and see [it] as a key part of the solution.”
Alison Brizius, director of climate and environmental planning for the city of Boston, said two years ago the city released a comprehensive plan to prepare it for the impacts of climate change, including a citywide vulnerability assessment “looking at the climate change vulnerabilities we face and the very large-scale key strategies across the sectors on how we’re going to deal with those challenges.”
Flooding and sea level rise pose the greatest threats in Boston, so Brizius and her team began to plan how to raise key infrastructure district by district and parcel by parcel. She said the city also must handle increasing temperatures and storm runoff and is working to “embed” the values of resilience in planning processes.
Penni McLean-Conner, chief customer officer and senior vice president at Eversource Energy, said her company had built the new Seafood Way Substation in South Boston last year — one of the first in the nation to build for resilience.
“It is designed to handle flooding; it’s 23 feet above sea level; it’s designed to withstand hurricanes,” McLean-Conner said. “That’s a 50-year investment. We were thinking about that investment knowing we were going in an area that needed to have resiliency.”
Another utility veteran, Ellen Miller, vice president for projects at Avangrid Networks, said the company’s regulated utilities are “looking at what we have to do to prepare for the increasing frequency and duration of storms that we’re experiencing.”
Miller highlighted the New England Clean Energy Connect project of Avangrid subsidiary Central Maine Power to deliver 1,200 MW of Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts as an example of a strong stakeholder process. She also said Avangrid had “recently announced a $2.5 billion plan to harden our system in response to climate change.”
Katherine Kemen, program manager for emergency preparedness at Partners HealthCare, said her stakeholder process involved corporate managers. Because it would be prohibitively expensive to provide backup systems for every part of a large hospital, she said she has to be realistic in choosing what solutions to propose.
“We’re in the third phase of a strategic resiliency initiative,” Kemen said. “We started with 30 critical sites across our system, including data centers and research centers, and mapped out projections … to 2030 and 2070.”
Women are the most vulnerable to climate change, but in some ways, the things that make women more vulnerable also make them more poised to deal with the issue, Theoharides said.
In the U.S., climate change is projected to hit poor women the hardest of any demographic, she said.
“From what I’ve seen of women working in this field, anything from helping negotiate the Paris Agreement to really shaping the field of adaptation, 10 years ago women were at the forefront,” Theoharides said.
“I think women are really good at collaborating across disparate spaces; they’re really good at bringing cross-cutting issues together. I think we’re good at building partnerships and looking for different answers, so there’s a real role for women to play as connectors,” she said. “Listening is a key aspect of this work.”
Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, which hosted the event, said women learn to be resilient from their own life experiences, whether from dealing with overt misogyny — a male client asking another man a technical question even when a woman is in charge — or microaggressions, which are tiny acts in themselves but have a decidedly negative cumulative impact on women.
Chen also promoted her university as a great research source for the women in the audience.
The school has “over 40 faculty who work in energy and environmental areas, everything from solar, wind, fuels, the grid, energy storage [and] nuclear. They do experiments; they do modeling; they have unique testing equipment that you might want to take advantage of,” Chen said.