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Non-profit leaders call for more engagement on climate change

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  August 6, 2013 01:01 PM

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Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com

The panel discussion included Vivien Li, president and chief executive officer of the Boston Harbor Association; Tim Brennan, treasurer and chief financial officer for the Unitarian Universalist Association; and Darlene Lombos, executive director of Community Labor United.

Local elected officials and business owners are forward-thinking in seeking to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels, but more public attention should be paid to the potential crisis, non-profit leaders said.

Leaders from three Boston-based non-profit groups recently gathered downtown for a discussion, moderated by state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, of the anticipated effects of climate change, how local leaders are responding, and ways to achieve greater engagement.

Vivien Li, president and chief executive officer of the Boston Harbor Association, an environmental advocacy group, praised Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas M. Menino for their leadership in developing strategies to mitigate the damage that could be caused by a rising Boston Harbor.

She said for many last year’s Hurricane Sandy was a “wakeup call,” with storm damage in New York and New Jersey serving as a warning of what could happen in Massachusetts.

“What was clear was that, had Hurricane Sandy hit Boston five and a half hours earlier, we too would have been devastated,” Li said, “because it would have come in at high tide, and more than 6 percent of Boston’s land mass would have been impacted, including all of our waterfront neighborhoods and the Harbor Islands. And the water actually would have reached pretty close to City Hall.”

In a recent report on sea-level rise, Li said, the Boston Harbor Association projected a two-and-a-half foot sea-level rise between the years 2050 and 2100, with a storm surge of five feet.

“If that was to occur, the waters would top the Charles River Dam, and it would result in parts of our city which are currently inland being flooded,” Li said, including parts of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay, where she lives.

Tim Brennan, treasurer and chief financial officer for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, a religious denomination, said he sees climate change as a potent economic force that can harm investments but also provides opportunities for growth in industries that address the changes.

The problem, he said, is that markets tend to focus on short-term gains and losses rather than looking at the big picture.

“The Wall Street types will always say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s priced in,’” Brennan said. “I guarantee you climate change is not priced into assets.”

Brennan said that to address climate change, governments need to tax industries that emit carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. But such taxes would make oil and gas companies less profitable and have a domino effect on utility companies and manufacturers, disrupting a large sector of the global market, he said.

Some more expensive methods of fuel production, such as extracting oil from oil sands, could become entirely unprofitable if they were taxed, he said.

To avoid such negative long-term consequences and to act in accordance with its moral values as a religious institution, Brennan said, the UUA looks for asset managers who take into account “underlying environmental and social issues as they put together portfolios.”

Brennan said there is a moral dimension to acting on climate change.

“It’s all about, what are we going to leave future generations? ” he said. “Are we going to leave a poorer planet, a planet where we have sapped off the riches for our own benefit and left them less?”

“Who’s climate change really going to affect? Where will the negative effects be?” Brennan continued. “They’re going to be in the poorest [people] in the world.”

Darlene Lombos, executive director of Community Labor United, said that, through the Green Justice Coalition convened by her organization, she works to address the effects of climate change on the poor.

The coalition of labor unions, community groups, environmental organizations, and faith groups helps make energy-efficiency improvements in low-income communities, she said.

These improvements are intended to address multiple issues community residents face, she said, including access to quality housing, rising fuel costs, and access to health care, as well as climate change.

The program also helps to address high unemployment; the lack of quality, full-time jobs; and the need for government financial assistance that accompanies those issues, Lombos said, by creating new positions “with family-sustaining wages, career pathways, and that they are sustaining our environment.”

She said the effort to create a “green economy” is an opportunity to focus not just on environmental benefits but to address a wider scope of social justice issues.

“For us, it’s about envisioning a new society,” Lombos said. “It’s actually about trying to imagine something that looks different from what our economy looked like before.”

Jamaica Plain-based activist and playwright Gerry Wright attended the panel and said the issues discussed were complex and should be more widely discussed, especially among local candidates for mayor and City Council.

“To me, the environment is the question,” Wright said. “Everybody agrees we’ve got to do something about it, but who’s going to tax carbon emissions?”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @YTDowntown.

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Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com

State Representative Aaron Michlewitz moderated the panel discussion.

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