Small communities are taking big steps to address climate change, setting an example for the rest of the United States, despite the apathy of national government

By Constance Gorfinkle and Steve Wenner

Hull, Massachusetts. Image © Alexander More

Since a United Nations study announced that global warming was progressing much faster than earlier predictions had shown, efforts to combat this catastrophe have sped up around the world.


No less so on the South Shore of Massachusetts, where community groups in towns such as Hull and Cohasset are urging their municipalities to commit to a goal of achieving 100% clean energy by 2030. Due to its geographic location and land morphology, Hull has suffered worse weather damage than its neighboring communities, including increasingly frequent bad storms, loss of power and heat, flooding from the ocean and rising ground water, lost property, vehicles and utilities from basement flooding, destruction of natural barriers such as dunes, and life-threatening situations in which residents have been trapped in their houses due to flooding.


Having experienced the painful effects of the warming of the planet, Hull’s board of selectmen unanimously agreed to a proposal spearheaded by Hull resident Judeth Van Hamm, to establish a 100% clean energy climate action task force, whose purpose is to develop and make public an operational plan outlining steps to achieve the goal of using 100% clean energy by 2030 for all public, residential and commercial energy uses in Hull, including heating and transportation.

Town meetings across America are committing to 100% renewable energy. Pictured are Judeth Van Hamm, of Sustainable Greener Hull, and Dr. Alexander More (Harvard-Climate Change Institute) testifying in Massachusetts.
Image © World Ocean Forum

After testimony by Ms. Van Hamm and Dr. Alexander More (Harvard & Climate Change Institute)—also a Hull resident who chose the town specifically as frontier to study climate change—last Wednesday (5/8/19), the annual town meeting voted unanimously to support the bill. Local efforts like these are countering the apathy shown by the administration in Washington, D.C., whose executive chose to abandon the Paris Climate Agreement last year. Within Massachusetts alone, 13 other cities and towns have already passed a resolution to reach 100% renewable energy. Notably, this vote came after a group of Hull students brought to the meeting and obtained another unanimous vote in favor of banning single-use plastic bags.

In Hull, this movement began with a meeting of a mixed group of residents from about 18 organizations, including town committees, departments, schools, as well as neighborhood and business groups gathered by Sustainable Greener Hull, inspired by leaders in the Mass Climate Action Network. The agenda of this gathering was to reach two goals: to protect Hull from climate change by inspiring the world with an example of 100% local clean energy, and to save money on energy costs.


Already known as the town of the two wind turbines and for achieving 21% clean energy (solar, wind, and hydroelectric, plus an additional 54% from nuclear), Hull is poised to become a model community addressing climate risks with concrete climate action. This is particularly urgent in New England, where the ocean and the atmosphere are warming faster than anywhere else.

Graph by Steve Wenner. Data source: NOAA

With islands sinking in the South Pacific and ice shelves melting at the Arctic and Antarctic, how did the Northeast of the United States win the award for warming faster than any other place on the planet?


That is what scientists at the University of Massachusetts have found. They report that “The fastest warming region in the contiguous US is the Northeast, which is projected to warm by 3°C [5.4ºF] when global warming reaches 2°C [3.6ºF],” everywhere else, according to their study which appeared in PLOS One.


The same study showed that the 3.6-degree Fahrenheit rise in the region is likely to come two decades before the rest of the world gets to that point. The study concludes with the dire prediction that, in a worst-case scenario, rising sea levels could cover 30 percent of Boston by the end of the century.

Sea-level rise with high-tide (blue) in Boston by 2050, according to the city's "Climate Ready" online atlas.

Low-lying towns on the South Shore of Boston will be equally threatened by warming, and this is the case for Hull, Massachusetts. Hanging off the east coast of the Commonwealth, this narrow peninsula, roughly 8 nautical miles South-east of Boston, could be the canary in the water. Likewise, Cohasset, Massachusetts, just a few miles South, has experienced extreme weather events and is vulnerable to climate change. 


The Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that nearly half of Hull would be submerged twice monthly (during Spring tides) by 2100; only a few hills (the glacial drumlins) would lie above the water. At least, that is Hull’s fate unless humanity moves urgently to eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases.  On the other hand, if the world achieves the goals of the Paris Agreement, only about 12% of the peninsula would have to endure twice-monthly flooding.

Graph by Steve Wenner.

Whereas Hull is essentially a narrow sand bar projected into the ocean, much of Cohasset sits on rocky ledges and is much less vulnerable to sea level rise. Nevertheless, under a business-as-usual scenario, conservative IPCC estimates forecast that Cohasset’s harbor and central business district can expect annual flooding well before the end of this century.

Sea-level rise of 5ft (1.5 meters) and resulting flooding in Hull and Cohasset, a scenario that has conservative 80% chance of occurring by 2050 at least once per year. Map source: Climate Central.

Cohasset, just to the south, is also accelerating its efforts to move toward renewable energy.  Here, too, a group gathered to form Cohasset Residents for Climate Action, to help citizens and businesses reduce their carbon footprint, and to lobby town officials to move more quickly to a green energy future. Partially as a result of these efforts, the town’s Alternative Energy Committee is being reconstituted with a broader and more ambitious mandate to accelerate decarbonization. One concrete action currently underway in Cohasset is a drive to procure a community-wide contract for discount electricity with a high proportion of renewable generation. Also, as an official Massachusetts Green Community, the municipality is committed to reducing its carbon footprint and hopes to exceed its first 5-year commitment of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

In the global race to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, local efforts are mobilizing people and governments where national policies are lagging behind. The impact of these communities—and their leaders from every generation—is shaping the conversation and providing much-needed direction and information to citizens, propelling the new green economy which already employs three times as many workers in the renewable energy sector as fossil fuels. Wind and solar energy prices are plummeting, in a trend that promises substantial savings for communities committing to renewable energy, while also increasing real-estate values, and improving the quality of the air, water and environment overall.


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© World Ocean Observatory 2019