September 22, 2023 • In the News

People walking along a busy sidewalk in Chelsea, MA in a sunny day.

Broadway in Chelsea. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

IN THE FINAL days of summer, the Commonwealth is looking back at a season of near-record rainfall, multiple heat advisories, and dangerously smoky air. The classic Massachusetts summer filled with bike rides along the Charles and Red Sox games has looked much different this year.

Extreme heat events have claimed more lives in the United States over the past 10 years than any other weather-related event, and hot weather conditions also exacerbate unhealthy air quality. In Massachusetts alone, there were over 400 emergency department visits reported as associated with heat-related injury or illness between 2016 and 2019, and likely many more given known underreporting and improper diagnoses.

Climate change is leaving no one untouched this year. Extreme weather events scientifically linked to climate change—like the extreme heat and wildfires—are harming the safety, health and prosperity of communities statewide. And it’s expected to get worse—climate models also project that Massachusetts may experience 17 to 52 days of temperatures above 90°F by 2080, compared to a previous average of 5 days per year between 1971 and 2000.

Rising temperatures are also felt more in areas with urban heat island effects. Most of Chelsea, an environmental justice community, is identified as a heat island or emerging heat island. Mapping conducted by the C-HEAT project shows multiple Chelsea neighborhoods in the highest level of the heat vulnerability index with registered land surface temperatures of 140 degrees during the summertime, 20-40 degrees hotter than in nearby suburbs.

While the climate crisis will affect all of us, people of color, low-income communities, and people living with disabilities are disproportionately impacted. Some families can’t afford to keep the AC on full blast all summer. Others who work outside, such as farmers and construction workers, or people who have pre-existing conditions—such as high blood pressure or diabetes—are at high risk for adverse health impacts like heat stroke and premature mortality. Black construction workers and Mexican-born workers in the United States are, on average, 51 percent and 91 percent more likely to die from heat, respectively, than their white counterparts.

Thankfully, Massachusetts state legislators are taking promising steps to protect the future of Massachusetts and its residents. Lawmakers have introduced policies that would significantly reduce heat trapping emissions in the near term and set the state on a steady pace to curb the dangerous impacts of climate change, improve public health by decreasing air pollution from fossil fuels, and guard consumers from the high price volatility of fossil fuels.

A bill aimed at accelerating Massachusetts’s transition away from fossil fuels, for example, is an important piece of legislation that can’t afford to be delayed. Currently, more than half of Massachusetts’s electricity use relies on fossil fuels, which means the power needed for cooling and keeping people safe this summer was directly contributing to the rising emissions worsening the impacts of climate change and air pollution. Cooling already represents around 10 percent of global electricity demand—we can’t afford to let this vicious cycle continue.

Other important legislation under consideration in the State House includes bills that would accelerate investments in clean energy sources like offshore wind and improve indoor and outdoor air quality for communities burdened by transportation pollution. Equally as critical, legislators must work to pass legislation aimed at ensuring the transition to clean energy sources is done with equity and justice at the forefront.

Extreme weather this summer is a harsh reminder of the climate crisis, but real solutions exist. We are hopeful that our state senators, state representatives, and Gov. Maura Healey own their responsibility to prevent unnecessary suffering and take steps to ensure a healthy and safe future for the people of Massachusetts.

As extreme weather puts millions at risk, our elected officials should be working quickly and boldly to ensure critical climate legislation is signed into law. There is no time to wait.

John Walkey is director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at GreenRoots, a community-based environmental justice organization in Chelsea. Paula García is a senior bilingual energy analyst and energy justice lead in the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.