As weather events become more severe, the days get warmer, and the seas rise, it should be clear to all of us by now that global climate change is here and here to stay.
New England, and the Boston area in particular, must contend with rising sea levels, storms, and heat waves. Floods and storm surges will become more frequent and erosion more severe. In addition, wind damage from such storms will threaten homes and businesses. Heat waves are a major concern because young and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to heat illnesses. The problem worsens in more urban areas where pockets of intense and potentially lethal heat called heat islands can develop.
This all seems overwhelming, but there are practical steps all of us can take to prepare for the effects of climate change.
If you’re building or renovating a home, select your materials carefully. Good flooring options include ceramic, clay, vinyl, or rubber tiles; concrete; and pressure-treated lumber. Brick, concrete, glass, stone, and ceramic and clay tile are all flood-resistant wall and ceiling options. Closed-cell or foam insulation are your best bets in flood-prone areas.
Secure household objects both indoors and outdoors, such as furniture and yard items, to avoid them being swept away, and protect all service equipment (such as HVAC and electrical) by elevating them or installing barriers.
Two different approaches are wet floodproofing and dry floodproofing. Wet floodproofing assumes that floodwaters cannot be kept out and seeks to reduce the damage by providing openings for water to enter and exit. Dry floodproofing focuses on preventing flood water from entering altogether by covering openings and sealing exterior walls. The approach chosen will depend on each home’s situation and your needs; check local building codes for recommendations and requirements.
Storms threaten to inflict wind damage. You should inspect and secure your roof coverings, and perhaps reinforce or replace windows, doors, and even garage doors. If possible, avoid placing flagpoles or other such objects near your home, as they could present a danger if toppled by strong winds.
Vegetation is a great strategy for mitigating the effects of heat waves. Vegetated surfaces, along with paving that reflects heat (called high albedo) will reduce the heat absorbed by surfaces around your home, cooling the entire environment. Outdoor paving types in this category include light-colored pavement and asphalt, concrete, resin-based pavements, and conventional asphalt specially treated after installation.
Using high-albedo roof materials, such as colored tiles, metals, paints, and special treatments, will help keep your roof cool, which is an efficient way to lower temperatures without cranking up the AC. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Cool Roofs Guide is a resource for those interested in this strategy.
Insulating ceilings, walls, and basements, as well as using energy-efficient windows, are all ways to avoid high electric bills while guarding your home against dangerous heat buildup during a heat wave. Not all homes are suited for expensive and energy-intensive central AC, but whole-house fans or ceiling fans can make a significant difference for much less money and energy.
Major improvements can’t be implemented overnight, but many small steps can be taken. Work climate preparedness into your plans as you consider future home improvement projects.
One thing’s for certain: the increased risk of severe weather events will raise homeowner’s insurance rates. Taking steps to retrofit your home for climate change can help reduce your risk and your premium—for example, by eliminating issues like low-hanging trees and shoddy construction. John Cleveland, executive director at the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, recommends asking your insurance agent for specific details on what you can do to lower the cost of your homeowner’s insurance.
It’s also prudent to take a close look at your policy, since it may cover less than you think. It likely covers storm damages such as wind, but may not cover damages caused by standing water due to the storm, as this is considered flood damage. It’s important to note that most policies do not cover flood damages. Flood insurance must be purchased separately through the National Flood Insurance Program.
Cleveland also advises staying updated on your flood risk. “Look at the new FEMA maps and look at your flood zone. Figure out if you’ll be affected,” he said. Boston residents can find maps of flood-prone areas in the Conservation Commission section of the City of Boston website. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety has statewide information. Remember that FEMA flood maps reflect the current flood risk and do not depict any projected future sea level rise.
The best thing you can do for your home is to stay informed about the uncertain future of climate change.
While we prepare for the inevitability of changes to our climate, we should also do what we can to reduce our climate impact. The Boston Climate Action Network and 350.org are good sources of ideas for personal and corporate action.
- 350ma.org: Grassroots campaigns to address climate change
- Boston Climate Action Network: Neighborhood and citywide actions related to both mitigation and adaptation
- Greenovate Boston: Tips for reducing climate impact and for preparedness
- Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management: Resources for coastal communities
- Ready.gov: Strategies for emergency preparedness
By Kelsey Bittner