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'We can't afford to wait on climate action'; state's new coastal resilience director gets to work

Alison Brizius

Massachusetts is getting a new climate change leader. Alison Brizius is taking over as director of the division of Coastal Zone Management, which sets policy and planning on coastal resilience, flooding prevention, habitat protection, storm mitigation and more. CAI’s environment reporter, Eve Zuckoff, caught up with her in an exclusive interview.

Eve Zuckoff: Dr. Alison Brizius is the incoming director of the Office of Coastal Zone Management. Thank you for talking with me.

Alison Brizius: Happy to be here.

Eve Zuckoff: In towns around our region, we see streets and neighborhoods regularly flooding now where they didn't in the past. I'm thinking about Chatham, parts of Sandwich, downtown Nantucket, a bunch of places—with so many more in need of attention. How will your office be setting priorities?

Alison Brizius: Thank you, Eve. That is such a good question. And I mean, I think it comes down to a combination of things. It comes down to following the science, and understanding where the priorities are in our communities to help understand where are the most valuable and critical assets, beloved community spaces, transportation, infrastructure and other things that need to be protected most? In particular, we're looking at our environmental justice communities and how we can partner with them to make sure that they are at the front of the line and at the forefront of participating in that decision-making process.

Eve Zuckoff: Tell me more. What does collaboration look like with local communities? Will there be community input into how to design a resilient coast, or is it working more with town leaders, or more about directing state funds to what's needed? What should our communities expect?

Alison Brizius: I think it has to be all of those things. It has to be working with our communities who best understand what their needs are. What are the priorities? It's following the science, talking to the industries and our and our local businesses to understand what they want to see, and working with our residents. Every dollar invested in disaster mitigation pays back six times over in avoided losses. And not just in economic terms. It pays back in terms of all of the disruption that we avoid to the lives of our residents and our businesses.

Eve Zuckoff: I'm curious about managed retreat. We've heard a lot about it. But here on the ground across the Cape, Coast, and islands, homes at the ocean's edge represent the most valuable property. They represent taxes for towns. Is that going to be a part of this strategy playbook?

Alison Brizius: That's a very complex issue and it requires careful consideration. I know that MEMA [Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency] is looking at coastal buybacks, and that this is a thing that's been tackled and looked at in many communities across the nation. I think it is a hard decision, and it's important to us and to me that it's driven by communities who are on the ground, understanding what their needs are. And if they choose to tackle that issue, then we want to be there and be as supportive as we can in those conversations and bringing resources to the table.

Eve Zuckoff: I want to ask you a little bit more about you personally. Until now, you've served as commissioner of the Environment Department in the city of Boston. Now you'll be navigating policy for urban parts of the South Coast, rural parts of the Cape, high price second home communities on the islands. How has your background prepared you for this new role?

Alison Brizius: So I'm really looking forward to digging in and getting to know those communities. They have, as you said, their own unique characteristics. Boston in and of itself is made up of so many communities and so many neighborhoods, even just among our 47 miles of a much larger coast. So I'm looking forward to bringing that experience, working with so many diverse conditions across the city of Boston to the broader community. There's no question there's learning. And one of my priorities is going to be to sit down and work with folks and get to know and build better connections with those other communities on the North Shore and the South Shore and the Cape and Islands and the South Coast.

Eve Zuckoff: Last question here. What have we missed? What haven't I asked you that you want to make sure people hear as you start this new job?

Alison Brizius: So many of us know that we can't afford to wait on climate action. We see the risk. But this is our our time to embrace the opportunity to envision the future of our of our coastal identity in Massachusetts. The question is, how do we build resilience now in the short term, while not taking our eye off the ball of the longer term vision that we could see for our future?

Eve Zuckoff: Dr. Alison Brizius, thank you so much for joining us.

Alison Brizius: Thank you.

This interview has been edited for time and clarity.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.