Should we fight global warming to save our urban infrastructure? Alexis Madrigal suggested this approach in an article for The Atlantic. In this article, I’m bringing that idea down to the ground level. Communities that deal with racial disparities in environmental health – also known as environmental justice communities – may become the places that suffer most.

Environmental justice health risks and global warming go hand in hand. For example, when sea levels rise, leaky storage tanks may yield their oily contents, disturbing the low-income neighborhoods where the tanks reside.

Scientists sometimes present global warming impersonally. This approach has led to criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But scientists can also use data to make research relevant to audiences without biasing or oversimplifying their results.

On September 24, I saw global warming data presented persuasively during a tour called “Sea Level Rise in East Boston.” Common Boston, an interest group within the Boston Society of Architects, organized the event.

To set the stage for the tour, Torrey Wolff and Neenah Estrella Luna showed visitors maps of potential flooding in East Boston and Chelsea, two communities where activists are seeking environmental justice and sustainable development. The projected floods resulted from a combination of storm surges and sea level rise.

In a global warming context, sea levels increase for multiple reasons – including oceans warming, icebergs and glaciers melting, and ocean circulation changing to create massive waves. Luna referred to the highest waves as “wicked high tide.” (In Boston slang, “wicked” means “very.”)

The term “wicked” was well-chosen. Although there’s considerable uncertainty in the projected flooding, none of the scenarios look manageable for East Boston or Chelsea. The maps showed the lowest projected flooding, a sea-level increase of 2.5 feet by 2100, could lead to massive damage during storms. Wolff said these storms might occur bimonthly.

Kim Foltz described the economic challenges of salvaging the shoreline. East Boston and Chelsea were built on landfills connecting smaller islands in the Boston harbor. These low-lying areas are being gentrified but are still home to a largely international population. Many of the recent immigrants are from Central America, South America, or North Africa. Foltz added that over half of East Boston’s population is Latino.

The hands-on demonstration showed the risk of sea level rise more powerfully than the maps could accomplish. Wolff asked the group to plant flags on Constitution Beach to discover the potential effects of storm surges in the year 2100. Near the beach, storm surges – estimated conservatively at 1 meter – could cover public transit tracks and reach houses and businesses that are hundreds of feet from the water now. The businesses near Constitution Beach include a Latino supermarket, a tool lending store, and a Burger King.

The tour leaders didn’t discuss what might happen to these neighborhoods if they are flooded. I’m concerned that these seafront properties, which developers eye with acquisitive interest today, could become tomorrow’s slums. If homeowners abandon the houses they cannot repair and buildings are sitting vacant, crime might increase. Given the stories that came from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this idea is not farfetched.

Wolff painted a relatively optimistic picture, saying buildings could be built on piles or reconstructed so that they can lift up during storm surges. She said these innovations are becoming common in the Netherlands but are unusual in the United States.

The amount of capital required to complete this transformation of the shore would be immense, since many buildings in East Boston and Chelsea are former industrial sites. Building hills and sea walls would probably be more affordable than redesigning buildings, but either option could be costly. Foltz said that planting water-absorbing vegetation or introducing parks and wetlands could act as a stopgap measure to save some of East Boston and Chelsea.

Although few environmentalists might support the slogan “Save Burger King!,” it may be time to rethink how we talk about the resources low-income areas could lose. Global warming could wipe out our beaches, seaside restaurants, low-lying urban neighborhoods, and international grocery stores.

Although Chelsea and East Boston may never become high-crime ghost towns, curbing our appetite for the activities that cause global warming could help ensure those supermarkets will still be there for immigrants who may be escaping global warming elsewhere in the world.

Asking architects to demonstrate the effect of sea level rise on local beaches, stores and restaurants could help galvanize support for the changes we may be forced to make later – one way or the other.

With global warming, there is no “opt out” button. Either we face the situation or we don’t. Creative uses of data can help us see what could happen to our communities.

Images: Rusted Support Column, an old roadway column from the Big Dig in Boston, by xianstudio, Homeless in Boston, by juliaf.