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Pulitzer Center Update December 29, 2023

Behind the Story: David Abel on Climate Change Film ‘Inundation District’

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Despite climate threats, Boston spent billions on a new neighborhood.

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Communities across the globe are retreating from the coast as sea levels rise, but what happens when a city continues to build in flood zones, despite the risks? 

Filmmaker and Pulitzer Center grantee David Abel seeks to answer this question in his and Ted Blanco's new film, Inundation District, which examines Boston’s continued construction in the climate-vulnerable Seaport “Innovation District." 

The Pulitzer Center-supported Connected Coastlines project Inundation District, which premiered in fall 2023, examines how the city has allowed unbridled construction that turns quick profits for developers from building projects that may be underwater in a few decades. The film begins with scenes of the Seaport District, already flooding on sunny days at high tide. During storms, surge flooding makes the district unnavigable. 

One-sixth of Boston is built on man-made land. Since the early 19th century, massive engineering projects have filled in parts of Boston Harbor to expand the city’s habitable land. Nearly all of these areas are at sea level, including the Seaport District. The Seaport, in particular, has been the site of billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded projects intended to draw major companies to the city. Inundation District questions who pays when these projects face their climate change-prescribed fate. 

Abel’s thorough and revelatory reporting involved interviewing a range of people—from activists and developers to artists, historians, lawmakers, scientists, and unhoused residents of the Seaport. While the film centers on the Seaport, Abel said, Boston is not alone in careless and climate-ignorant infrastructure projects. He hopes the film will ring universal as the world copes with rising sea levels. 

Abel is a longtime Boston Globe reporter whose past films have addressed climate change and its impact on ocean species. His Pulitzer Center-supported film Entangled won the Conservation Award at the 2021 International Ocean Film Festival. Abel is also a Pulitzer Prize winner for his Globe team’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2014. 

Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Alexandra Byrne spoke with Abel about his inspiration for Inundation District, what makes Boston unique (or not), and how he brought his reporting to the attention of Massachusetts lawmakers. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Alexandra Byrne: What sparked the idea for this project and what made it clear it would be a good subject for a film? 

David Abel: I've made a bunch of different climate change-related films over the years. I've been a climate reporter at The Boston Globe for a number of years. When I first moved to Boston some 20 years ago, I had noticed this barren area of the city (that) was right against what seemed like valuable waterfront property. It was just abandoned warehouses and parking lots, and that was strange to me. I followed at a distance how the city started to rebrand this area as the “Innovation District.” All this money got pumped into the area, and all of a sudden there was explosive growth. 

As explosive growth was happening, I had been reporting for the paper about reports that showed our exposure to the risks of rising seas. The projections were getting worse and worse for Boston. Every few years there would be a new report that would come out that would show the likely impact was going to get worse. Then we had Sandy, which devastated New York. If it arrived a few hours earlier, there would have been catastrophic consequences in downtown Boston, including the Seaport. 

As I was reading these reports I was hearing all these climate scientists say that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to be building this area up. I started to ask the question, well, why? What's happening here? We are building an entirely new urban district at sea level on a landfill, hard on the coast. Despite having more climate scientists per capita perhaps than any other city on the planet, many of whom were saying this is a problem, we shouldn't be building here and we are continuing to build. I thought that posed an interesting and concerning question about why are we doing this and who is going to ultimately have to foot the bill to cover the cost of defending this area. 

It felt like there was an important question of environmental or climate justice about who ultimately has to cover the costs of defending a place that was built after we understood the threat of rising seas. What distinguished this place and what made it interesting to me was that this area was built, unlike Miami or the Marshall Islands, and billions of dollars were invested in it, well after we understood the threat of rising seas. 

AB: Did that framework of climate justice influence whom you spoke with and whom you thought the audience might be for the film? 

DA: As a reporter, I tried to talk to as many people as I could. I didn't want to make some sort of advocacy-oriented piece. I didn't want to make some sort of screed. I wanted to sort of give a fair say to the developers and city officials and anyone who would be willing to share their point of view. So that's what I tried to do. I tried to get people from all sides of the story to share their point of view. 

There were a number of people, like other developers and some officials, whom I reached out to and who declined to talk. 

AB: People likely see the Seaport as a wealthy district of Boston. How do you convince people to care about the impact of climate change on a relatively wealthy district? 

DA: From my point of view, I'm not making this film so that people are necessarily concerned about the wealthy people who can afford to live in this neighborhood as much as the many people who will presumably have to cover the costs of defending this neighborhood. That is ultimately the question that I put to the developer, (whom) we spent a good amount of time with and gave him ample opportunity to talk. He really couldn't answer the question of who should have to protect this neighborhood. What he suggested is essentially that it should be the taxpayers, that it should be a public concern, not on the developers, not on the people who built it. That was something that I was trying to sort of call attention to as, in my mind at least, concerning. 

AB: There’s a scene where you’re talking to the developer and he says, “This is not a Seaport issue, this is a global issue.” Boston faces unique challenges in many ways, but we do see this happening elsewhere. How did you balance the hyper-local and global? 

DA: Well, my hope is that people don't view this as a local film just about this one neighborhood. This is a story that is a prism for the larger concerns that all coastal cities are facing and that all coastal cities are going to have to contend with, questions of retreat, questions about continued development. Should we be building seawalls? Should we be thinking about other coastal defenses? Who should pay for them? And so forth. 

Ultimately, the reason I wanted to make this film is because, yes, there are local concerns about shortsighted political decision making that I wanted to cast light on. But I wanted to cast light on the larger problem of how anyone who lives in a coastal city is going to have to wrestle with issues that I'm raising. 

AB: Are you optimistic about the future of the Seaport and policy making? 

DA: Yesterday we had a massive storm. There was flooding in lots of different places, and I bet there was in the Seaport as well. We have seen examples of this happening in 2018, with major flooding in the Seaport and other areas of downtown Boston. The reality is any time of the year now, we could see major destructive flooding in that neighborhood and also in many other neighborhoods around the Seaport. 

The fact of the matter is that those risks are only growing as sea levels rise and storms become more and more powerful. This is not something that is going away. There's nothing we can do about that at the moment. Even if we are able to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, we've already baked in a lot of the warming and that is not something we can avoid anymore, unfortunately. 

AB: You bring a youth voice to the film when you interview a younger artist who made a sculpture that floats in Boston Harbor, representing an underwater building. Did you find any discrepancies between older and younger understandings of the problem? 

DA: It's going to affect younger generations in a lifelong way that maybe older people don't have to worry as much about. But we live in a city where people are pretty well educated on these issues, so I don't think it matters. A lot of people of all different ages have spent years advocating for addressing the threats of climate change. I don't think that age is an obstacle to someone's comprehension. 

I do think that we are seeing, thankfully, greater wisdom coming from younger people, and creative pressure coming from younger people, that are hopefully pushing policymakers today to take action. Today, we do have enlightened political leaders in our state who are conscious of the threats and serious about addressing them. 

Just last week, I was invited to show this film to a private screening of the governor of Massachusetts’ cabinet and had this really rare and wonderful opportunity to show the film to the lieutenant governor, secretary of transportation, secretary of education, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, and several other people. In a couple of weeks, I was invited by one of the top senators in the state to show it to his colleagues. We're going to have a screening just for state lawmakers on Beacon Hill at the statehouse in Massachusetts. 

AB: What’s next for the film? Has this project changed your future reporting plans? 

DA: We are prepared to show the film in major venues around Boston and then well beyond. We'll be taking this film to the IMAX theater at the New England Aquarium, which is right on Boston Harbor and a great place to show this film. They will hopefully have a great audience. We'll be taking it to the JFK Presidential Library, which is also right on the water. We're starting locally, in a sense, trying to show it at the major venues throughout Boston and the region. We'll be showing it on Nantucket in a few weeks, which is known for having all kinds of coastal erosion problems, and New Bedford, where they have also had major flooding issues. We see in the film they built this massive seawall and hurricane barrier. 

Then we'll be bringing it to festivals in California and all kinds of other places. We also just received interest from a national PBS strand that is interested in a national broadcast of the film. So there are quite a few things on the horizon for the film that we're excited about. 

I am super grateful for the support of the Pulitzer Center in making this film possible. The Pulitzer Center was hugely helpful in enabling me to spend the past two years working on this project while trying to balance all kinds of other things. We had the premiere of the film in October (2023) at the GlobeDocs Film Festival, which is The Boston Globe’s festival, where I have worked as a reporter for many years. The serious launch of the film, in terms of bringing it to a larger audience, starts in the new year. 

As far as my future reporting, I will continue covering these issues. I hope that people see this film as a reflection that climate change is not some distant, abstract threat, but one that presents a clear-and-present danger that we need to address now—we can't wait.

Learn more about the film and view the trailer here.

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