Surface Beauty Requires Solid Base


The Vineyard is too beautiful for its own good, at least when it comes to climate change. It's hard to look past the shimmering goldenrod and deep autumn ocean to see growing cracks in the Island's foundation.

The soil, trees and plants–the powerful roots of wispy beach grass–keep this Island afloat. The land and sea provide food and shelter. Clean air and water sustain our human health. The beaches and parks, forests and farms, vast water views and bold hydrangeas are the fuel that fire the local economy. This is our foundation.

The natural world, our physical health and the local economy are at risk from manmade global warming that began with the Industrial Revolution. Back then they didn't know that burning fossil fuels would impose long-term damage to the planet and its people. Now we know. Now we need to act.

What an irony for the Vineyard! The discovery of fossil fuels helped end the grand era of whaling that defined 19th century Island life (as did the near depletion of whales). It ignited the rapid growth of polluted cities and more stable wages for new industrial workers, and increased railroad transportation, all of which charged a desire for coastal recreation. Add to that the spread of religious camp meetings and thus was born a summer resort Island. Today the impacts of industrialization are hitting hardest out here in the sea, precisely where people came to avoid it.

The Island in the 21st century is a far cry from the quiet fishing and farming villages that gently closed their doors on Labor Day. Now it is a world-class destination. But just as the end of whaling disrupted the economic and international status of the Island, so will climate change. It is the biggest threat the Island has ever faced.

The sea is rising and the land is sinking. The shoreline is eroding, storms are more destructive, plants and trees are stressed, our health is at risk – especially our respiratory systems–and our recreation-based economy is outdated. We can get help from the outside world to face these challenges, but as an Island community in an increasingly unstable world, we ought to focus on self-reliance.

We are unique in both our insularity and the severity of impacts we face, but we are not alone. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has released a Climate Change Adaptation Report that says: "Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge of this generation, with potentially profound effects on the economy, public health, water resources, infrastructure, coastal resources, energy demand, natural features and recreation."

Climate change is "expected to affect many aspects of Massachusetts' economy and all levels of government. Climate change will put greater stress on governments by increasing demand for emergency and other services. Among industries expected to be affected are weather-dependent activities such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries ... and service industries such as real estate management, tourism and recreation, and health care."

The report's findings are straightforward:

• Climate change is already happening and will continue.

• The impacts are wide-ranging and affect many sectors of society.

• The cost of impacts will be high.

• Current and accurate information improves decision-making.

• Integrating mitigation and adaptation provides double benefits.

• Adaptive management and forward-thinking goals should be built into current actions.

• Actions addressing climate change may present opportunities.

The report says: "The time to address climate change is now ... planning for and managing impacts of climate change before they occur are preferable to reactive decision-making after an impact takes place. This approach has the potential to reduce costs, minimize or prevent impacts to public health and safety, and minimize damage to crucial natural resources and built infrastructure. Both management and planning should be flexible, dynamic, and adaptive, and strategies must be continuously revisited and revised."

It continues to say that climate change "may create new economic opportunities . . . from new fish stocks to longer growing seasons, new natural resource-related opportunities might emerge."

The Martha's Vineyard Commission has applied to take part in the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management's StormSmart Coasts Program. If chosen, the Island will be able to accomplish a critical, primary goal encouraged in the state report: "Risk and vulnerability assessments of infrastructure and buildings, natural habitats and ecosystems, community-specific hazards and threats, health care systems and social and cultural resources."

Meanwhile, the Vineyard Conservation Society is on the verge of releasing a major report on Island climate change impacts. A new group has emerged called the Island Climate Action Network (lCAN).

The Massachusetts report includes a set of core adaptation principles:

• Broad-based participation.

• Best available science and technology.

• Strong leadership.

• Coordination of efforts.

• Assisting vulnerable populations.

• Cost-effective and risk-based approaches.

Tom Chase, a conservationist from Oak Bluffs, offers a local perspective: "We need not get hung up on the ideology of climate change; economics and urgency will simplify the debate. After enough repetition, climate-induced events will force changes in where we place our infrastructure, such as coastal roads, bridges, oil tanks, ferry landings, commercial centers and housing.

"The real question is where we will rebuild–in the same places? Or might we, through advanced planning, seize climatic events as opportunities to rebuild and make our community better than we are now? Imagine no traffic jams at Five Corners–a place that winter storms already flood–because we have rerouted the roads. Rather than just respond to crises in an ad hoc way, we could plan the redevelopment of key areas–not just to adapt to climate change, but also to fix non-climate-related problems we already suffer ... similarly, we can take climatic opportunities to restore ecosystems, particularly those that provide services upon which humans and wildlife both rely." He concluded:

"I think we stand a better chance of success if we look at climate adaptation as part of a broader goal to restore better natural communities and redevelop better built communities–better than the ones we have today."

A better community means a happier populace. In this country we have an unusual constitutional right–the pursuit of happiness. Defined by Webster's, happiness is "a state of well-being and contentment." Not to be confused with pleasure, or "frivolous amusement." Today our economy, our lifeline, is based on providing other people pleasure. But local well-being can be had by focusing on that old-fashioned value–the common good. We will all benefit from a strong, diverse local economy, proactive planning for long-term environmental preservation, health care services that factor in environmentally-based, climate-related illnesses, and local renewable energy sources, less dependence on fossil fuels.

Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison is not even convinced the term happiness is true enough. In a speech at Rutgers University she said, "I have often wished that Jefferson had not used the phrase pursuit of happiness as the third right ... I would rather he had written 'life, liberty and the pursuit of 'meaningfulness' or 'truth' ... personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that's more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It's looking good instead of doing good."

It's too late to feel helpless about climate change; there is too much tangible work to be done. Every person on this Island can make a difference simply by getting involved. Join a climate change, conservation or energy group. Speak up at selectmen's meetings. Carve out a little time each day to act. Motivate your friends. Rattle the cage. Demand strong and united leadership–it needs to come from every sector: government, health, business, conservation, education, youth, fishing and farming, planning, construction, landscaping, and the religious community.

To protect the common good we need money and interdisciplinary leadership. And the undeniable truth is that community success means personal sacrifice. Let's throw something on the table to charge the debate: an Island climate bank. Yes, that means a tax. We each pay a small price to create a better whole. It's time to throw ideas on the table and get to work. What are your ideas? And where, oh where, is the leadership?

The goal of this series has been to unite the jumbled pieces of the Island's climate change puzzle and show the big, interconnected picture of how it will play out on this highly exposed little microcosm, this one isolated piece of a planet at risk. To face the local facts head on. And to encourage immediate, unified action in the Island spirit of grace, good humor, intelligence and foresight.

In his song Forever Young, Bob Dylan wishes us well: "May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift."

This series of 14 essays about climate change was published in the Vineyard Gazette over a period of seven months in 2011. It appears here with permission. Copyright Vineyard Gazette. All rights reserved.