Vineyard Economy in Eye of Coming Storm


In one quick generation the Vineyard became a famous summer resort destination. The shoreline and its recreational joys became the drum that beats the local economy. And now that economy is at risk of cracking under the weight of climate change.

Who would have imagined that in one fell swoop called Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont's leaf-peeping season, its biggest tourism draw, would be washed away with the raging rivers? A serious summer hurricane will do the same here and like Vermont, recovery will not be quick. Meanwhile northeasters and storms like Irene - fueled on the coast by sea level rise and storm surges - are clawing away at the Island's shore. Irene caused severe south shore erosion and put several homes at risk of collapse.

These are natural events, made worse by man-made global warming, that are disastrous for humans in their path. On the Island, during a long era of climate stability, we built homes, businesses, roads and utilities on shifting sands, on top of eroding banks, and in expanding floodplains. Now more than ever our economy is shaped by nature's whim.

According to The Boston Globe, the insurance company Munich Re reports that the first six months of the year saw "98 natural disasters in the United States, about double the average of the 1990s." And this year "total weather losses top $35 million, and that is not counting Hurricane Irene." The Globe later reported that Irene caused up to $13 million in damages to just one Massachusetts town - Greenfield.

The Island is a direct hit for climate change disruption. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that "Some of the most economically important vulnerable areas are the recreational resorts on the coastal barrier of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts."

It's hard to underestimate the economic value of the coast. A book titled The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake? produced by Restore America's Estuaries notes: "Far beyond commercial fishing and tourism, healthy coasts and estuaries are essential for ... tens of millions in recreational opportunities ... coasts and estuary regions support a disproportionately large share of the nation's economic output and population."

But climate change is a threat to tourism, "as beaches erode and resorts are threatened," according to coastal geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young in the their book, The Rising Sea. They add: "The countries with the biggest problems are the atoll nations; deltaic countries such as Egypt, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh; and countries with large, low-lying, heavily developed coastal plains such as the United States."

They also note: "When it comes to the economic response to sea level rise, it is likely the problems of the cities will trump those of rural or tourist areas. Preservation of Manhattan will certainly be seen as a higher national priority than ... hundreds of ... American beachfront tourist towns."

The Island's natural environment and economy are intertwined. Drastic as well as cumulative damage to the Island from sea level rise, storms and floods will cause the loss of beaches, water quality, roads, bridges, homes, businesses and visitors. This translates into the loss of property taxes and puts a strain on town governments. Eroded beaches mean fewer places for children to play in the sand, swamped salt marshes mean less fish and shellfish. There will be less birding, boating and fishing opportunities and fewer places of beauty to walk, run, bike and relax. Salt marsh loss will add to the flooding of roads and homes.

Weather extremes can damage crops and cause losses for farmers. The health care economy could undergo a shift as certain diseases become more common here, including respiratory diseases, skin cancer, depression and mosquito-born illnesses.
A fractured recreational base means a spiraling loss of jobs, from commercial fishing and shellfishing, marina operations, fish markets and restaurants to inns and hotels, real estate, clothing, arts and entertainment.

As this century unfolds and nature takes its unsettling new course, it will be harder to make a living here. And the cost of living will rise. Bob Mone, president and owner of the Mone Insurance Agency in Vineyard Haven, says quite frankly that climate change means more expenses for insurance companies and homeowners. "I don't know of a single company that isn't thinking about it," he said. "We're paying out more claims, which means higher rates for homeowners. People are feeling the effects already, rates have gone up tremendously."

Is there a plus side anywhere? The construction and trade industries could benefit from repair and rebuilding of damaged buildings and infrastructure. And a committed community can choose to invest in coastal protection.

The latest report from Restore America's Estuaries is titled Coastal Restoration Creates Jobs, Boosts Local Economies. It says: "Coasts and estuaries are not only essential to the nation's economy, but ... investments in coastal habitat restoration produce jobs in a cash-strapped, job-starved economy at a higher rate than many other sectors."

The report continues: "A powerful case [can be made] for government and private investment in the nation's coasts and estuaries ... [this could produce] enviable returns on investment to local and regional economies in the form of new jobs, increased tourism and tourist dollars, hunting and fishing revenues, and property values ... restoring our coasts can create more than 30 jobs for each million dollars invested."

Encouraging news, but where do we find millions of dollars to invest? And meanwhile, how much of our low-lying land will the rising sea encompass? We don't know yet.

But the message is clear: If we want to make the best of a bad situation we need to plan and act locally. There are two main ways to combat climate change, adaptation and mitigation. Coastal restoration is adaptation - planning ahead to try to protect what we can of our endangered coastline. Mitigation means reducing our use of greenhouse gasses, thus slowing the rate of global warming. Economic examples include greener building and business practices and investments in clean, local energy.

The flip side is that there are many ways to strengthen the Island economy. The Martha's Vineyard Commission Island Plan offers a template for invigorating the local economy, outlining strong and positive community goals, including:

• Stimulate a vital, balanced, local economy that is more self-reliant and more diverse.

• Produce as much of our essentials, such as food and energy, as we can, and convert our waste into useful products.

• Sustain our year-round community by addressing housing affordability and the high cost of living.

Unified action is required to achieve these goals. How about a working coalition of local business owners and the chamber of commerce, conservation and energy groups, fishermen, farmers, towns and planners? Success will require strong leadership, cooperation and compromise.

At a recent climate change conference roundtable, the following was noted: "When the insurance industry stops insuring houses because of sea level rise, when climate change begins to affect the bottom line, it will be a force of change. The people and businesses will listen. The business community will act to secure their business needs."

On the Island we can't wait for that to happen. We need to protect our future right now. The business community and our economic stability is as much at risk as those south shore houses half tumbled to the sea.

This series of 15 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.