Each year, Martha’s Vineyard uses the equivalent of the entire output of an average-size nuclear power plant operating for a month and a half, according to a recent study done for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. That study also shows we emit some 270,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. While these are actually tiny numbers on the global scale, we have both a moral responsibility to do what we can to lower our greenhouse gas emissions and a true opportunity to provide leadership to our region, our state, and our country.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of a key turning point in the existential drama of our changing climate. In 1979, the National Academy of Sciences held its first major review of the science of climate change after NASA and NOAA published alarming findings. The review was held at the academy’s center in Woods Hole, only a few miles from our Island home. One finding: It might take several decades for the impacts of the extraordinary increase in emissions to become apparent, but by that time significant changes to the climate would be inevitable.
Four decades later, we are seeing on an almost daily basis the evidence of a changing climate that no doubt seemed far in the future when the academy’s review was completed. Since then, much has changed, and unfortunately, much has stayed the same. While the science has become much clearer, corporate interests have continued to actively oppose efforts to migrate away from fossil-fuel-based energy. National and global leaders have so far failed to take the measures necessary to meet their own professed climate action commitments.
So what can be done to avert planetary catastrophe for this and future generations? It has become very clear that the necessary leadership at this point in time must come from local actions and local activism.
Here on Martha’s Vineyard, a surge of community concern has been prompted by the realization that, as an Island, we are on the front lines in confronting the realities of climate change. The environmental impacts here will be many and varied — including rising seas, an increase in the severity of coastal storms and storm surges, and changes in our ecosystems. Climate disruption will also have significant financial implications. A recent study projects that Barnstable County will need to spend some $7 billion over the next two decades to address the issues of climate change — third highest in the nation. While Dukes County was not part of the study, the magnitude of Barnstable County’s necessary outlay is sobering and instructive.
A number of Island organizations are now working in concert on the dual challenges posed by the changing climate — preparing for what is to come (adaptation), and limiting greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation). Our electric power cooperative, Vineyard Power, has worked tirelessly to make significant renewable energy generation from offshore wind a reality. A grassroots citizen’s group, the Island Climate Action Network, has been invaluable in raising awareness of the challenges we face in adapting to the changing climate, and identifying concrete actions that Islanders can take to turn that awareness into a stronger and more resilient community.
The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has established the MVC Climate Change Task Force, which is working to develop master plans for both regional climate change adaptation and a regional energy transformation. Coordination with town-level planning is key; these issues are both local and regional.
In 2016, a group of town energy committee members established an all-Island energy committee, which we dubbed the Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee (VSEC). This committee aims to ensure that best practices and important activities in each town are shared across our entire community.
An initial VSEC initiative was to get each of our six towns accepted as a Massachusetts Green Community, and to participate in this grant program focused on energy efficiency for municipal buildings. By the end of 2019, Tisbury, West Tisbury, Aquinnah, and Chilmark will be Green Communities. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are on track to achieve this status in 2020.
VSEC’s next objective is to have our entire community adopt serious greenhouse gas reduction goals that are consistent with, but slightly more aggressive than, Massachusetts’s statutory requirements. To do so, we are sponsoring a “100 Percent Renewable Martha’s Vineyard” warrant article, which will come before the voters at all the upcoming annual town meetings.
The nonbinding goals in this article are simple: Migrate to 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030 (the state is already at 20-plus percent), and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040, and to reduce our fossil-fuel carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. While these goals will not be easy to achieve, they are necessary (on a global basis) to avoid the most serious outcomes associated with global warming beyond 2oC. We need to do our part.
We live in interesting and challenging times — but our children and grandchildren will inherit what we do or fail to do. It is very tempting to ignore the climate crisis. After all, Martha’s Vineyard is a very small part of the world, and national and global leadership has so far failed miserably in addressing the problem that the conference in Woods Hole in 1979 identified. We cannot wait for national leaders, nor is it appropriate to expect that future generations will do all the work. The time is now, and the key to tackling the global problem is local action. With all of us working together, Martha’s Vineyard can do this!
Rob Hannemann is chair of the Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee (VSEC), and is a member of the MVC Climate Crisis Task Force. VSEC is made up of town energy committee leaders, and aims to ensure that best practices and important activities in each town are shared across our entire community. Rob was previously an engineering professor at Tufts University, and is a full-time Chilmark resident.