Climate change considerations for town officials

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To the Editor:
It’s budget season — town officials, residents, and Island agencies grapple with hard decisions and tradeoffs, facing seemingly endlessly increasing demands and costs. They make choices on behalf of all of us. Some of them will affect not just the coming year, but will be with us for years to come. It is impossible to do everything, and there is no decision they can make that will make everybody happy.

Under normal circumstances, this is already hard enough. Being a low-lying Island off the Northeast coast of the United States of America in 2020 is not “normal circumstances,” however.

In the coming decades, climate change and sea level rise will not just be added to the issues we already have to deal with, it will overtake and overwhelm them. Not just for us, but for the country as a whole.

And the economic effects of climate change will be every bit as significant as the environmental effects, make no mistake about it. Locally, the cost of cleanup and recovery after powerful, possibly devastating storms, ongoing infrastructure repair costs due to increasing coastal flooding, rising insurance costs, increases in food prices as major agricultural areas are affected by drought, all these and more will take their toll on all of us. Add to that the stratospheric levels of government and corporate debt, which cannot be kicked down the road at increasing cost with diminishing returns indefinitely — all these factors don’t bode well for the economy in the long run.

In other words, the funds we spend now, whether state grants, loans, or local tax revenues, may be diminished or unobtainable even just a few decades from now, and we should plan accordingly. For example, instead of building for the short term, and risk having nonviable infrastructure (and debt) in the future without the means to do anything about it, every major expense the Island undertakes from here on in should ideally endure in a high-emissions, “business as usual” sea level rise scenario, even if it requires greater current investment to do so. Barring being able to build for maximum presumed sea level rise and category-5 hurricane strength resistance, what we build now should be such that it can be adjusted over time to meet changing circumstances.

All this is to say that all of us — social service agencies, advocacy groups, taxpayers, businesses, parents, retirees, municipal officials — have to pull together to recognize that we face grave threats and difficulties, and that these will require very difficult decisions, great effort, sacrifices, and also, inevitably, losses. No matter how much we believe in that one issue or proposal — that thing we passionately advocate for, or are in fact professionally responsible for — we have to be flexible, thoughtful, frugal, respectful, and dedicated to the bigger question: What is truly indispensable to prepare the Island to get through the decades ahead? 

Starting right now, in 2020, we need to challenge ourselves to look at this question. By 2040, we will not be saying “how we saved Martha’s Vineyard,” but “what we were able to save of the Martha’s Vineyard we know and love.” And the choices then will revolve around, “What do we need to do now to survive in the even more difficult decades ahead?” 

We face a future which can no longer be reliably guided by the past. This means we must evaluate our adaptation plans in a comprehensive fashion alongside all other needs and priorities, and balance present and future benefits and needs appropriately to secure our future.

 

Marina Lent

Chilmark