Liz Durkee has always addressed climate change, but now as Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s first climate change planner, she’s addressing climate change on an Island-wide scale.
Durkee, who was hired by the MVC last month, has an extensive background in planning for the environment and climate change as the former Oak Bluffs conservation agent.
“It was pretty funny to start a brand-new job no one’s ever had before,” Durkee said. “My first day of work I just walked upstairs to my home office and sat down at a desk and [said], ‘OK, where do I begin?’”
In Oak Bluffs, her concern with sea level rise expanded to an interest in climate change.
“I just did a lot of research on my own time because I really wanted to understand how climate change would affect the Island so that we could plan accordingly,” she said.
Her passion for addressing climate change pairs with her passion for the Island. Durkee’s roots on the Island stretch back a few generations. Her grandparents on both sides of her family began coming to the Island in the 1950s, her parents met and married on the Island, and Durkee, who lives in Oak Bluffs, has been coming to the Island her entire life.
“I knew when I was 7 years old that I would live here when I was grown up,” Durkee said.
There are five main areas Durkee is now working on: climate education for the community, energy efficiency, climate adaptation, human health and safety issues, and local economic issues.
The job has many facets, including working with the MVC’s climate action task force, chairing the task force’s climate resiliency committee, and reviewing developments of regional impact (DRIs) through a climate lens.
The committee is working on an Island-wide climate resiliency plan that looks at coastal adaptation, inland flooding, and other issues. Durkee said the committee is seeking grant funding to hire a consultant.
“The climate issue is the most serious issue that’s ever faced the Island,” Durkee said. “We’re talking about loss of land, extreme heat, extreme flooding, inland and coastal … they’re all community-wide issues. I feel the whole community needs to understand these issues and take part in the discussions, because any strategies we come up with really need to be community-wide that people can understand and buy into.”
Speaking to The Times by phone, MVC executive director Adam Turner said addressing climate change is one of the commission’s most important tasks. Having a climate change planner is paramount for the regional planning agency to look at everything the commission does.
“Hiring Liz is especially beneficial in that regard, because she comes to the commission with a tremendous amount of experience,” Turner said. “There’s no learning curve; she’s been here. Secondly she’s been like a guiding light in terms of climate change issues. We’re very fortunate she accepted our offer.”
According to Turner, the commission received approximately 100 applications for the job. Durkee’s starting salary is $70,000.
When dealing with climate change, Durkee said, community-wide should mean Island-wide. “I think If ever there was an issue that’s broad-based and Island-wide, it’s climate change,” Durkee said. “Having a regional approach and working with the towns on their individual priorities is the way we can really make it work.”
Several towns have established climate committees and energy committees that Durkee will collaborate with.
Along with working at the local level, Durkee is also working with the task force to get federal attention.
The Island is not without its pool of talent to tackle climate change, but it doesn’t hurt to have President Joe Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, living on the same Island. The task force has reached out to Kerry, Gina McCarthy, the first White House national climate advisor, and state legislators for climate adaptation and renewable energy funding.
“It’s a very positive time right now with the new administration. They’re really putting an emphasis on renewable energy, climate adaptation, and infrastructure needs,” Durkee said. “It’s an exciting time to be working on this issue, because we have people who are supportive of it in office now.”
One of the task force’s goals is to reduce fossil fuel usage on the Island by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040, which Durkee said are goals being seen across the country.
“It’s becoming much more clear that if we don’t reduce emissions drastically, we might be looking at a climate that may not be livable for species, including humans,” she said. “I think it’s completely doable.”
As for what Islanders can do, Durkee said people can become more educated on climate change, get involved in town efforts, and look at their own properties and think about their energy use. She added that the Island needs to become more self-sufficient, such as buying locally sourced food when climate change damages food production in other areas of the country and the world.
Even though she’s only a month into the job, Durkee is hard at work. Some of her goals are to meet with planning boards to update zoning bylaws about building in flood zones, work with the task force and Eversource to discuss the electric grid being capable of dealing with renewable energy, and work with the Steamship Authority to potentially purchase electric ferries. Durkee also wants to work on human health and safety issues, like a post-disaster recovery plan, tick-borne illnesses, and look at jobs and training for Islanders that will be created through renewable energy.
In terms of the economy, Durkee said, the Island has a lot to offer by way of history, festivals, and art, but said one of the Island’s most important resources is being eroded.
“Our economy is really based on our coastline, our beaches, and the recreational benefits of the ponds and the saltmarshes,” Durkee said. “How are we going to adapt to the fact that our beaches are eroding, and that we may need to re-evaluate our economy or readjust our economy in some way to make the Island appealing to people that make them attracted for other than beach recreation?”
North Bluff Beach in Oak Bluffs is a success story for the Island. After years of slowly disappearing, the beach returned following a yearslong project that used Community Preservation Act funds and state grants. Sand dredged from Sengekontacket Pond was used to fill in the beach while the North Bluff seawall was rebuilt.
Durkee said it is an option to renourish beaches, but sea level rise will eventually make it impossible.
“I know people don’t want to think about climate change, because people are busy and they have to pay their bills and raise their children, and climate change is scary to think about, but I encourage people to think about it,” Durkee said. “And we need to be prepared … it’s up to those of us living on the Island right now to make the right choices and do the right thing.”