Response needed to climate change


To the Editor: 

Sixty of us gathered in the lecture room in the old Marine Hospital, now beautifully repurposed as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. It was the morning after a nor’easter, Dorian, Sept. 7, 2019.
Specifically, we were informed as to how Vineyard Haven made structural changes when the economy shifted from annually servicing 30,000 to 40,000 clipper ships to one servicing increasing numbers of tourists and year-round residents. Thanks to the museum’s chief curator, Bonnie Stacy, and research librarian Bowdoin Van Riper, we learned both what occasioned change and what steps Vineyard Haven took, such as building the inner harbor breakwater around 1905, and then “filling” in Bass Creek next to the Lagoon, so as to create a much larger business area.
Cheryl Doble, associate professor emeritus at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, then walked us through what climate change is and will bring to the Vineyard. How can we imagine planning for our capacity to be resilient when the sea continues to warm, bringing more storms, hurricanes, droughts, intense rain events, the rising of sea levels, and the human health impacts on drinking water and nitrogen loads?
What will the whole Island do if our harbor becomes overwhelmed? Can we see that the Vineyard Haven Harbor is central to the whole Island? It alone is our deep-water harbor. Do we wait until many more of these natural disasters occur? 

It was helpful to be reminded that the town did get scientific studies done that suggested changes we needed to make to adapt to anticipated climate change in the 1980s. We, the citizenry, did not act then. 

Is it in our nature to only respond when a more sustained crisis requires us to act?
What will help us build momentum for public agreement to act in support of our beautiful and essential harbor? Critically, can that momentum include citizens throughout the Island, as we all depend on our harbor?
There are serious financial and political questions that are raised by this need. The harbor area is largely held in private hands. 

Is there a way for us as a town and as an Island to respond for change politically? Or is the model only that of individual owners alone deciding to do something or nothing? Some in the audience brought up how the Netherlands government made major changes to protect its common good. Would it not help us to hear their history and political process? Insurance companies are increasingly forcing the hands of some owners. Some areas will not be granted insurance. Will this matter? Or will the wealth of some who need no mortgage use the land along our harbor for however long they can, regardless of the risk to the common good?
What sources of revenue will pay for changes we might make? Not until this presentation did I realize that Vineyard Haven relies largely on residential taxes for supporting public government and all services, including schools. Commerce contributes 12 percent.

As the town with the highest tax rate, the citizens are already struggling, especially those on fixed incomes. Will state or federal dollars be able to fund major changes to protect our working harbor and Beach Road? Will we not be in competition with more populated areas, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere, that also are adversely impacted by climate change? Other Island areas will also have needs.
Timing is critical, and choices need to be made soon. Creating a barrier jetty in Eastville or creating channels below Beach Road will take time. Creating a salt marsh also takes time. These and other choices could help our Vineyard Haven Harbor better cope with surging tides and rising seas.
I appreciate deeply that both our local papers have had numerous articles on this issue over many years, and that our towns have initiated studies that will hopefully make us eligible for grants to address these matters and prepare our communities. In Tisbury, town leaders and boards have been meeting, and their summary of findings is available online, titled “Tisbury Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness.” Groups such as the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Vineyard Conservation Society have also made concerted efforts, including preparing maps pertaining to impact available to all. The activist group Together We Can has also had a strong working group regarding Vineyard climate change. I found it helpful to Google “climate change and Martha’s Vineyard,” as there is a lot online. However, becoming better informed myself is insufficient. 

We all need as citizens to work on this together over our dinner tables, in small and large groups, in libraries and schools and town halls, well before matters come before town meeting or the voting booth. We painfully learned this in regard to the Tisbury School, and now going forward in regard to our regional high school as well. 

On the bright side, we can also remember that students in West Tisbury, concerned about climate change, brought a plastic bottle ban to the up-Island town meetings two years ago. They both learned and acted together at several town meetings to bring about change. Be open to their efforts this year, as they bring their knowledge and activism to down-Island towns. Most recently, many students and citizens participated both here and in Boston and New York in marches calling for action. As an older citizen who so loves this Island, I know I must now do much more. Teenager Greta Thunberg has challenged all of us to not look just to the young to take action or give us hope that change is possible. We all must keep learning and taking action. We can be responsive to what is a very present risk to all of us. 

Jean Hay
Vineyard Haven