August’s four critical news stories

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Martha’s Vineyard Times readers should be aware of how four crucial reports, released last month, relate to one another. They are: 1. the Martha’s Vineyard Commission report recommending a “carrying capacity” study of the Island; 2. the 2020 Census Bureau data concerning the population of the U.S.; 3. a study released by the U.N.s’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; and 4. the Trustees of Reservations’ report on the eroding of the Island’s coastlines.

If we analyze these together, we see how they are connected to one another in terms of climate change: the rapid deterioration not only of the Island but the entire earth. This year alone, we have all witnessed the huge heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, more severe storms, devastating wildfires in the western U.S. and throughout Europe, the ubiquity of flooding due to sea level rise, and the Island’s ruthless coastal erosion.

Most recently, Hurricane Ida wreaked catastrophic havoc on New Orleans, and its remnants pummeled the Island. The Washington Post reported “how climate change helped make Hurricane Ida one of Louisiana’s worst,” because “it was the poster child for a climate change–driven disaster.”

So in August, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission recommended a study concerning the Island’s “carrying capacity.” Along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the MVC wants to determine how much pressure the Island environment can take as it experiences overburdening population growth, increased housing and commercial development, rapid growth in automobile traffic, pressure for new wastewater and freshwater requirements, and so on. The study is estimated to cost half a million dollars.

The study can determine how much more growth the Island can take before it is no longer the environmentally pristine place that has attracted so many residents and visitors.

Here is where the second report comes in. The 2020 census data was released last month, and it showed a substantial increase in the Island’s population numbers. Case in point: When we purchased our Aquinnah lot more than 30 years ago, the town’s population was 199. Today, it is 439, an increase of almost 120 percent. 

In fact, Aquinnah had the highest percentage growth of any town in Massachusetts. Chilmark was third, and West Tisbury fifth. The Island overall increased by 24 percent, from 16,535 to 20,600. And in summer, the population grows to well over 100,000.

As many people have observed, if we compare Martha’s Vineyard to Staten Island, New York, we find that the Vineyard consists of some 88 square miles, while Staten Island is smaller at 59 square miles. But Staten Island’s 2020 census showed that almost 500,000 people live there. If we increased MV’s carrying capacity to accommodate all the needs required by increased growth, it would require wider roads for more people producing more sewerage, more waste to transport from the Island along with declining freshwater sources, and just about more of everything that no one really wants or needs.

At the same time, this past August, a U.N. report released by its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, showed that climate scientists have found that the earth is warming faster than previously thought. The consequences promise to be grim for our grandchildren and their children if steps aren’t immediately taken to slow or even stop it. The temperature of the earth has now warmed to 1.1° Celsius over preindustrial times. The long-held benchmark was that if the temperature increased by 2° Celsius, the earth might well be unlivable in some places. That was why the Paris Climate Agreement set the goal at 1.5° Celsius, which may be reached by as early as 2040.

The report is the first of four the U.N. will release over the coming months. It is based on findings by 234 authors from 66 countries, along with an additional 517 contributing writers. Climate scientists have long held that studies by the U.N. Panel are definitive, but always caution that the conclusions are conservative because so many writers are involved.

If these reports were not enough, the Trustees of Reservations sounded the alarm when it outlined the Island’s coastal damage in its second “State of the Coast” annual report. As Lucas Thors reported in The Times, “since 1887, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket combined have lost 3,295 acres of coastal areas, or about 5.1 square miles, due to erosion — roughly the size of Aquinnah, or about 2,500 football fields. Over the next 30 years, 3,000 more acres of beaches, dunes, and coastal banks could be erased.”

Place these four studies and reports together, and we see that we are truly living in perilous times, under a Code Red alert, with all alarms ringing at once. As MIT climate scientist Sergey Paltsev noted, paraphrasing Pogo, the wise iconic possum from Walt Kelly’s satirical cartoon days, “They have found the enemy, and it’s us. It’s humans who are doing it, so we better fix it.” 

Fixing it won’t be so easy. We know the cause: emissions from fossil fuels primarily, but it will take more than voluntary actions on our part. Nations, including the U.S., must mandate reductions. If not, they may face the worst possible dire outcome the world has seen since rapid climate changes and a catastrophic asteroid killed the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago.

 

Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, is updating his book, American Constitutional History.

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