Have you been noticing the reports since Hurricane Sandy, consistently, nearly every week, all over the world — of very extreme weather events and conditions? If you’ve been denying yourself the opportunity to keep up on the details, now would be a good time to break the habit. With that global pattern as an ominous context, the repeated and destructive extreme weather we’ve experienced here the past two years does not bode well for even the near future of our safety and stability on Martha’s Vineyard.
Twenty-five years ago this summer we were told authoritatively that this would happen if we didn’t alter our course. First it was called warming, global warming. Then change, climate change. Now that the change is happening we can see that its real name is chaos. All of our activities connected with sufficient food, water, shelter or ability to travel and transport necessities become progressively impossible as extremes in climate, weather and tidal conditions multiply. So our steadily increasing violently chaotic weather is an immediate crisis. Because it has not yet been possible for humanity as a whole to acknowledge and respond to it as such, it is likely to cause destructive panic, on some scale, before long. Why did it have to be this way?
Besides adopting an appropriate sense of responsibility, getting a little angry could also help keep us closer to the focused end of the panic scale, because there is still a chance to act decisively and limit the impact to places like the Cape and Islands. We need to get constructively angry at those institutions that built private wealth by limiting our choices to those most destructive to our own life support system. On June 23, 1988, Congress heard public testimony from the lead NASA climate scientist which was so revealing about the colossal danger of continuing to pour unrestricted amounts of heat-trapping gases like carbon into the atmosphere that awareness of the impending crisis quickly spread to government and industry leaders all over the world. Had the people of the world been given an adequate informed choice, would they have chosen a rapid but measured and democratically planned transition away from fossil fuels instead of future chaos and possible suicide? Corporate, financial and government leaders were in a position to cooperate and help offer that choice and engineer that transition; instead they have chosen to cooperate to do the opposite, to continue to increase the danger and limit our choices and our ability to change course.
President Obama declared on June 25 this year that he would begin to use the power invested in the executive branch of our government to significantly change policy and regulation priorities in favor of the safety of the population over the interests of private industry. But the schedule hinted at is not nearly urgent enough. Action on the part of the government has not begun, while reasonable and prudent support for these necessary steps and changes in priorities in the face of the proven imminent danger is not forthcoming from the responsible industries or their enablers in our government. So the scent of lurking panic has not wafted away along with the president’s words.
In trying to understand this palpable sense of alarm and urgency for low-lying areas like Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, consider these three points: the rate of sea level rise and ocean temperature increase is now multiplying faster than ever; the amount of reduction or increase of carbon emissions just in the next 10 to 20 years may have a direct influence on how much additional sea level rise and continued increase in massive storm surge threat we will actually see; global carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions are increasing still, not yet declining at an emergency pace. So we need to know, for instance, when the president asserts that the Keystone XL tar-sands oil pipeline will only be built if, “it does not significantly increase net carbon emissions,” that it has already been shown scientifically, technically, economically and statistically that Keystone XL will increase net carbon emissions — drastically.
Here on the Island we actually have to grind our teeth, clench our fists and stare unblinking at the logistical facts of how vulnerable we are to massive storm surge damage — and the increased likelihood of it occurring here. Picture this headline on CNN: “Luxury vacation Island for Presidents loses ferry service indefinitely and drinkable water in three towns from massive storm surge and flooding.” Instead of being forced to accept an inadequate response to this clear and present danger we need to force the issue, together. Aroused voices and commitment to specific action by increasing numbers in the Island community may well have a national impact and serve as an example to other communities — in addition to giving us the strength that comes from facing the unfaceable.
Fortunately we already have a carefully reasoned template for action. On June 20 our neighbors in Providence, R.I., council voted to divest from the 200 major fossil fuel corporations, following the lead of Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, two of many colleges making the decision at the firm request of the student body in the first eight months of a national project. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, gave the rallying principle: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.” Seattle and San Francisco are also moving to divest with 14 other U.S. cities and two counties so far. There’s no reason that any institutions or property owners on the Vineyard should continue giving social and economic license to the corporations profiting from the impending loss of so much of our own land base and infrastructure. They can reinvest their funds in robust developments for our sustainable future. Another effective step we must take is to forcefully add our community’s voice to the demand for a state, national and international emergency agreement to put a prohibitive and punitive price on carbon and methane emissions — by the fastest means and with the most democratic structure.
The crisis is here now. So as well as working with good heart to achieve the above in an urgent effort to minimize future danger, we can support each other on the Cape and Islands over the coming months in all the work we must do to mitigate the immediate and growing local effects: From coastline erosion with its threat to our roads and other infrastructure, to rising local water temperatures and ocean acidification which will affect the balance of life in our ponds and estuaries, to comprehensive and cooperative preparation and planning. Hasn’t what the earth and this special place given us been worth the coming extra work — to seek out all that we can possibly do to act decisively and creatively rather than ignore or despair? The earth’s atmosphere has proven to be very sensitive; it may not too late to make a difference and to balance as much as we can the huge mistakes that created this chaos — by our own efforts.