Here’s the familiar bad news: the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that if fossil fuel consumption continues on its present trajectory, the effects on the earth’s climate will be large and irreversible. Within a few decades, temperatures are projected to increase by about seven degrees Celsius, ice sheets will melt more rapidly, and as a result, sea levels will rise by as much as seven metres. That’s 22 feet, and a lot of the Vineyard will be under water. In Edgartown, a few shop roofs may still be visible, and in Vineyard Haven, the nautical rules of the road will apply at Five Corners.

But there’s some good news: The IPCC report also states that if 80 per cent of current fossil fuel reserves are left in the ground, damage to the earth and its people will be manageable and perhaps reversible in the long run.

Unfortunately, psychological and economic studies of choice between a small, immediately accessible reward and a larger but delayed or uncertain reward have found that people generally opt for the smaller, sooner, more certain outcome. Consider the choices of corporate leaders who must decide repeatedly whether to exploit a fossil-fuel resource for its market value or leave it in the ground, where the former increases near-term profits but the latter raises the odds that their great-grandchildren will live in a world not terribly different from the one we now enjoy. The present use of a highly valued resource is almost certain to win out over the future good that could follow from letting a resource remain untapped — so it is almost certain that fossil fuel reserves will be exploited until they are gone.

Almost certain. For at least two decades, economists have argued that a “carbon tax” levied on CO2 generated by burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — can change the economic calculus in favor of conservation and renewable energy. In British Columbia, which enacted a carbon tax in 2008, regional contributions to atmospheric CO2 have decreased far more rapidly than elsewhere in Canada without compromising economic growth (as of 2014). Moreover, rebates have returned more money to individuals and corporations than the government has received in revenue — so the “tax” can be a net benefit for taxpayers.

In Massachusetts, legislation has been filed proposing just such a tax, designed to increase progressively over several years, with rebates distributed equally to all residents. If adopted broadly, their proposal can reign in the use of fossil fuels and minimize catastrophic climate change. Because Martha’s Vineyard is especially at risk, Islanders should take the lead in supporting this initiative, and when he leaves after his holiday, President Obama can take it back to DC as a model for national policy.

John A. (Tony) Nevin
Vineyard Haven