A Q&A with the team behind the MVC’s response to climate change.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you briefly introduce yourselves?
Liz Durkee: I’m the Climate Change Planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. When the Coastal Planner retired a couple of years ago, the position was changed to Climate Change Planner. Before that, I was the conservation agent for the town of Oak Bluffs for 26 years.
Meghan Gombos: I am an independent consultant. I’ve been working in marine resource management and climate change adaptation for 20-plus years, mostly in the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean. I was on the climate resilience committee with Liz and Cheryl and others, so I became part of the facilitation team through that process.
Cheryl Doble: My background is in landscape architecture and planning. I worked for a number of years directing the Center for Community Design Research at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. I am also on the Tisbury Planning Board. Like Liz and Megan, I was also on those early committees that started up the Climate Task Force and the Climate Resilience group.
Before we get to the action plan, we should ask: how will climate change affect Martha’s Vineyard?
Durkee: Because we’re an Island, sea level rise, stronger storms, and all the coastal issues are extremely important for us to address. Climate change is going to impact every aspect of our lives: our land and water, our human health, our economy, our emergency preparedness. We need to become more energy resilient and decrease our greenhouse gas emissions. It’s all interrelated, and we need to look at the whole big picture if we’re going to address these issues in a smart way.
Gombos: In addition to increased storms and sea level rise, sea surface temperature increases and ocean acidification are going to have huge impacts to our marine environment. Our marine ecosystems, our fisheries, shell fisheries — things that are really important to the Island community in both livelihoods and quality of life. And also just the heat of increased temperatures. We have so many people who work outside, who recreate outside.
Durkee: Heat is going to affect our human health; it’s going to increase respiratory issues and vector-borne diseases, and mental health issues — like if we have a major hurricane and people are displaced. We’ll have increased rain, and drought. It goes both ways. So, it’s not like you can handle one thing first, and then handle another. There’s a relationship here that you have to understand. We have to look forward in a way that addresses that. We have to come to grips with how we help each other in a moment of real extreme challenge, and then how we’re going to respond afterwards, because it’s very difficult to come up with ideas in the middle of a disaster.
So, what is the Climate Action Plan?
Gombos: The Climate Action Plan is basically looking at all of these issues and looking forward to 2040, and maybe even further. What are the impacts going to be to the Island? And what do we want to do to build? What do we want to do now to build our social, ecological, and environmental resilience to those changes?
Durkee: This summer, we received funding from the Mass Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program, so this is actually phase two of the Climate Action Plan. Phase one was more foundational, doing background research and the adaptation reports that Megan prepared.
What are the outcomes you are hoping for?
Gombos: We’re trying to achieve a plan that has a 2040 outlook, and then has more immediate and measurable actions that we want to take in the next ten years. So, between now and 2030, what are we going to do? We can’t do everything. What are the biggest things to tackle? Where will we get the most bang for our buck? We’ve put together six working groups around six thematic areas: food security, transportation and infrastructure, economic resilience, land use, natural resources and biodiversity, energy transformation, and public health and safety.
Durkee: Collaboration is a huge piece of this, and the pond associations and the shellfish group, the insurance companies, the nonprofits, conservation groups, food security, and public health groups are all going to play a role in the implementation. It’s going to be an Island-wide plan.
Doble: My hope from this process is that it builds our capacity to collaborate in new ways. I feel that we’re not starting dead in the water. We really have so much going on, which gives me hope that we can do so much more.
Gombos: Like Doble said, there’s so much good work that’s happening. It’s just getting folks to be able to pause and sit down and talk and share what’s happening and then say, ‘Hey, what if we could combine these efforts?’
Who else is involved?
Gombos: For each of the working groups, we have a liaison who’s a community leader in that space. They’ve got expertise, they’ve got the relationships, and we’ve asked them to help pull together a variety of people from around the community that can guide that component of the plan. We’ve asked the towns to provide a representative to each working group. And then we have businesses, NGOs, and students we’ve asked to participate.
Doble: When this process began, the Commission went to each of the towns and asked them to form a Climate Committee to work with them on this project. The Wampanoag also have representation, and the Brazilian community as well.
Can you give a few examples of actions that might come out of the plan?
Durkee: The residents of Aquinnah got together and organized a Community Emergency Response Team [a disaster response initiative based on FEMA guidelines], and they had their emergency manager train residents in emergency response, first aid, and things like that. It’s an amazing program, and we really would like to see all the towns develop a CERT team. On a policy note, another example is that we’re really hoping the planning boards and all the towns will update their floodplain bylaws to address flooding.
Gombos: Transportation and infrastructure. When we’re upgrading roads and culverts, let’s do it in a way that’s thinking about what the climate projections are, so we are not setting ourselves up to have to redo something.
If we’re talking about the next 20 years or so, what are the resources that the Island has, and what does it need?
Durkee: As we have said, there are a lot of organizations and individuals working on a lot of these issues now. On the other hand, it’s going to cost money to do all these things. We need to look at ways to come up with very large amounts of money. There are other things to think about. Does the commission need more climate change staff? Do the towns need to have a staff member who is focusing on climate issues for their towns? Are nonprofits going to need to add staff members if they’re going to be ramping up what they’re doing?
Doble: I’m not going to be around to see the end of this plan happen. It’s a long-term process. One of the things I’m starting, as I’ve worked on projects here, is we begin by taking our first steps. And we make good investments now. And the second is that, this can be phased.
Gombos: I totally agree. Even though we have a twenty-year horizon for this plan, the meat is really in the next five to ten years. With the infrastructure bill, there are opportunities there. I think there is going to be more funding available as we go forward. The more we’re in a place to say, ‘This is what we want to do,’ the better off we are.
Durkee: We’ve developed a Climate Action Fund, through the Martha’s Vineyard Community Foundation, that people can donate funding to [marthasvineyardcf.org]. If we get a grant where the locals have to match the grant funds, this fund could help us to pay for that town’s portion of the grant.
Doble: That program is important because it makes us a little bit more nimble than when you have to go through town government and county meetings to get allocation for grant funding.
What is the difference between mitigation and adaptation on Martha’s Vineyard?
Durkee: It’s harder for people to grasp the adaptation. Mitigation, yeah, you could buy an electric car, put solar panels on your house. One of the things that we need to start dialogue on, in terms of adaptation, is managed retreat from the shore. It’s a reality. People don’t really like change on this Island, and things are going to change. We’re working to change them in the best possible way we can, but there are going to be tough decisions to make in some areas.
What are some short- and long-term goals for some of these projects?
Gombos: There are certain issues like moving roads away from the shoreline, where it’s long term and it’s going to take a while to do that. But then there are other things that people can do in their own backyard, like gardening or building habitat. Those are smaller actions where you see progress immediately while we’re working on the big clunkers that take a while to happen.
Durkee: Sometimes people don’t recognize that things are happening because they’re moving slow. Yeah, it doesn’t look like anything’s happening, but it is happening. I think that’s so important. Because it’s discouraging when you put time into a plan, and then you don’t see things happen. And with communities, with government, with the groups that we’re working with, this is all going to take time.
Where can people keep track of the planning process?
Gombos: The plan is going to launch on a live website (thevineyardway.org). We really took some time to look at the history of planning on the Island, and heard some trepidation about ‘another plan that will just sit on the shelf.’ The website allows people to go and see what’s happening and for us to be able to update it as we go. It allows us to track and show progress, which I think has been challenging for other plans.
What is the best way to get involved?
Durkee: Well, [people] can get involved in climate week, which is coming up May 8-14. Many organizations and people and businesses are going to be having events to get the community thinking about these things. That’s our big community outreach component. The Island Climate Action Network also has a lot of information on how people can get involved. We have monthly presentations on climate issues related to each of the thematic groups. Those are announced on the ICAN webpage.
Gombos: The students at the high school are putting together “Climate Cafes” each month, and they’re very inspiring. It’s nice to support them, because they’re really motivated. We’re excited to be coordinating with the students on this plan, because we think that their voices are critical.
To follow the Climate Action Plan, visit thevineyardway.org.