Suffolk Closeup: Call to action on climate change

PETER REICH PHOTO A water-colored dawn.

Two East Enders deeply committed to the environment — actor Alec Baldwin and marine scientist Kevin McAllister, founding president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20 — presented a program last week titled “Living on the Edge in the Face of Climate Change.”

Held at the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum, it attracted 200 people and provided a basic message that, as Mr. McAllister said, “we need to acknowledge the reality of sea level rise” and take a variety of actions. “We have to educate ourselves” and “impart” our understanding to “elected officials and give them the strength to be visionary.

A key problem, Mr. McAllister said, is that “elected officials think in two- to four-year cycles” — their terms in office — but when it comes to climate change, planning and actions must be viewed over a 25-year span. “The glaciers are melting and what does that mean locally?” asked Mr. McAllister. There needs to be a “sense of urgency. If we don’t take actions on the state to local levels, we’ll be losing our bays and beaches and a life-style that has defined” the area.

In a question-and-answer period at the end of the conversation between Mr. Baldwin and Mr. McAllister, an audience member rose to say that environmentally “when I came out to Montauk to live, I wasn’t aware of what was going on” and “a great majority of people are not aware.”

If  “they knew,” things could be different. “It is important to raise awareness … We need a bigger swell of people” to influence their representatives in government.

Mr. Baldwin said, “We need to keep doing this kind of thing and invite elected officials to come.”

One elected official at this event was East Hampton Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach Jr.

The program began on an extremely hot and humid evening, amidst weeks of tropical-like weather, a reflection of the reality now of climate change, with the two men linking their interest in the environment to growing up and living on Long Island.

Mr. Baldwin spoke of a boyhood in Massapequa where all of the area depended on the sole source aquifer for potable water, and that underground water table was “compromised.”

Then, as an adultsettling in Amagansett, he was involved in challenging the dangers “posed” to the aquifer there by the “triple threat of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.”

Mr. McAllister told of being “blessed growing up” in Center Moriches, spending days on the bay, moving to Florida where for 15 years he worked doing reviews of projects impacting its coast, then returning home and dealing with the environmental challenges here of water and the coastlines.

“Homesite development” has caused a “pinching off of wetlands” and their “inability to migrate,” to shift in natural processes. The response has been a demand for the “hardening” of the coast with sea walls and similar structures, making problems even more severe.

“We have to arrest this trend … Let’s keep the walls off the coast,” the environmentalist said.

With sea level rise resulting from climate change, the situation is worsening. In the next 40 years, Mr. McAllister said, it’s projected there will be a rise of 16 to 30 inches in the waters surrounding Long Island and a comparable rise around Shelter Island. As for the dumping of sand on Long Island beaches to purportedly “nourish” them, Mr. McAllister said the “average” life span for sand-dumping on a mid-Atlantic beach is but three to five years, and the cost is gargantuan.

Meanwhile, there are places such as Mastic Beach that is at sea level now, and “the lawns people mow consist of wetland grasses … We’re talking about houses sitting in groundwater.”

“Where we have the ability to move back, we have to move back,” Mr. McAllister added. “We have to allow the shorelines to breathe.”

He said a “real breakdown” involves the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the federally supported flood insurance program paying for structures wiped out by storms to be rebuilt where they had been. There needs to be a “one and done” policy.

Paying for structures to be rebuilt in highly vulnerable areas “doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Baldwin said that, if changes in the approach towards the coast aren’t made, “we can’t imagine” the consequences resulting from climate change. He said “everybody out here cares, they care deeply” and need to join with their representatives in action.