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Suffolk Closeup: Hurtling toward disaster, eyes wide open

The lead story this spring in Newsday brought dismal information about the impact of climate change on this area.

Starting on the newspaper’s front page and running for three pages, the April 23 piece, headlined “LI’s Future And Climate Change,” declared: “In 2080, the historic Montauk lighthouse and Orient Point may be their own islands, cut off from the rest of Long Island by newly formed rivers … At the end of the century, Fire Island may be little more than a sandbar separating the Atlantic from the Great South Bay. And South Shore coastal neighborhoods from Freeport to Hampton Bays could be uninhabitable.”

The article, by Carl MacGowan, continued: “These are some of the likely scenarios for Long Island’s 1,600 miles of vulnerable shorelines, according to climate scientists and environmentalists, who, citing numerous studies, said rising ocean and bay tides will alter how Long Islanders live, work and play. The pace and severity of nature’s makeover is uncertain, and most of the Island — especially inland areas far from the coasts — will be spared the worst of it, experts said. But there is broad agreement that climate change will impact the island — and residents and public officials must start planning for a flood-filled future.”

Shelter Island is not specifically cited in the piece.  Aptly nicknamed “The Rock,” its high-standing portions will not share the fate of much of Long Island. Still, low-lying areas along Shelter Island’s shores will not be immune. 

It’s not just an area issue, of course. The climate crisis is a rapidly growing global calamity — and last week the world hit a meteorological historical record. “Earth’s hottest day? July 4 set a record, scientists say,” was the headline of a piece by Doyle Rice in USA Today. “Tuesday was Earth’s hottest day on record,” it began. “It comes as scientists say the planet is the hottest it has been in roughly 125,000 years. Experts believe more heat records will fall this summer.”

In the Newsday story, Alison Branco, with the title of climate adaptation director at The Nature Conservancy office in Cold Spring Harbor, is quoted as saying: “It’s really hard to accept, but the ocean is going to make that decision for us. It doesn’t mean we can’t live here. It’s just going to look really different.”

An array of studies and experts are cited. Over the next couple of decades, Long Island’s fish-shaped geography — with the North and South forks as the tail — likely will be dramatically reconfigured. Rising tides could turn Southold’s Hashamomuck Pond into a river stretching from Long Island Sound to Shelter Island Sound, severing Greenport and Orient from the rest of the town … On the South Fork, Napeague and Shinnecock bays could overwhelm the narrow strips of land that connect communities such as Hampton Bays, Amagansett and Montauk”— is Branco’s assessment. “It’s really going to be a series of islands as opposed to the long peninsulas that we have now.”

Kevin McAllister, president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20, relates how “some coastal communities such as Lindenhurst and Long Beach may simply become inhospitable for human habitation. These are locations that we just have to move back from.”

What’s to be done? Regarding this area, Newsday reported: “Experts say local officials should start planning to raise roads, build bridges and possibly bar development in some coastal areas.” Adaptation, resilience — and retreat — have become key words.

But this is a global disaster. In medicine the strategy is dealing with the cause of illness, not just the symptoms.

“We are hurtling toward disaster, eyes wide open,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last month. “It’s time to wake up and step up.” At a conference at UN headquarters in New York, Guterres, previously prime minister of Portugal, emphasized that central to the climate crisis is the burning of fossil fuels and he repeated the call he and others have made over and over again: the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — must be eliminated with a rapid transition to green, renewable energy.

The technologies are here now to do that.

“No Miracles Needed” is the title of a brilliant just-published book by Mark Z. Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program and an engineering professor at Stanford University. Its subtitle: “How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air.”

He writes: “The world needs to switch away from using fossil fuels to using clean, renewable sources of energy as soon as possible. Failure to do so will lead to accelerated and catastrophic climate damage, loss of biodiversity, and economic, social, and political instability.”

He explains how we can “solve the climate crisis, and at the same time eliminate air pollution and safely secure energy supplies for all — without using ‘miracle’ technology.” Jacobson details the use of “existing technologies to harness, store and transmit energy from wind, water, and solar sources to ensure reliable electricity and heat supplies.” And he discusses “which technologies are not needed” — including gas, carbon capture and nuclear power (the nuclear fuel cycle is carbon-intensive and nuclear plants themselves emit carbon, radioactive carbon).

To see my TV interview with Jacobson, go to envirovideo.com