By KATHIE FLORSHEIM/ecoRI News contributor
When I was in the eighth grade, my homeroom teacher, as part of a long-forgotten assignment, asked us to imagine we were going to a desert island. What would we bring with us in preparation for the experience? Always a practical lass, I argued for bringing a needle and thread, so I could sew leaves together to make clothing, housing and such — much to the amusement of my classmates.
For whatever its worth, my imagination is still at work. Today, I’m wondering what we will need to bring with us, metaphorically, to deal with climate change?
Foremost, must be a clear understanding that climate change is inevitable — that it is, in fact, already in motion. Without widespread understanding and acknowledgement of this reality, we will not be able to muster the political will to deal with the inevitable consequences.
That word “inevitable” gives me double breath. Inevitable: predictable, certain, unavoidable, inescapable, inexorable. I wonder how we Rhode Islanders, who identify this place we call home as the Ocean State, will identify ourselves in the future? How will climate change affect our shoreline? What will it look like? How will we support our towns and cities if our waterfront , where the majority of our tax revenue comes from, is a shadow of its former self, as storm damage works its way inland?
How will the need for tax revenue be measured against safety, ecological management, aesthetic concerns and financial responsibility? How will private and public good be measured and negotiated? These matters speak to our community values, and probe how we will bump up against each other as we try to meld various interests, which is some cases may not go smoothly.
In a recent presentation at URI’s Coastal Institute, Margaret Davidson, acting director of the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, said 50 percent of this country’s population lives in a coastal county, and 60 percent of our gross natural product (GNP) is generated there. Grover Fugate, executive director of the state Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC), affirmed this concern, and reminded the audience that most of the U.S. economy is reliant on its coasts. Our success or failure to negotiate the vicissitudes and perils of climate change will clearly reverberate well past coastal communities.
What do we, in Rhode Island and southern New England, will define us. It’s probably safe to say that a lot of us aspire to live on or close to the water. So let’s look, as an example, at the value of a water view as opposed to that of a wetland. Do we develop that wetland, hence generating taxes for our towns or do we preserve it because it is not only beautiful, but it also provides us with vital ecosystem services, such as absorbing flood water, tempering erosion and providing wildlife habitat? How is such a decision made?
While there are ways to quantify these choices, they leave me cold and wondering after we tally up our various opinions, will any of us want to live in places where our landscapes are the result of a vote?
I am enormously uncomfortable contemplating these kinds of questions, they give me waking nightmares. Nonetheless, it’s past due for all of us to be concerned with and thinking about these issues. It is precisely their inevitability that should lead us to search in earnest for answers.
The time is now.