Beware the Middle Ground

Public conversations about climate change tend to focus on extremes. There are those who understand the science and those for whom no amount of evidence will be enough. There is also an insidious middle ground.

This was demonstrated last week during a meeting about the Deepwater Wind project to set 15 electricity generating turbines far in the ocean, bringing a supply cable ashore somewhere in East Hampton Town, probably in Wainscott. Many of the comments at the Nov. 5 session were skeptical: What would the project’s effect be on fishing? Would commercial harvesters be compensated if they lost gear or saw valuable catches decline? What about utility rates? What if more turbines were to follow? Elected East Hampton Town Board and Town Trustee officials spoke apprehensively, asking that specific questions be answered in a required impact study to be completed by next fall. 

It is tempting, perhaps, for officials to try to steer clear of polar opposites when policy decisions have to be made. It was easy for the board some years back to declare that East Hampton Town would go to 100-percent renewable energy, first by 2020, and when that was too soon, to push the goal out 10 more years to 2030. In practice, however, the town has tried to steer a center course. East Hampton has adopted incentives for home solar installations and added hybrid vehicles to its town fleet. But it has tended to sound a lot like the opposition on the Deepwater Wind farm. 

To a large degree, the town has behaved as if nothing were wrong at all, allowing continued building in coastal areas threatened by sea level rise. It plans costly sewage treatment for downtown Montauk, which will be financially dependent on the continued existence of the imperiled “first row” oceanfront hotels and residential complexes. And officials appear to have doubts about offshore wind. What they need to realize is that calling for caution at a time of immediate crisis is calling for nothing at all.

Global warming is happening, and with it devastating ocean acidification that is affecting fisheries. Those who delay urgent action are, in effect, siding with those who think it is all a hoax. A massive United Nations study released in October warned that there are only 12 years to keep global warming from hitting an additional 1.5-degrees Celsius — after which things get worse — much worse. Unprecedented changes will have to occur to stave off drought, floods, extreme temperatures, and hundreds of millions of people plunged into poverty once a 2-degree Celsius rise is neared. Cutting power emissions is not the only answer; carbon capture and shifts to electric transportation will be key as well. 

Deepwater Wind and its new Danish parent company believe there are powerful, market-based ways to help fight climate change. This is not to say that Deepwater should have carte blanche to do whatever it wants; a forthcoming impact study will look at the parameters of the project. At the same time, with an irrational, venal leader in the White House who is eager to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreements, it is important that state and local leaders recognize the dire stakes.

On the South Fork, the looming threat is sea level rise. Under estimates of moderate warming, in 60 years Napeague will be gone, making Montauk an island of its own and nearly every part of downtown Sag Harbor will be underwater. But even before that the impacts will be near catastrophic.

There are no simple solutions, of course. The town board and trustees assumed the responsibility for reacting to climate change when they asked for the public’s vote. It is past time for them to take an active role. If they see a better way out of this global crisis, we are all ears.