Editorials

Editorial: We failed with COVID; we can’t fail with climate change

Local elections are coming around again and, among other races, town board seats are open in Riverhead and Southold and the supervisor’s seat is up for grabs in Riverhead.

In a modern, sophisticated country — the richest on earth — municipal elections remind us that all politics is local and that it is here, at home, that we are heard and where decisions critical to our lives and our landscape are made.

What do we want from local government? What do we want our towns to look and feel like? These are among the critical questions that can best — or can only — be addressed at the local level.

It is easy to conclude that America failed at the national level in terms of the carnage wrought by COVID-19, which is now the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history, with 700,000 fatalities. Fewer died during the Spanish flu epidemic over a century ago — when medicine and health care systems were far more primitive — than the past 18 months.

National politics being what it is, we must be even smarter and more dedicated to policy at the local level. Policies matter. The buck really does stop here. 

It is astonishing that we must remind ourselves that we have responsibilities to people we work with, to our neighbors and to perfect strangers we pass in Aisle 7 at the food store. Servers at restaurants should be required to wash their hands; drivers should be required to fasten their seatbelts; school-age children should be vaccinated for things like measles and mumps. It’s for the common good.

There is another threat out there waiting to take its toll, one that — unlike the failed American response to COVID-19 — requires the united attention of politicians in office and all those who aspire to serve in local government.

That threat is climate change. As has been said, we are the first generation to experience it and perhaps the last generation with enough time to effectively deal with it, although that window is closing rapidly.

Again, we must ask ourselves the questions we should have asked during the pandemic: What are our responsibilities? What are our obligations to each other — and to the next generation, and the one after that? 

The day of reckoning on climate change is upon us — and it will directly impact scores of waterfront homeowners on the North Fork and across Long Island.

Here’s proof of that: For the first time, the federal government is factoring climate change into calculating the cost of the flood insurance that so many waterfront and nearly waterfront homes are required to have. For many of us, there will now be a steeper price tag for living where we live. 

As The Washington Post reported, “Next April, most current policyholders will see their premiums go up and continue to rise by 18 percent per year for the next 20 years … Wealthy customers with high-value homes will see their costs skyrocket by as much as $14,400 for one year.”

In addition, flood insurance will now be necessary for millions of homes that did not previously require it. Climate change has brought this about.

Those elected next month will have to confront the inevitable impacts of climate change. So when you vote, choose local officials who put science first and park politics where it belongs. Remember those who defend the “right” to be unvaccinated while still out among us, and even working in health care, and those who decry mask mandates as unfair limits on personal freedom. Nearly all the COVID deaths in recent weeks have occurred among the unvaccinated. 

Unless blocked by congressional action, the first indication of the cost of climate change could arrive in the mail next spring with far higher flood insurance rates. And that’s the first step. Beyond that, of course, are bigger questions. 

Can we go on replenishing the same beach every time storms wash the sand away? Do we pull back from the waterfront or harden it? If your house washes away in a nor’easter, should you be allowed to rebuild in the same spot? 

This November, put party affiliation aside and pick the best local candidates, those who have the well-being of this unique part of America, this remarkable North Fork, uppermost in their minds.

We failed nationally at COVID-19, and the death toll proves that. We can’t fail at this.