Editorial: Climate change is at our door. We must confront it now

No matter what eastern Long Island’s towns and villages hope to accomplish in the coming years, all their plans may be scuttled by the sheer force of climate change.

The future of Greenport’s magnificent harbor and rich maritime history, for example, will be decided in the next five years. At most. 

The new mayor, Kevin Stuessi, knows this. The actions he and his board take in the next few years will determine Greenport’s path — including who gets to live and work there and whether there will be a working waterfront or a playground for vacationers. There will be no turning back from bad decisions.

Anyone tuned into the news recently knows the Earth has experienced its highest recorded temperatures. In New York State and New England, fierce rainstorms have flooded dozens of communities, causing damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars — all paid for with federal relief funds. Dealing with the changes brought on by climate change might very well end up being one of the biggest expenses to the nation’s taxpayers in the coming years.

Heat domes have raised temperatures in the Southwest to 120 degrees and higher. Humidity has been suffocating. One news items said that, if power failed in Phoenix, Ariz., when temperatures were above 100 degrees, thousands of people would die.

We have not experienced those temperatures or those horrific rainstorms here, but we are not an island unto ourselves. As part of the continent, we will be affected by what occurs elsewhere. And, along with everyone else, we will be paying for it.

Sea level rise is ongoing in our area. NASA says that 30 years of satellite observations “have confirmed on a global scale what scientists previously saw from the shoreline: the seas are rising, and the pace is quickening. Scientists have found that global mean sea level has risen 10.1 centimeters (3.98 inches) since 1992. Over the past 140 years, satellites and tide gauges together show that global sea level has risen 21 to 24 centimeters (8 to 9 inches).”

Town elections will be held this fall in Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island. New governments must prepare for climate change. Strategically, Suffolk County should have a climate change expert and a panel studying the future of the coastline. Billions of dollars of real estate are at stake.

Absent a larger strategy, the East End should have its own equivalent. The North Fork is a narrow arthritic finger sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean, and painfully slim in places where Long Island Sound and the Peconic Bay are but yards apart. There is no question that rising sea levels will fundamentally alter our landscape. The only questions are when and how transformative it will be.

Rising water levels will also impact groundwater quality, exposing clean, fresh water to saltwater intrusion and reducing the amount that can be drawn from public and private wells. 

Perhaps town codes should be updated to reflect the impact of rising sea levels and water quality for any proposal under consideration, big or small. The words “climate change” and “water availability” should become part of the administrative conversation. 

For Riverhead and Southold, the goal moving forward can be summed up in one word: preservation. We mean of open space, farmland, wooded areas and frontage along our creeks, along with clean, potable groundwater. It’s our only way forward and it will be an effective way to deal with the change that is already upon us.