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Every weekday morning WCAI brings you coverage of local issues, news, and stories that matter. Join us for Morning Edition from 6 a.m. to 9a.m., with Kathryn Eident and Brian Morris.

Martha's Vineyard Commission Hires First-Ever Climate Change Planner

A long-time town conservation agent on Martha's Vineyard has taken on a new, first-of-its kind career. Liz Durkee is the new climate change planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

Her charge is to identify major climate-related issues that affect the entire island, and to help both towns and residents find ways to slow the effects of climate change.

CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Liz Durkee about her new role.

Eident Before we talk about the present, I want to talk a little bit about the past. What led you to start focusing on climate change?

Durkee Well, I was the Oak Bluffs conservation agent for 26 years, and I started getting very concerned about sea level rise. That led me to an interest in climate impacts in general. What I started seeing in the newspapers was, you know, little little tidbits of information like, pollen was getting stronger, and more invasivse were coming our way, and we were getting more rain. And, nothing really connected all these things. And, I started clipping the newspaper pieces to figure out how they all connected and to figure out how all these climate impacts would impact Martha's Vineyard, because I really wanted to understand what was going to happen so that we could start planning for it.

Eident Sounds like you've kind of always had a solutions-oriented mindset about learning about climate change and what it means for the Vineyard.

Durkee For some reason, I was thinking way ahead and I've come to find that a lot of people don't look far ahead. And, it's hard to do that, because everyone's busy, you know, planning their day to day lives.

Eident So this job that you're in now as a climate change planner, what does it feel like to be in a job that you are literally creating as you go?

Durkee Well, it was very funny, you know, the very first day because of the pandemic, I started a brand new job and I basically walked upstairs to my home office and sat at my desk and said, "Well, here I go." I basically outlined 5 areas that I wanted to focus on: community education, energy efficiency and renewable energy, climate adaptation, human health and safety issues and the local economic issues.

Eident What now, from your vantage point, do you think is the biggest threat, or the biggest issue, Martha's Vineyard residents need to confront regarding climate change?

Durkee If we want to limit the impacts of climate change, what we all really need to do is focus on renewable energy. We need to focus on getting rid of fossil fuel-based energy because the climate impacts are only going to get worse the more we emit greenhouse gases. And, even though we're just one island in an entire world, I think it's important that we take on that ourselves as well.

But, being an island surrounded by water, sea level rise is a huge issue for us. You know, our beaches are basically our economy, and the beaches are eroding. And, you know, we're going to have to look at different ways to provide recreation for visitors. And that's going to impact our economy. We need to look at a more year-round economy, and we need to look at mitigation and adaptation jobs as something to help spark the economy too. And, job training, and jobs for things like solar installation ,and saltmarsh restoration, and things like that.

And, I think the economic issues are something that people don't really want to talk about because, well, it's frightening for one thing. And it's going to involve a change in our our way of life.

Eident What kind of education efforts do you think you need when you talk with members of the community?

Durkee We're hoping to get funding to put together a guidebook for people. And the focus, I think, should be on very simple language and very, very focused on the Vineyard. We need to address the impacts that we're having, the things that are being done to address them, and also specifically what every single person can do to make a difference.

And, I think the important thing about that, too, is that it be very island-focused, because when people, if they're inclined to learn about climate change, they don't know where to turn. There's no place to go to tell them what's going to happen to their neighborhood and what they specifically can do in their community to help.

Eident Are there examples of ways that individuals or towns on the island are trying to address climate change that you would consider early success stories?

Durkee In the town of Oak Bluffs, we got funding to rebuild a failing seawall and to build it higher to address sea level rise. And we also built a boardwalk on top of it, which has been an incredible recreational boon. And then we got funding to research the eroded beach in front of it. So, the beach will protect the seawall and the road above it and the coastal bank. And it will also provide a brand-new beach for the community. And that's been an incredibly successful project for the town.

Eident What would you say to residents who find it overwhelming?

Durkee Well, I think it's important to maybe break it down into just significant things that people can do on their own. I think it boils down to making informed decisions about what you do and acting on those decisions. For instance, if you need a new car, consider buying an electric vehicle. And, if your heating system conks out, consider solar panels or a heat pump.

I think it's important for people to understand that climate change is going to bring changes that are going to be changes to the coastline and the infrastructure, and changes to the way that we live. And, there are going to be changes to our economy. This is a change that we have no control over.

And, I think it's also important that we talk about retreat because coastal retreat is a reality. We're not going to be able to protect our entire shoreline. We're going to have to move inland in some instances. And, we need to look at where and when that's going to need to happen. But changes is coming, and we can work with it. We can make some things better. We're going to lose some things we love. But if we plan intelligently, and courageously, and with good humor, and with collaboration, we can make the best of this unfortunate situation.

Eident Thank you so much, Liz Durkee, the new climate change planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Good luck. I'm sure we'll be talking with you in the future.

Durkee Great. Thanks so much, Kathryn. It's good to talk to you.

This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.