SoFo Hosts Forum on Climate Change

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Experts at SoFo’s climate change forum said ocean levels could rise as much as 30 inches by the year 2050. 

By Mara Certic

After a few record snowstorms left several East End residents and Washington politicians questioning the existence of global warming this winter, the South Fork Natural History Museum (SoFo) held its first annual climate change forum and benefit last Saturday where a panel of six discussed the facts about rising temperatures, the potential side effects, and what East Enders can do to protect Long Island, its shoreline and the planet.

Environmentalists, politicians and academics made up the panel on Saturday night at SoFo, to discuss specifically what climate change means for the East End, and what can be done to mitigate those issues.

Steve Engelbright, a trained geologist turned Suffolk County Legislator for the district surrounding Stony Brook University, moderated the event, answering questions and also giving each speaker time to discuss his expertise.

Carl Safina is an ecologist and fisherman who lives on the East End and works as a professor at Stony Brook University. Mr. Safina has travelled around the world, been to the Arctic and the Antarctic and has noticed worrying trends.

Mr. Safina said that many of the arguments that dispute the existence of climate change have to do with arcane measurements. “If the climate was warming, what would you see?” he asked.

“For one thing the ice would be melting, the sea level would be rising, there would be rain shifts and intensified storms because they’d get strength from the heat of the ocean, and the water’s pH would be declining,” he explained.

“We see all of those things,” he said. Mr. Safina said on his travels, he has seen and heard about glaciers shrinking and moving, and about species of flora and fauna acting strangely. According to Mr. Safina, on the west coast the pH is dropping down low enough to kill oyster larvae; at the southern end of their habitats, lobsters are beginning to disappear, he said.

Mr. Engelbright explained that the model for global warming is short, intense winters and long, hot summers. “It was warm until past Thanksgiving this year,” he noted. “We almost had a spring and now we’re into summer.”

Jack Rivkin, Chief Investing Officer with the Altegris group, spoke about how the issue of climate change has become a religious issue for a lot of people. “I don’t believe climate change is a religion,” he said, “It’s based on facts,” he added.

Mr. Rivkin used the 17th century philosophy of French thinker Blaise Pascal to explain the importance of climate change acceptance.

Pascal’s wager says, in layman’s terms, that whether or not you believe in God, you should always behave as if he exists because there’s a slim risk that he does and will see everything you do.

The same is true for climate change. “Whatever the level of risk is, there is a risk that this is a real problem being caused by what we’re doing,” he said. Mr. Rivkin said that one of the easiest ways for East Enders to begin to delay some changes would be to focus more on renewable energy, specifically by taking advantage of the many state and federal rebates available for those technologies.

“You can make money by taking advantage of what’s going on,” he added, an enviro-economic idea echoed by Peter Boyd, a Senior Advisor at the B Team, a group of business leaders who are searching for a “plan b.”

“You don’t even have to mention the words climate change very often,” Mr. Boyd said, “It’s about fuel savings, and the industry is leaving money on the table,” he said, adding that for a lot of small islands, making the move over to solar and wind energies will not only help environmentally, but should also save money.

The key, Mr. Boyd said, is that we all aim for net zero emissions which means “we are effectively leaving our campsite as we found it,” he explained.

Both Mr. Boyd and Michael Gerrard, an Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School and Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change law, spoke about the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

During these climate negotiations, Mr. Gerrard said, countries discuss what temperature increases they could and would tolerate and eventually will make non-binding, non-enforceable pledges to keep the temperatures down. It looks now as though countries will agree that an increase of 3° Celsius is their limit, even though island nations, who will likely drown if the planet warms up by two degrees, have requested it be capped at 1.5 ° increase.

What does that mean for Long Island? Well, he said if the temperature increases by a full three degrees, the ocean level within the next ten years could be six to ten inches more than what it is now. By the year 2050, it will be 15 to 30 inches higher than now. “And if you have a serious storm, you have much more serious flooding,” Mr. Gerrard added.

Sag Harbor Village Trustee Robby Stein spoke about the importance of thinking globally, but acting locally, and echoed panelists’ opinions that the East End should begin to move towards net zero emissions, as soon as possible.

When asked what the average Joe could start doing now to start reversing some of the changes we have seen, the panelists had many suggestions. Mr. Stein focused on the importance of saving rainwater in rain gardens or other structures, while Mr. Gerrard suggested people eat less meat and stop driving SUVs. Mr. Boyd told the audience to stop flying so much.

Councilwoman Bridget Fleming brought up the plans for an offshore wind farm, which LIPA rejected in the winter and asked Mr. Engelbright what the next step is.

Apart from rousing public interest, he had one main piece of advice: “Be mad as hell,” he said, “Because you’re being ripped off.”

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