The solution to climate change is us

No need for speed. Bob Eger and friends are having a wonderful time cruising in his 25 hp Handy Billy launch. Photo by Jack Farrell

September 2021

By Jack Farrell

At the top of the headlines this stormy morning in mid-August is the release of the latest “blockbuster” report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Instead of the careful language normally found in such reports, this one characterizes the problem in the starkest of terms: “It is code red for humanity.” The report goes on to say that it is high time for humans to heed the clear warnings of a rapidly changing climate and end the use of all fossil fuels by 2050 in order to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Those of us who spend time on the water are aware of the impacts climate change has already had: rising sea levels, more frequent storms, and storm surges, rising seawater temperatures, changing habitat conditions threatening critical fisheries, and more. Parts of Europe and the American West are on fire again this summer, and some areas are already experiencing outmigration due to lack of water and fire risks. Similar examples of environmental disruption are exhibited around the world. The facts of adverse climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels are no longer in dispute, and the science is telling us more strongly every day that we are at a critical tipping point.

Still, an informal survey of our waterways over the past few years reveals fewer sailboats and a notable increase in the number of high-powered recreational craft. Where once it was rare to see two outboards on a center console boat, three and four engines are now common. How does one justify twelve hundred horsepower on a boat whose primary functions are cocktail cruises, recreational fishing and occasional trips to a shoreside restaurant for lunch? Recent reports from a July race in Stonington, Maine celebrate a new lobster boat speed record of 61.6 mph. Forgive me, but if we are all supposedly out here because we love to be on the water, why are we in such a hurry to get home?

Lest I get too high up on this horse, I will admit to enjoying a fast boat ride with the wind in what’s left of my hair. And we burn our share of Diesel at Star Island, and on the way back and forth to it. But it is increasingly clear to me that we all must immediately do more to begin to reverse the otherwise inevitable threats to our environment – and life as we know it. And I think we can do it without great sacrifice.

Using less energy will help, but conservation cannot solve the problem by itself. Renewable energy, primarily from solar and wind, coupled with improved battery technology is the obvious solution to this problem. Much of the needed technology is proven and available right now. And as forward-thinking manufacturers like Volvo and Tesla enable a conversion to electric automobiles, the technology so developed will eventually apply to boats. In the meantime, there is a lot we can do to reduce our impact and start to reverse the trends.

On the 250 or so annual trips we make to Star Island, we run the engine at about 1,500 RPM, making between nine and eleven knots most of the time. I like to baby the old girl anyway, but the motor-heads around me point out that our old Caterpillar can easily run all day at 1,800 RPM. I have tried that a few times. The boat speed increases to fourteen knots, we cut ten minutes off the trip, and the fuel consumption nearly doubles. That’s an easy one.

On the sailboat, we take a whole season or more to burn what one of those absurdly-powered center consoles will burn in an hour or two, where the calculation is in gallons per mile rather than miles per gallon. Compare that to retired boatbuilder Bob Eger’s lovely handmade Handy Billy scooting along with its well-concealed twenty-five horsepower Honda at fifteen or twenty knots. He sure looks to me like he’s having a pretty good time when we pass him on the River. Someone should develop an index to calculate smiles per gallon.

The time has come to set aside all the excuses about individual freedom, insufficient generation, inadequate infrastructure and excessive expense as obstacles to fossil fuel elimination. The science is clear on what we must do, and the solutions are right in front of us.

Meanwhile, out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, Christmas has come and gone as the season begins to wind down. Christmas is traditionally celebrated by the seasonal staff, known locally as Pelicans, on July 25 as part of a series of faux-holidays including Valentine’s Day and Sadie Hawkins Day. These and other holidays mark the passing of the season and provide an important social outlet in this remote location. The Pelican experience is life-changing for most. Part of what makes Star Island special is expressed in its vision statement: “Create on Star Island an environment that frees all who come to renew spiritually, explore matters of conscience and gain knowledge about the world as it might ideally be.”

Much of that vision has historically been expressed in terms of stewardship of the island’s natural environment. The community made great strides in 2014 with the construction of a 135-kiloWatt solar array. That project reduced annual Diesel use from 20,000 to 5,000 gallons, and was intended to be the first phase in the ultimate conversion to fully renewable power generation. But even at utopian Star Island, progress has stalled on the reduction of fossil fuel consumption. Six years later, while Islanders continue to demand more and more power for fresh water production, refrigeration, icemakers, window fans and marine lab touch tanks, there is no concrete plan to eliminate the last 5,000 gallons. In the face of today’s UN report, it is clear to me that all of us need to do more, sooner, to achieve a zero-carbon future. Complacency is no longer an option.

It takes leadership and courage to create the positive change that is needed to solve what has become an existential crisis. Leaders need to motivate from the bully pulpit. Legislators need to change tax policy and eliminate subsidies for harmful technologies. Organizations and individuals need to invest – in electric vehicles, efficient buildings and green energy. Science and technology, coupled with a good measure of greed, got us into this mess. Science and technology, coupled with good leadership and sufficient will, can get us out of it.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Islands at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer.