By Thomas Cheng, MBA ’24
This article was written in response to a seminar given by Vincent Murphy, Coastal Resilience Coordinator, Town of Nantucket, MA, in an EDGE Seminar at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Spring 2023. This article voices one student’s perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of either Duke University or the seminar speaker.
“As President, I have a responsibility to act with urgency and resolve when our nation faces clear and present danger. And that’s what climate change is about. It is literally, not figuratively, a clear and present danger. The health of our citizens and our communities is literally at stake.” President Biden delivered these remarks on July 20, 2022 in Somerset, Massachusetts, during a speech announcing executive actions to fight climate change. Had Biden traveled 100 miles east to the island of Nantucket, he would have seen another example of a “code red” climate emergency.
Nantucket’s topography makes it especially vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels, coastal flooding, and erosion. According to the town’s Coastal Resilience Plan (from November 2021), over the next 50 years Nantucket is projected to incur over $3.4 billion in cumulative damages.
Vincent Murphy, Nantucket’s Sustainability Programs Manager, is working around the clock to fortify the island. He shares an “Accommodate, Protect, Retreat” framework to outline options for homes and buildings. He maps out potential future scenarios and conducts cost-benefit analyses to determine project priorities. He also communicates about climate risk and attempts to rally stakeholders—from policymakers to wealthy homeowners—to take bold action. To solve this problem, Vincent needs to convince others to make massive changes, at a large scale and with rapid speed.
While it may seem daunting, the climate change community can draw lessons from a movement in the 1960s. Anti-smoking initiatives were highly effective, dropping the percentage of U.S. adults who smoked from 42.4% in 1965 to 24.75 in 1997. The success of the anti-smoking movement was due to three main factors, which can be applied to the climate movement (albeit in different ways). These factors are (1) education, (2) policies, and (3) financial incentives.
With smoking, education was critical to changing consumer behavior. Before the 1960’s, smoking was viewed as both safe and desirable. But after the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee issued a report in 1964 highlighting the risks of smoking, public sentiment began to change. Additionally, after seeing increased anti-smoking advertisements and messaging, perceptions around cigarettes underwent a tidal shift.
When it comes to fighting climate change, education must be a critical element of mobilization. But despite the issue’s salience over the past few years, there remain large swaths of the population who remain unaware or unconvinced. A 2019 Pew poll found that 20% of American adults believe “human activity plays not too much or no role at all in climate change.” In Nantucket, Vince and his team have been successful at increasing awareness of the problem. However, they should also highlight the solutions and how they align with the community’s priorities.
Another important factor in curbing smoking was policy change. It was not enough to simply educate; new rules were also needed to achieve the desired behaviors. Some policy shifts included restricting smoking in public locations, banning advertising, and implementing new regulations for tobacco companies. While education was focused on persuading individuals, regulations were targeted towards organizations. As a result, anti-smoking advocates created more favorable conditions for behavior change at a larger scale.
For climate change, policy change is also a key lever. In Nantucket, new coastal resilience developments are often blocked by outdated regulations. For example, the state of Massachusetts still abides by the “Doctrine of Public Trust”, a guideline from 1647 that dictates what can and can’t be built. This policy, while well-intentioned in the past, limits community planners’ abilities to build new piers and concrete structures in the coastal zone. This would allow the island to deploy solutions that have been proven to be effective in other cities. Similar to the anti-smoking movement, all levels of government – from federal to state to local – should be open to bucking the status quo and taking bold action to protect citizens.
Finally, a third piece of the anti-smoking movement was financial incentives. Even with education and policy change, there still remained a demand for smoking. Thus, the U.S. government placed higher taxes on cigarettes to curb demand. According to the American Lung Association, a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduced consumption by about 4 percent among adults and about 7 percent among youth.
Nantucket can implement similar measures to solve its climate change challenges. Currently, the island’s wealthy homeowners are disincentivized to contribute to coastal resiliency efforts. They certainly do not wish to pay higher taxes. They are also resistant to making investments to protect their waterfront houses, under the mentality that they will rent them out for a few years and sell to new owners before the worst effects of climate change. If regulation is insufficient to change behavior, perhaps financial incentives (either positive or negative) might be an option. Some ideas include increased property taxes or “coastal resilience fees”. Money is a persuasive force and should not be overlooked as a tool to affect behavior change.
Nantucket is up against an existential threat. The magnitude of the challenge may be daunting; however, climate advocates can draw upon lessons from previous movements to inspire societal change at breakneck speed. By focusing on education, policy, and financial incentives over the long term, we can work towards building a sustainable future – in Nantucket and countless communities around the world.
 The White House. “Remarks by President Biden on Actions to Tackle the Climate Crisis”. July 22, 2022.
 Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Tobacco Use – United States, 1900-1999”.
 National Center for Biotechnology Information. “The Changing Public Image of Smoking in the United States: 1964-2014”. January 23, 2014.