New York leads the country with ambitious climate goals – acting on these depends in part on local volunteer task forces
By Cayte Bosler
In 2019, a dark and stormy Halloween dumped record rains in upstate New York. Winds exceeded 60 miles per hour, uprooting trees and knocking out power to thousands of people. Heavy flooding poured into homes and roads, driving closures across the north of the country. New York native Carolyn Koestner was driving to the village of Saranac Lake when the storm hit, forcing her to delay.
“Climate change almost stopped me from moving upstate,” said Koestner, who now lives in Saranac Lake as an environmental scientist. “I have always been a New Yorker. I grew up on the Long Island Sound and lived through Sandy. I’ve seen how climate change events are moving from the southern part of the state to the upstate and how that’s happening as a whole.
According to the New York Environmental Protection Bureau, the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall has increased in the region due to climatic factors such as increased precipitation in the atmosphere.
“When I arrived, I looked for ways to get involved in climate change action, having seen firsthand how devastating the effects can be,” Koestner said. “It was important to me to be able to work locally alongside other members of my community to help advance climate projects to reduce our impact on the planet and to be prepared for how climate change will affect the lake. Saranac.”
The opportunity she found is called the Climate Smart Community program.
In 2009, New York State launched Climate Smart Communities (CSC), an interagency program – administered by the DEC and sponsored by several state authorities and agencies to support local municipalities with dedicated volunteers. against climate change. Each participating municipality appoints a working group made up of local elected officials, community stakeholders and environmental experts, and increasingly young people from universities and high schools. The objective: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to ensure that infrastructures such as transport and buildings are carbon-free.
Currently, 359 municipalities in the state are certified, including 90 bronze and seven silver. In the Adirondacks region, Lake George, Warren County, Potsdam and Saranac Lake took bronze. Lake Placid is applying now.
“When the village got bronze, it was a state stamp of approval,” said Koestner, who joined the Saranac Lake Task Force in 2019. “It meant we were on the right track. .”
In the North Country, the program is led by the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) because of the organization’s established clean energy initiatives already connected to communities in the area.
As municipalities complete actions like designating where electric vehicles and solar infrastructure could go, they provide documentation to DEC and earn “points.” At 120 points, the municipality is able to present itself for certification, either bronze or silver. These examination periods are open three times a year.
“It is difficult for municipalities to find the capacity to organize the documentation required for certification, to manage volunteers and to understand the technical aspects of climate-related projects, such as electric vehicle infrastructure, installations of renewable energy and building electrification,” said ANCA’s Erin Griffin, the recently appointed Climate Smart Communities Coordinator for the North Country. “For North Country communities in particular, technical assistance and support can be the tipping point that enables municipalities to benefit from these programs.”
Griffin oversees seven counties, providing hands-on support to city officials, staff and volunteers as they navigate becoming a CHC. It also helps municipalities access grants provided by DEC for project purposes.
“Climate change can be so overwhelming and complicated that with a point system, people can focus on clear goals and tick off a list to demonstrate they’re making progress on something unwieldy,” Griffin said.
For example, Lake Placid installed electric vehicle charging stations to reduce transportation emissions. To date, DEC has funded $6,586,107 in grants statewide for electric vehicle charging and hydrogen filling stations for zero-emission vehicle infrastructure.
Overall, since 2016, DEC has provided approximately $10 million annually statewide for CSC projects. Other examples include: emergency operations for floodplain hazards, improving bike paths, updates to sewage treatment plants, renewing outdated land management plans, and other considerations based on locally identified needs, said Mark Lowery, deputy director of the DEC Office of Climate Change.
To move from bronze to silver, each CSC task force must write a climate action plan for its own locality that includes an emissions reduction strategy. Already, the village task force has done things like help improve the efficiency of power from hydroelectricity at Flower Lake on Upper Saranac Lake. The village has also purchased a plug-in hybrid vehicle with plans to eventually purchase additional electric vehicles, according to Griffin.
READ MORE: Warren County is getting ‘climate smart’ and Lake Saranac joins growing list of climate-smart communities
All these local actions add up.
New York lawmakers are busy passing climate laws and have called for the Draft Framework, a statewide emissions reduction plan that depends on binding energy efficiency standards and an aggressive increase in renewable energy sources. New York is on track to reduce electricity-related emissions by 80% or more by 2030 from 2005 levels, according to new state dashboards from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a chief leader of the “clean energy transition”. “[This] State [is] a big deal when it comes to climate action,” according to a recent RMI report.
In the Northeast, climate change will continue to drive rising temperatures, triggering many complex changes in weather patterns and shocks to ecosystems. More frequent thunderstorms, heavy rains, flooding and damaging winds are expected to further test the resilience of roads, dams and culverts, power lines and other critical infrastructure.
Scientific experts expect these climate-related perils to continue and worsen in coming decades, even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. Local governments will ultimately bear the cost and responsibility for many of these events, highlighting the need for community-level preparedness.
“We have to do everything humanly possible because we have waited so long. We need to make cuts quickly,” DEC’s Lowry said in a recent presentation.
“Workgroups tend to be what everyone makes of them,” Koestner said. “It’s about pushing your community. I don’t know what the Village would be doing for climate action if it weren’t for the community stakeholders on our task force. I say to anyone interested, feel free to get involved. Push your community forward.
To find out if your community has a working group or how to create one, check out the schedule here.
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