New York leads the country with ambitious climate goals – acting on those depends partly on local volunteer task forces
By Cayte Bosler
In 2019, a dark and stormy Halloween pelted record-shattering rains across Upstate New York. Winds topped over 60 miles per hour, tearing out trees and knocking out power for thousands. Heavy flooding poured through homes and over roads, leading to closures across the North Country. Carolyn Koestner, a New York native, was driving to the village of Saranac Lake when the storm hit, forcing her to delay.
“Climate change almost kept me from moving upstate,” said Koestner, who now lives in Saranac Lake working as an environmental scientist. “I’m a lifelong New Yorker. I grew up on the Long Island Sound and lived through Sandy. I’ve experienced how climate change driven events are moving from the southern part of the state to upstate and how it’s happening as a whole.”
The frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events have increased across the region because of climate drivers like increased precipitation in the atmosphere, according to New York’s Environmental Protection Bureau.
“When I arrived, I searched for ways to become involved in climate change action, having seen firsthand how devastating the effects can be,” said Koestner. “It was important for me to be able to work locally alongside others in my community to help move climate projects forward to lessen our impact on the planet and to be prepared for how climate change will affect Saranac Lake.”
The opportunity she found is called the Climate Smart Community program.
In 2009, the New York 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 volunteers dedicated to climate change action. Each participating municipality appoints a task force composed of local government officials, community stakeholders and environmental experts, and increasingly, young people from universities and high schools. The goal: reduce greenhouse gas emissions, transition infrastructure like transportation and buildings to be carbon-free.
Currently, 359 municipalities in the state are certified, 90 of those are bronze, seven are silver. In the Adirondack region, Lake George, Warren County, Potsdam and Saranac Lake have achieved bronze. Lake Placid is applying now.
“When the village got bronze, it was a seal of approval from the state,” 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) due to the organization’s established initiatives for clean energy already tied into communities across the region.
As municipalities complete actions like designatating where electric vehicles and solar infrastructure could go, they provide documentation to the DEC and earn “points.” At 120 points, the municipality is able to submit for certification, either bronze or silver. These review periods are open three times a year.
“It is challenging for municipalities to find the capacity to organize the documentation required for certification, manage volunteers and understand the technicalities of climate-related projects, such as electric vehicle infrastructure, renewable energy installations, and electrifying buildings,” 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 allows municipalities to benefit from these programs.”
Griffin oversees seven counties, offering hands-on support to municipal officials, staff, and volunteers as they navigate becoming a CSC. She also assists municipalities with accessing grants provided by the DEC for project goals.
“Climate change can be so overwhelming and complicated that with a point system, people can wrap their heads around clear goals and check off a list to demonstrate they’re making progress on something that’s unwieldy,” Griffin said.
For example, Lake Placid has been installing electric vehicle charging stations to reduce transportation emissions. The DEC has funded $6,586,107 in grants statewide to date for EV charging and hydrogen filling stations for zero-emissions vehicle infrastructure.
Overall since 2016, the DEC has supplied approximately $10 million a year across the state for CSC projects. Other examples include: emergency operations for flood plain risks, improving bike routes, sewer treatment plant updates, renewing outdated land management plans and other considerations depending on locally identified needs, said Mark Lowery, Assistant Director at the DEC’s Office of Climate Change.
To rise from bronze to silver, each CSC task force must draft a climate action plan for their own locality that includes a strategy for emissions reductions. Already, the village taskforce has done things like help improve the efficiency of energy coming from hydropower at Lake Flower on Upper Saranac Lake. The village has also purchased a plug-in hybrid vehicle with plans to possibly purchase additional electric vehicles, according to Griffin.
All these local actions add up.
Legislators in New York are busy passing climate-related laws and have called for the Draft Scoping Plan, a state-wide emissions reduction plan that depends on binding energy efficiency standards and aggressively ramping up renewable energy sources. New York is on track to reduce electricity-related emissions 80% or more by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, according to new state scorecards from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a leader in the “clean energy transition.” “[This] state [is] a big deal when it comes to climate action,” according to a recent report by RMI.
In the Northeast, climate change will continue to bring increased temperatures triggering many complex shifts in weather and shocks to ecosystems. More frequent thunderstorms, severe rains, flooding and destructive winds are expected to further test the resiliency of roads, dams and culverts, power lines and other critical infrastructure.
Scientific experts expect these climate-related perils to both continue and worsen in decades to come, even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. Local governments will end up bearing the cost and responsibility for many of these events – underscoring the need for preparedness at the community level.
“We need to do everything humanly possible because we’ve waited so long. We need to make reductions fast,” said DEC’s Lowry in a recent presentation.
“The task forces tend to be what each one makes of it,” said Koestner. “It comes down to 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, don’t hesitate to get involved. Push your community forward.”
To find out if your community has a task force or how to start one, consult the program here.