What Are We Going to do About Climate Change?

With the tragedy of fires and floods so constantly with us, it is not surprising that over 50% of
Americans say they are “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change 1 while only 11% deny it
outright. With supportive policies at the state and federal levels, it is tempting to think that the
situation will right itself. But our climate policies are mostly either statements of aspiration or
financial incentives – helpful, for sure, but nothing that can make people care.

To create a common vision that can serve as a basis for action, Sustainable Hudson Valley has
coordinated the creation of the Regional Climate Action Road Map and Tool Kit with over 90
expert partners. Our focusing question was: what needs to get done, on the ground, to
implement the aggressive climate action that New York and the feds envision?

One reason is lack of coordination between utilities – who must deal with the need to upgrade
the power grid – and communities that are facing tough siting decisions to locate the
renewables where they won’t gobble up farmland or forests, which are additional pieces of the
climate puzzle. Building partnerships among those interests is urgently needed, so that the grid
is upgraded to support renewables in places where there is will to build them. Fortunately,
there are models of success such as the Long Island Solar Road Map project, which brought
together the main electric utility, farmers and other landowners, elected officials and
environmental groups for a deliberate examination of where large-scale renewable energy
could most sensibly be located.

The next thing we need to do is free our buildings from dependence on burning fuels for
heating and cooling. Insulation + heat pumps + solar, wind and small hydro power + electric
appliances are the formula. You can see it working these days in most any community. But
retrofitting an average house costs $29,000. That doesn’t need to be done all at once, and it
pays for itself in energy savings, but far from everyone can afford the investment. The Inflation
Reduction Act, NYSERDA and the electric utilities have rebates that can help hugely – if people
know they exist. The EPA is in the process of pushing trillions of dollars of low or no interest
financing out through the banks, making it realistic for people to borrow and repay out of their
energy savings. Again, the key is letting people know these resources exist.

A third thing we need to do – if we are going to decarbonize transportation – is help people get
around without depending on the gas pump. New York is committed to a complete transition
to electric transportation including private cars, fleets and transit. Right now, about 10% of
new car sales are electric but the market is growing fast; the automakers are lining up; but for
folks who don’t own a car, the options are more daunting. However, the tough piece of the
transportation puzzle is shifting demand and making services user-friendly so that people can
realistically take the bus or train where they actually need to go. Projects like Dollaride in
Queens, which is electrifying 30 vans for on-demand “microtransit” and Project Mover in
Ossining, which provides e-bikes on a rent-to-own basis, show what is possible. Communities
need the people-power and focus to scale up these models.

Besides moving people around without emissions, we need to tackle the massive flows of
materials that we generate. Waste management is 12% of our carbon footprint. Right now, the
Hudson Valley sends around 100 belching diesel trucks a day to the Seneca Meadows landfill,
which like any landfill emits methane – and is getting full. The systemic fix is to re-invest in
recycling and reuse based industries at a meaningful scale.

Building materials, the heaviest thing we ship to the landfill, can be reclaimed for reuse and
recycling, and buildings themselves can in most cases be deconstructed rather than
demolished. For this to happen, contractors have to care. In some places, like the Pacific
Northwest, they do because they have been trained and because some local ordinances require
deconstruction for older buildings. It is becoming a trade; training and economic incentives
(such as higher permit fees for demolition) can help – that is, IF people put in the work to
develop new policies at the local and county level.

Farms and forests are the places for “natural” climate solutions that draw greenhouse gases
from the atmosphere into soils, improving their health and productivity while improving rural
economics by creating new revenue streams. New York and the feds both offer funding for
farmers to adopt regenerative practices that draw more carbon dioxide from the air into the
soil, making climate-forward agriculture an economic benefit as well as an environmental one.
Around 15% of farmers in Mid-Hudson counties are already doing something along these lines,
and there are federal and state grant programs to increase the uptake. Extension agents and
big farm and forest owners know what to do; it will likely take work in our communities to
make sure these savings and benefits are available to the small and most vulnerable farms.
And the once-every-five-years national Farm Bill, being drafted this fall, could help if it included
funding to “de-risk” carbon sequestration methods until farmers are able to measure their
impacts, allowing them to make money on the voluntary carbon markets.

Every one of these climate strategies creates jobs and brings local economic benefits. New York
and the Federal Government have set up the funding programs to include a dedicated portion –
35 – 40% – specifically for the lowest-income, historically bypassed communities to be sure they
can access clean energy resources. To tackle the climate crisis equitably, it’s important that
elected and grassroots leaders in those communities understand the resources that are
available, from near-free electric school buses to homeowner energy incentives.

Those are the major things we need to do. We have started down this path, but we are not
moving as fast as we need to move. These courses of action translate into job and business
opportunities for many people. Even with a few industries like gas stations and fuel delivery shrinking, the net increase in new jobs by 2030 will be around 189,000. Helping those
industries and their work forces to make the transition is obviously part of what we’re going to
do if we’re smart, and the community college system is gearing up to get that done.

We need to let go of habitual ways of operating, and the limiting assumptions that hold them in
place. We need to think clearly about scale and speed. We need to identify the barriers to change and set about finding ways to deal with them.

All these changes in thought process can bring new opportunities for systems change into focus. Let’s play bigger, bolder and with more freedom, to be able to identify the paths of climate action that will lead to the best possible outcomes.