EDITORIAL: How smart are we about climate?

THE BBC reported last week that climate change will speed up the jet stream, and those headwinds will slow westbound transatlantic jet traffic, making the trip from London to New York take a lot longer. So will climate change make driving west across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to Catskill take longer than driving home to Columbia County? Should we cover the bridge in a bubble?

The jet stream won’t be swooping down on us anytime soon… let’s hope. But with all the news about climate change, it’s still difficult for most of us to imagine how it directly affects our lives, let alone what we should do about it. That’s where a state program called Climate Smart Communities comes in.

Climate Smart Communities is a state program. Just knowing that will make some folks wary. But at least the state has stepped forward to suggest what we can do at the community level other than watch as longstanding scientific predictions of climate change threats become real. The alternative–passively accepting more frequent and severe storms, floods, droughts, rising sea levels, heat waves and the damage they cause–is not a plan.

Five municipalities in Columbia County have already signed on as Climate Smart Communities: the Towns of Hillsdale, Chatham and Kinderhook, and the Villages of Chatham and Valatie. The Ancram Town Board has put joining the initiative on its agenda this week and the New Lebanon board discussed joining last week but tabled the matter until next month. Across the state there are 170 municipalities representing over six million people already signed up.

Getting started as a Climate Smart Community is like joining a club. First the town or village has to adopt a 10-point pledge, which calls for general steps that begin with setting goals and creating “a plan for climate action.” That’s followed by a series of challenges: decrease community energy use; increase community use of renewable energy; recycle and manage waste; reduce greenhouse gas emissions using climate-smart land-use tools; enhance community resilience and prepare for the effects of climate change; support development of a green innovation economy; and inform and inspire the public.

The final item of the pledge, “commit to an evolving process of climate action,” suggests another aspect of the effort to address climate change. Put another way: Nobody knows all the best ways to slow climate change but whatever they are they won’t work without public engagement.

That’s why local government is critical. The work starts with the appointment of a local coordinator and task force and the gathering of information about greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, etc. Action has to follow the pledge. No one else will do this work for us.

Six state agencies are behind this initiative, led by the Department of Environmental Conservation. They’ll offer advice and technical support, and some even have funds for specific projects. But they can’t compel us to act and there’s no state law requiring us to be smart about climate change.

We know Congress isn’t about to do anything. Our congressman, Chris Gibson (R-19th), once a climate change skeptic, took the politically courageous step of introducing a bill that would put the House of Representatives on record acknowledging the need to act to avert the threats of climate change. Thirteen of his GOP colleagues supported the bill. It has gone nowhere. Meantime, the candidates for the Republican nomination for president act as if climate change is not an issue, though a majority of Americans know that it is.

It’s up to us and our neighbors to press municipalities around the county to join the Climate Smart Communities program. This is not a project that benefits some special interest, unless you consider yourself and your loved ones special. We are all subject to the effects of a changing climate. We all have a stake in making sure that local efforts succeed at reducing our impact on the climate that sustains us.

Every municipality in this county–all 18 towns, 4 villages, the City of Hudson as well as the government of Columbia County should be a Climate Smart Community and each unit of local government should be actively engaged in implementing the steps that give the pledge meaning. Similarly, all of us who live here have an obligation to monitor and participate in the Climate Smart efforts in our communities.

Someday soon someone will ask what you did to reduce the impact of climate change. What will your answer be?

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