Our towns confront climate change, smartly

(The fourth in a series on climate change in the county)

GHENT—Climate change is generally presented as a global problem, requiring a sweeping, international response. While that is true, there is much that can be done locally, as New York State recognized when it created the Climate Smart Communities Certification Program in 2014 as a means to engage local governments and citizens.

A Climate Smart Community (CSC) is one that has formed a task force and pledged to the state its intention to pursue activities to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). In turn, as explained by the state’s climatesmart.ny.gov website, localities can become “certified” (at levels to date of “bronze” and “silver”) by “completing and documenting a suite of actions that mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

New York has 933 towns, 61 cities and 534 villages. Of those 1,528 entities, nearly 400 have registered to date as CSCs, 100 have attained “bronze” and 9 have received “silver” certification. Virtually every Columbia County locality has committed to the effort. Ancram, Austerlitz, Germantown, Hudson and New Lebanon have all attained bronze certification, while Canaan, the Town of Chatham, Claverack, Clermont, Copake, Ghent, Hillsdale, the Town and Village of Kinderhook, Philmont, Stuyvesant, Taghkanic and Valatie have all registered and are working toward certification.

Gallatin has taken a slightly different direction, joining the Clean Energy Community program and committing to a variety of energy-related activities.

Complementing the program the state offers a range of no-match and 50/50 matching grants to support a range of GHG mitigation and climate adaptation programs, like installing electric vehicle charging stations and solar power on municipal buildings, which many towns have done.

New Lebanon was the county’s first Climate Smart Community, encouraged by a supportive Town Board, according to CSC Task Force Chair Steve Powers and a travel agent by profession. Like all communities in the program, the town began by creating inventories of government and community GHGs and climate action plans to decrease energy use, shift to clean, renewable energy, educate the community, and find ways to make land use more resilient and “green.”

The town’s actions to implement its plan have been wide-ranging and have developed a “greater sense of community” among its residents, according to Mr. Powers. Activities have included effecting energy upgrades to the Town Hall, by installing energy efficient electric heat pumps and solar panels, among other things, supported by $120,000 in outright (no-match required) state grants in 2022 alone.

The town has also initiated a series of recycling programs ranging from a free bicycle repair and reuse program in which a retired mechanic repairs donated bicycles which are then distributed—to reduce vehicular travel and hence emissions; to a “repair café” (bring in your damaged item for free repairs); to a “free store” stocked with clothes and toys.

Town-wide composting is under consideration, but meanwhile task force volunteers have collected coffee grounds from town restaurants and businesses, including Stewart’s, at the rate of more than 400 pounds/week. The collection keeps the grounds out of landfills and is used in composting at the local community garden.

In Austerlitz, the task force is chaired by Jere Wrightsman, whose background is in human services, including refugee resettlement. With the aid of a state grant, the town has retained the Reverend Kathryn Beilke of the First Presbyterian Church in Hudson to consult with it and assist in preparing the detailed reports that are part of the certification process.

Reverend Beilke “loves” the CSC program because “it allows communities to bite off what they can chew” in addressing climate change, while allowing them to “show leadership and to model for others” ways to address “what might otherwise seem to be the overwhelming subject of climate change.”

After conducting the various GHG inventories, the Austerlitz task force is considering how to reduce emissions from the Highway Department fleet. It has installed solar panels on the town garage and has hosted a variety of education and outreach efforts, including by showing relevant films monthly on Sustainability Sundays, sharing pot-luck vegetarian meals on the town green, running seminars on the advantages and incentives available for installing heat pumps and providing educational activities at the Climate Carnival and Blueberry Festival, among other events.

At the festival, to engage children in guerrilla gardening, the group created “seed bombs” of native species embedded in compost that could then be thrown on roadsides to help grow plants that in turn attract pollinators. Mr. Wrightsman, a fisherman, is especially excited about a program funded by the state and Trout Unlimited, which assists communities in evaluating and right-sizing culverts that facilitate the upstream movement of fish.

In Hudson, sustainability takes many forms. The city has upgraded stormwater and sewage treatment facilities, made lighting and streetside improvements and recently launched a tree-planting initiative. Its proposed scattered-site affordable housing project is designed for energy-efficiency.

An on-going project is the design, and ultimately implementation, of an expansion of the Henry Hudson Riverfront Park not only to improve access for people of all abilities, but also to provide direct access to the river and to broaden the ecological diversity of the area and adapt to the rising level of the river.

Germantown is another bronze certified town. Among its activities has been an energy upgrade at the Kellner Youth and Activity Building that significantly reduced the single greatest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the town.

Ancram, the most recently bronze certified town in the county, is using part of an $80,000 grant it received from NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) to give free LED bulbs to residents. Quality LED bulbs use less than 75% of the energy of incandescent bulbs and last 25 times longer.

Most of the communities in the county will soon be embarking on a “Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Climate Adaptation” process, led by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties (CCE) on behalf of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission (CDRPC). The project will identify, analyze and prioritize the effects of climate risks—like flooding, heat stress and short-term drought—and outline strategies to address them.

Like the Vulnerability Assessment, many CSC projects are undertaken with partners—often the County’s Climate Smart Task Force, the CCE and the CDRPC. A future story will focus on the efforts of these groups.

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