hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues July 2017


Climate-saving efforts go local

States, cities and activists push to meet goals of Paris agreement


Contributing writer


With President Trump’s announcement June 1 that he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, area states, cities and citizen groups are redoubling their efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions and shift to renewable energy sources.

Nothing in the international agreement or in Trump’s decision stops states, municipalities or businesses from setting and pursuing their own carbon-emission reduction goals and programs. Around eastern New York and western New England, many such efforts were already under way and are expected to continue or increase.

Within hours of Trump’s announcement, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined the governors of California and Washington in founding the U.S. Climate Alliance. The governors committed their states to meeting or exceeding the goals the United States had previously set under the Paris accord of cutting carbon emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.
The multi-state Climate Alliance soon grew to include 14 governors, including Phil Scott of Vermont and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, the only Republicans so far to join the pact.
States in the alliance have also pledged to meet or exceed the targets of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would cut the amount of carbon released by electrical generation. Trump has promised to scrap that as well.

New York, Massachusetts and Vermont have their own renewable energy goals and programs to reach them. New York plans to derive 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Massachusetts is aiming for 15 percent of new electrical generation by 2020 and 5.5 percent from existing power plants by 2015. Vermont says it wants to obtain 90 percent of all energy used in the state from renewable sources by 2050.

Cities and towns are pursuing their own efforts to curb carbon emissions. In 2015, the mayors of Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia formed the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, an informal organization of U.S. mayors to support each other in reducing their municipalities’ releases of greenhouse gases.

As of February, mayors representing 75 cities had joined the group, but its membership soared to 338 by the end of June, with mayors representing 62 million Americans. Locally, Mayors Joanne Yepsen of Saratoga Springs and Tiffany Hamilton of Hudson are among those who’ve joined the alliance.


Pushing for changes
A number of grassroots groups are also working around the region to push for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and a shift toward using more renewable energy sources, including Sustainable Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, Earth Matters in Manchester, Vt., and the Bennington chapter of 350 Vermont.

In Massachusetts, the town of Williamstown formed its COOL Committee (the acronym stands for CO2 Lowering) in 2000. The committee is a member of Greylock Together, a coalition of organizations in northwestern Massachusetts working on progressive causes.

Greylock Together “began meeting in response to the election,” explained Nancy Nylen, a member of the COOL Committee. “It became more active after the women’s march in January. It has subcommittees, including one on climate change.”

That subcommittee and the COOL Committee organized a joint program on electric vehicles in February, Nylen said.

The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement “wouldn’t have an immediate impact locally,” Nylen said.

“It’s encouraging that state governments have come forward to support the Paris agreement goals,” she said. But without federal action, she added, “things need to happen more than ever at the local level. If federal programs are gutted, it would affect people locally.”
Nylen’s group is promoting solar energy and energy efficiency for homes and businesses, along with the concept of community solar projects for people who can’t put photovoltaic panels on their own buildings. A separate Greylock Together subcommittee is looking to support U.S. House candidates in the 2018 elections “who will make climate a priority,” Nylen said.
Mike Evans, another COOL Committee member, is chairman of Greylock Together’s environment and climate subcommittee.

“With the administration’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, not only is our reputation taking a hit in the international community, but also the onus shifts from the federal government to state and municipal governments and the local communities to step up,” Evans said in an e-mail interview.

“In the days following the withdrawal, we’ve seen mayors, governors, college and university leaders, businesses, and investors reaffirm their commitment to uphold the Paris deal through #WeAreStillIn,” Evans added.

Greylock Together is acting as a clearinghouse for local groups’ calls to action, public hearings, and events, he said. It holds educational programs about home energy efficiency and how to buy green power, and the group sends out e-mail alerts to members about issues at the state and federal levels. It meets monthly in Williamstown.


Goals of a global pact
The president’s decision to pull out of the international climate pact was not surprising, given that in last year’s campaign he had dismissed the idea of climate change as a hoax.

The Paris accord, crafted in 2015 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aimed to limit carbon dioxide emissions that scientists say are the main cause of increasing global temperatures that are changing the earth’s climate and environment. By design, the agreement is not binding and there are no provisions for enforcement.
Representatives of all but two of the world’s 197 nations adopted the accord by consensus in December 2015 and signed it the following April. The agreement took effect Nov. 4, four days before the U.S. presidential election.

The agreement’s goal is to keep the global average temperature increase in this century to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial averages. Signatory countries pledged to try to keep the increase even smaller, to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). Each country was responsible for setting its own carbon reduction goals. Some climate scientists believe the stated reductions are inadequate.

Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement appears to have little practical effect locally so far. Under the rules of the agreement, countries must wait three years after the agreement took effect before they can give formal notice of withdrawal. Withdrawal takes effect one year later, so the earliest the U.S. would bow out officially is Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the next presidential election.

U.S. senators and representatives in Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont were quick to condemn Trump’s announcement. The two Republicans whose districts cover much of eastern New York – Reps. Elise Stefanik and John Faso -- joined in the criticism. Stefanik, who previously wrote a Republican House resolution acknowledging that climate change is real and that human activities are making it worse, called Trump’s decision a “mistake” and an abandonment of U.S. leadership on a crucial issue. Faso called the president’s move “ill-advised.”

Preparing for the inevitable?
Steven Leibo, a professor of international history and politics at the Sage Colleges in Troy who has written and spoken out extensively about climate change, said reducing carbon emissions is no longer enough.

“It used to be a general belief that mitigation, or no more carbon dioxide, was more important than adaptation,” Leibo said.

But now, he explained, past emissions are already changing the earth’s climate, and bigger changes are sure to follow.

“We are way past the point of no return,” Leibo said.
Our region of New York and New England is already being affected by the northward spread of plant and insect pests, agricultural challenges from erratic weather, and the potential loss of the winter sports industry.

But “climate change plays out differently in different areas,” Leibo said. “We’re in better position than people along the coasts or farther south.”

The single biggest effect of climate change locally is “the likelihood of more people moving in the area,” Leibo said. “Our region, from Albany to Montreal, has historically been relatively empty.”
The Adirondack Park is protected legally but will face great pressure as large numbers of people flee shorelines flooded by storms and rising seas -- and regions to the south that have become intolerably hot, he said.

“That will happen sooner than people think,” Leibo warned. “Smart people will want to get equity from their coastal homes and leave early. People who wait too long won’t be able to refinance or sell their houses.”

Leibo said he expects cities in this region will grow much larger as people move northward because of the effects of climate change.

Municipalities will face the challenge of providing housing for new arrivals but also having to relocate infrastructure such as power plants and highways that are at risk from rising river levels and more intense storms. As forests become hotter and drier, forest fires will become more frequent and threaten homes and buildings, he said. Wind stress will be a bigger danger to buildings than snow load.

Despite the president’s decision, the move toward solar and wind power will continue, he predicted.

“Trump can’t negate a decade of engineering and technological advances that have made renewable energy sources more economical than fossil fuels,” Leibo said. “But we need to speed up.”

The loss of federal support “makes our circumstances that much more dramatic,” he added “City, state, and county officials are trying to pick up the slack. We can pick up a significant percentage, but we need to be moving much faster.”

Municipalities have limited funds, and some are still repairing the damage from Tropical Storms Irene and Lee, he said.

“We’re starting to see progress, but it’s not even close to the progress we need,” Leibo said.