Addressing Climate Change at the Municipal Level

Flooded road. Photo by Julie Brustad-Hatch, Oneida, NY

Photo by Julie Brustad-Hatch, Oneida, NY

By Allison Chatrchyan

Local officials are the first responders when an extreme weather event affects their community, and many communities are experiencing the immediate and long-term effects of climate change, which can be devastating to local economies. For example, 2013 damage estimates for the flooding of the Mohawk Valley and Niagara County, N.Y. alone were estimated to be at $80 million by the end of June, and were predicted to climb higher. Our climate is changing, and like any comprehensive issue, it makes more sense to become better prepared to address it proactively, rather than continually responding to the effects of change after the fact.

Local municipalities are empowered to address climate change planning under Article 2 of the Municipal Home Rule Law, local governments in New York are granted powers to adopt or amend local laws, including those related to highways and roads, protection of the physical environment, and the public safety and health of citizens, which can help them become better adapted to climate change. And in fact, many municipalities around the state and country are leaders and role models in the actions they are taking to plan for climate change.

Planning for Energy Efficiency and Climate Change

What municipal officials think about climate change:

  • In a recent survey of local municipal officials throughout New York State, researchers from Cornell University found that more than 67% of officials surveyed agree that the “science indicates our climate is changing.”
  • A majority of local officials surveyed also agree that they already see evidence of how climate change is affecting New York’s natural resources.
  • As one local official stated, “There definitely is a noticeable warming going on, even if it is only a couple of degrees. What we are seeing is that those couple of degrees have a tremendous impact. At a certain age, if you are paying attention, there are markers that you can say – ‘Wow, it wasn’t like this 30 years ago.’”
  • While a majority of local officials agree that climate change is occurring, only 22% indicated that their municipality had taken action(s) to address the issue.

The current climate change we are experiencing has been definitively linked to the amount of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) that people have emitted into the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels, as well as industrial, agriculture, and land use practices. The extent of climate change that we will see in the future really depends on the actions we all take now to reduce our use of fossil fuels. If we do not reduce the amount of GHGs, we will see a greater degree of climate change, while if we start to significantly reduce GHG emissions, the extent of climate change will be less. Climate change mitigation refers to the actions that will reduce the ultimate magnitude of climate change. Some of these actions are referred to as “win-win solutions,” because they also contribute to cost savings, green jobs, and local economic development. Local municipalities can take many actions to assess their energy use and GHG emissions and make reductions:

  • Adopt a pledge to reduce their GHG emissions, and join programs that provide planning tools, such as the voluntary New York State Climate Smart Communities Program (http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/50845.html). As of October 2013, 118 municipalities had signed on to the Climate Smart Communities Program and are in various stages of planning and action.
  • Complete an inventory of GHG emissions, and prepare a climate change plan. For example, Schenectady County completed a climate action plan in 2012, as have many municipalities around the state.
  • Incorporate language about climate change in updated comprehensive plans, and pass local laws or codes that uphold those values. For example, the recent Broome County Comprehensive Plan includes a vision about steps needed to become a more climate change resilient community.
  • Reduce GHG emissions from municipal operations, including increasing energy efficiency and conservation measures. Make the case that these efforts reduce the overall municipal budget and save taxpayer dollars.
  • Install or purchase renewable energy for the municipality, such as installing solar panels or purchasing wind power on municipal buildings. The Town of Caroline, NY has been a leader in reviewing its energy usage and determining a plan to install and purchase renewable energy, through the work of its Energy Independent Caroline committee.
  • Educate the public about the changing climate, and involve and engage local citizens and volunteers in the processes of adaptation and mitigation. The Town of RedHook, NY adopted an energy and climate change plan, including a 10% challenge to educate all residents to reduce their energy consumption.

Planning for Climate Change Resiliency

Our climate is going to continue to change even if we radically reduce our use of GHGs because we have emitted so many long-active greenhouse gases into the atmosphere already. This means that the best course of action is to better understand what changes are likely at the regional and local level, and work with our communities to make sure they are prepared. Climate change adaptation refers to the actions that municipalities can adopt that will help to reduce the impacts of the climate changes that will inevitably occur. Resiliency refers to the capacity of communities to withstand stress and catastrophe, and to adapt successfully in the face of threats or disaster. Below are some examples of the actions that local municipalities can take to increase their community’s resilience to climate change impacts:

  • Develop emergency management plans or FEMA all hazard mitigation plans that include climate change projections and adaptation strategies, and participate in the National Flood Insurance Program as well as FEMA’s Community Rating System.
  • Inventory and map municipal infrastructure that may be vulnerable to climate change, and make plans and budget to replace or move infrastructure over time. The City of Kingston, NY has completed ground breaking work with Scenic Hudson and the NY DEC to plan for flooding and sea level rise, producing a plan for rising waters.
  • Utilize local authority to protect open space, farmland, wetlands, and riparian buffers to increase resiliency to extreme weather events. The Town of Clinton, N.Y. passed a local open space plan, farmland protection plan, and wetlands and watercourse ordinance that makes it much more resilient to climate change.
  • Incorporate Better Site Design, Low Impact Development, and Green Infrastructure principles into local codes and planning decisions to increase resiliency of streams and floodplains to heavy precipitation events.

Local governments have the opportunity and responsibility to start planning to make sure that their communities are resilient to climate change and to lessen economic losses. There are many organizations and tools that exist to help with the process, including:

  • The New York State Climate Smart Communities Program: http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/50845.html;
  • The New York Extension Disaster Education Network (NY EDEN), which helps link extension educators, emergency managers, and community officials to enhance resilience and reduce the impact of disasters in New York communities: http://emergencypreparedness.cce.cornell.edu/;
  • Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension are trusted local partners whose staff can provide climate change education and outreach to communities or help facilitate community planning processes: climatechange.cornell.edu.

As the author Wayne Gerard Trotman notes: “Change. Adapt. Bend so as not to be broken. Let opportunity guide your actions.” This mind set can be seen in the Broome County Comprehensive Plan, which states that Broome County communities remain strong and resilient in the wake of natural disasters and other challenges through our capacity for cooperation and by incorporating sound planning in all facets of public decision making…We can become a more resilient community by further incorporating hazard mitigation planning concepts into decision making, instituting policies that protect property and public safety, and encouraging natural, non-structural solutions to reducing flood damages.

Other municipalities would be wise to take the same prudent approach.

Allison Morrill Chatrchyan

Allison Morrill Chatrchyan

Allison Chatrchyan (amc256@cornell.edu) is the Director of the new Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture at Cornell University, which is supported by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station’s USDA Hatch funds.



Category: Climate Change Forum

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