We have climate problems. They are here, they are real, and, increasingly, they are local, as sea levels rise and extreme weather take aim at communities in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. We also have climate solutions—and they’re already underway in our own backyard. Here are seven solutions that take aim at some of our toughest regional climate problems—and seven local people who are rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work on decarbonization and resilience.
#1: Change The Law
Passed in 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) is now the backbone of New York’s climate policy. The new law aims to decarbonize the state economy, and to invest in communities that currently take the brunt of both climate change and pollution. Metzger, who had a hand in crafting the CLCPA, lost her seat in a close election in 2020. But as a policy expert who knows how the legislative sausage gets made, she’s still working on state climate response.
THE OBSTACLES: Putting state climate targets into law was hard. Meeting them will be harder—and most of the supportive legislation needed to fund and carry out the CLCPA’s goals has not yet been passed. The fossil fuel industry has large influence and deep pockets, and opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure projects is politically costly for Democrats and Republicans alike.
THE BENEFITS: If New York State can muster
the will to deliver on the goals of the CLCPA,
we’ll do more than decarbonize the state’s power
system and overall economy. We’ll create new
green jobs, boost resilience and quality of life in
vulnerable communities, and dramatically reduce
the air pollution that currently kills and sickens
thousands of New Yorkers each year.
Metzger: “New York has really been a model. But now, this is where the rubber hits the road. We have to implement this law.”
#2: Collaborate Across the LandscapeNava Tabak, director of science, climate, and stewardship at Scenic Hudson
As climate change redraws coastal maps, the job of protecting important ecosystems that serve as flood buffers is becoming harder—and more collaborative. In recent years, science-driven conservation organizations like Scenic Hudson are taking a more active role in helping communities understand, predict, and respond to climate risks, and in creating new online tools to help local leaders work through tough landscape-level climate problems.
THE OBSTACLES: People—and the local governments they elect—are generally more inclined to respond to problems that already exist than they are to spend resources on preventing future disasters. Even as it becomes clearer that rising sea levels will be destructive and force large future investments, there’s little political will to act before the damage has been done.
THE BENEFITS: Proactive work that makes communities and ecosystems more resilient is far less expensive than rebuilding after disaster strikes.
Tabak: “We and our partners believe that the Hudson Valley can be a model for climate resilience for the rest of the state.”
#3: Harness the Power of Farm Soils
Agriculture is responsible for about 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. More than a third of that is methane, a shorter-lived but much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But farming can also be part of the solution. At Stone House Farm and Old Mud Creek Farm in Columbia County, Dobson is working with scientists at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, with support from farm owner Abby Rockefeller, to develop best practices for locking carbon into farm soil. The goal is to create a road map that other farmers can follow.
THE OBSTACLES: Ecological research is notoriously slow and difficult. Even if Dobson’s research projects yield clear results, what works for one farmer might not work for another. And then there’s the problem of carbon offsets: Even if they work as intended to suck carbon out of the air, they can be abused if people rely on them instead of doing the hard work of cutting emissions.
Dobson: “We don’t have an exact formula that works, but we’re getting closer and closer. In ecosystems, there is no ‘exact.’ But there is rigor and honesty, and both of those are needed.”
#4: Bring Back Zero-Carbon ShippingAndrew Willner, founder of the Center for Post Carbon Logistics
Sometimes it takes a big idea to break free. Along the banks of the Hudson River, a small chorus of advocates has been pressing for sail freight as an alternative to fossil-fueled shipping. The idea is beginning to move from vision to reality: This summer, the Hudson-based schooner Apollonia met up with the French vessel Grain de Sail in New York Harbor to exchange goods, the first link in what might one day become a larger sail shipping network in the region. Sail freight advocates want to revitalize the Hudson River as a shipping thoroughfare, much as it was in the early 1800s, and to reimagine local waterfronts as powerhouses of jobs to support a slower but saner regional economy.
THE OBSTACLES: The wind may blow for free, but time is money. Sail shipping is slow and labor-intensive compared to other methods of moving stuff from one place to another. And after almost 200 years of relying on fossil-fueled transport, Hudson River port cities no longer have solid logistical systems in place to support the movement of goods by sail.
THE BENEFITS: As the cost of polluting becomes more apparent, shippers that rely on fossil fuels will have to pay increasing costs to do so. Sail freight might become more cost- competitive. And if we go big on reinvesting in the river as a highway, there are opportunities to reimagine waterfronts in ways that create jobs and promote resilience.
Willner: “We have the beginning of a post-carbon logistics system being developed on the Hudson.”
#5: Get Buildings Off Oil and GasMelinda McKnight, VP and CFO, Energy Conservation Services
If New York wants to decarbonize its economy, we have to get buildings off a fossil fuel diet. That’s no small task. Fuel burned to heat buildings accounts for roughly a third of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. From the draftiest Victorian to the most futuristic office space, every building is a unique challenge. The good news, for building energy experts like McKnight: Zero-carbon heating technology has come a long way in recent years. And it doesn’t involve electric baseboard heat that costs a fortune to run, or tearing down your house to build a passive-solar monument to `70s design.
THE OBSTACLES: Up-front expense is still a huge barrier to the widespread adoption of heat pumps, better insulation, and other building energy fixes. New York State has some incentive programs through NYSERDA, but they’re not enough to meet the state’s CLCPA goals, and there’s a forbidding amount of red tape involved in accessing them. What’s more, if New York is serious about home decarbonization, it will need to train a small army of systems installers.
THE BENEFITS: Zero-emissions building heat is obviously good for climate goals, but it’s also good for the people in the building. Burning fuel of any kind produces particulates that cause a variety of health problems and premature death. And better insulation makes a house both more comfortable and less expensive to maintain.
McKnight: “Giving contractors and people who actually do the work a seat at the table to talk about practical application would be a really big step in the right direction.”
#6: Move the Important StuffAaron Bennett, deputy chief of watershed lands and community planning, New York City Department of Environmental Protection
One of the toughest problems in the battle for climate resilience is knowing when to retreat.
It’s a difficult decision to make, but when the increasing risk of repeated flood or fire becomes too high for the community to bear, it’s time for “managed retreat”: relocating vital assets out of harm’s way. In Boiceville, a little hamlet in the rural town of Olive, the local fire department and the town board are working to move a fire station out of the path of recurring floods. Bennett, who until recently was an environmental planner for Ulster County, has been helping with the effort.
THE OBSTACLES: Relocation is an emotionally fraught decision for the whole community. That goes double for a place like Olive, which has a history of whole communities being seized and submerged to build New York City’s reservoirs. On top of that, existing programs that help communities do resilience work have rules that don’t make sense for every situation. The Boiceville effort has run up against several roadblocks in the search for state or federal funding.
THE BENEFITS: If the Boiceville Fire Department moves to higher ground, it can respond to future flood disasters without itself being in peril. It’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of global climate impacts, but it’s a version, writ small, of the tough infrastructure decisions now faced by climate-threatened cities all over the world.
Bennett: “A lot of critical community facilities are located within the floodplain. We all know flooding is going to increase in terms of frequency and intensity. So we have to be prepared for that.”
#7: Build Zero-Carbon EnergyRich Winter, Callicoon beef farmer and founder of Delaware River Solar
Energy entrepreneurs like Winter are building community solar projects in farms and fields across the state. Anyone who pays a utility bill can subscribe—and save on electricity costs, while they’re at it. Solar and wind energy currently take up just a tiny slice of the state’s overall power generation pie, but they’re growing, aided by plunging costs and increasingly renewable-friendly state policy.
THE OBSTACLES: The biggest immediate hurdle for wind and solar projects is community opposition to siting, especially in wealthier areas. Another factor that will loom larger down the road: As renewable energy takes over more of the grid, we will need to develop more energy storage to maintain grid reliability, since the sun and wind aren’t constant.
THE BENEFITS: Building renewable power will help New York meet its climate goals. That might be a bit ineffable for rural communities worried about their viewsheds, but when solar begins to displace gas and coal in earnest, the benefits will be felt keenly in communities where fossil fuel plants have been creating public health problems for decades.
Winter: “I would say 20 percent of our farms would be up for development in the next decade if they didn’t have the income from the solar array. The farmland is not disappearing. Maybe you don’t see a tractor going by and baling hay. But agriculture is still happening.”
The people featured in this story were participants in an online panel conversation about local climate solutions hosted by The River on July 14, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Climate?” For more on that event and their work, see our story on The River: “7 Locals Tackling New York’s Toughest Climate Problems.