7 Locals Tackling New York’s Toughest Climate Problems | Environment | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

We have climate problems. They are here, they are real, and increasingly, they are local, as sea level rise and extreme weather take aim at communities in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. If there was any doubt left for the empirically minded, this month’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—a synthesis of eight years of international climate science—told a compelling story of climate impacts that have already begun to accelerate sooner than expected.

We also have climate solutions.

The science is clear: To avoid the worst impacts of a changing climate, economies around the world will need to decarbonize soon. That work has a long way to go to ensure a livable future for human communities, but it has already begun. Some of it is underway here.

Meet seven people in the Hudson Valley and Catskills who are doing the work right now—and seven local solutions that take aim at some of our toughest problems of decarbonization and community resilience. 

The quotes in this story were drawn from an online panel conversation about local climate solutions hosted by The River on July 14, “How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Climate.” They have been lightly edited for length and clarity. A full video of the conversation is available on YouTube.

The Pathmaker: Jen Metzger

Jen Metzger, former New York State senator, policy advisor to New Yorkers for Clean Power

As a representative for New York’s rural 42nd Senate district from 2018 to 2020, Jen Metzger had a hand in crafting and passing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), the 2019 law that is now the backbone of New York’s climate policy. Metzger lost her seat in a close election in 2020, but as a policy expert with practical knowledge of how the legislative sausage gets made, she’s still working on state climate response—and, through New Yorkers for Clean Power, advocating for communities to be proactive about finding good sites for the new renewable energy projects the state needs in order to build out a zero-emissions electrical grid.

THE SOLUTION: The passage of the CLCPA means that New York now has an overarching state climate policy that aims to meet concrete decarbonization goals, steer state agency decision-making, and bolster resilience in climate-vulnerable communities. 

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 climate-threatened communities, and dramatically reduce the air pollution that currently kills and sickens thousands of New Yorkers each year.

Metzger: Now more than ever, we really need to be bold and creative, and harness all of our collective will and energies to address the climate crisis and build resilience to the changes that are occurring. We have to transform our economy in a pretty fundamental way. 

I was working on climate and energy at the local level for a number of years, and I felt so incredibly fortunate to be in the state Senate at a moment when we could really move the needle in a major way. At the federal level, we had been going backwards, so it was particularly important. At the time, the CLCPA was the most ambitious climate legislation in the country, and also the most equitable.

New York has really been a model, and I was thrilled to see that it would be a federal goal as well. But now, this is where the rubber hits the road. We have to implement this law. 

On energy decarbonization, solar energy buildout, and the conflict between climate goals and community home rule:

New York had already put a clean energy standard in place in 2016, requiring utilities and energy supply companies to procure increasing amounts of renewable energy over time. The goal back then was to get to 50 percent renewable generation. Now it’s up to 70 percent. We’re well on our way, but we still need 24,000 gigawatt hours of renewables to get us to where we need to be. A state law was passed in 2020 to expedite the review process for larger projects to within one year, which is significantly faster than the previous process. This law has not been without controversy; it has upset local communities who feel that home rule is being steamrolled, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to balance local priorities and input while keeping us on track to meet our goals.

New York really has to stop issuing permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure. It boggles my mind that the state has not yet rejected the proposed new fracked gas Danskammer power plant in Orange County. In my humble opinion, it’s entirely inconsistent with our climate goals.

On the tough job of decarbonizing homes and buildings, and why New York State needs to invest in new technology:

Probably the toughest nut to crack in New York, from an emissions perspective, is the building sector. It accounts for about 30 percent of direct emissions in our state, because we combust fossil fuels in our homes to heat our homes and water, to cook, to dry our clothes. Eliminating these emissions will require that every building eventually switch to zero-emissions technologies like heat pumps, plus major investments to weatherize and tighten up the building envelope.

Further reading:  New York just passed the most ambitious climate target in the country”—Vox, July 22, 2019

The Connector: Nava Tabak

Nava Tabak, director of science, climate, and stewardship at Scenic Hudson

Since the 1960s, Scenic Hudson has been working to conserve and protect land along the Hudson River. Conservation groups have long relied on land-buying and conservation easements to protect threatened landscapes, but as climate change redraws coastal maps, the job of identifying and protecting important ecosystems is becoming harder—and more collaborative. In recent years, Scenic Hudson has taken a more active role in connecting communities with the science they need to make land-use decisions that protect human and natural resources.

THE SOLUTION: Water rise along the Hudson River threatens both human infrastructure and the natural wetlands that serve as flood buffers. Communities facing inundation are collaborating with scientists like Tabak, and with each other, to understand, predict, and respond. 

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. We’ve taken up the mantle of both adapting to climate change impacts and mitigating them for several years now at Scenic Hudson.

One thing we work on is natural climate solutions. Land that is not developed, that still has vegetation, typically does a lot of work taking up emissions. Research at the global scale shows that those lands are a really important part of the solution, and can constitute more than a third of reaching the goal of capping our temperature rise at two [degrees]. We need to protect these lands. We need to manage them properly. And in some cases, we need to restore them.

We integrate climate resilience and prioritize places that are the biggest engines for taking up carbon and other greenhouse gases in our land protection efforts. We also convene scientists, policymakers, and land managers in a group called the Northeast Carbon Alliance, to share science, collaborate, and work together on promoting some policy solutions. And we are looking at ways to manage our own lands, and to model management that takes up as much carbon as possible.

The second thing we focus on is sea level rise for communities directly along the eastern part of the Hudson River. Sea level rise is one of the forefront impacts of climate change, so we have created a sea level rise mapper that allows people to visualize the projected sea level rise all the way out to the year 2100. 

We’ve used the underlying data from that to also research tidal wetlands—which are some of the biggest natural climate solution engines, right up there with forests in taking up carbon. We’ve looked at how they will fare with sea level rise and have come up with a strategy to protect them, and even to promote their ability to move inland so that we continue to have tidal wetlands into the future.

We have done a lot of work with individual communities to plan for their waterfronts. We also do this kind of planning for our own parks and our own shorelines. And we help convene a group of waterfront communities that are most at risk, called the Flood Resilience Network.

We’ve also created a Solar Mapping Tool that helps communities think about siting solar energy, all in one tool that they can explore to help them not only argue against solar development, but find the places where some of these solar developments could go without a lot of impact.

Further reading:Upstream communities face a flooded future”—Bay Journal, March 9, 2021

The Regenerator: Ben Dobson

click to enlarge 7 Locals Tackling New York’s Toughest Climate Problems

Ben Dobson, farmer, cofounder of Hudson Carbon and farm manager of Stone House Grain

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. Farming can be part of the solution, with “regenerative agriculture” practices that promote carbon sequestration in the soil. If farmers working on the cutting edge of new agricultural science, like Dobson, can identify practices that work in a landscape, they can create a road map for carbon sequestration (and carbon market participation) for other farmers to follow.

THE SOLUTION: Figuring out which farming practices will work to make a farm carbon-negative involves a lot of research. 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 OBSTACLES: Ecological research is notoriously slow and difficult. It takes years to get good data. 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 businesses and individuals rely on them instead of doing the hard work of cutting emissions.

THE BENEFITS: To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to go beyond cutting emissions. Limiting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require not just rapidly decarbonizing the world’s economy, but also ramping up practices and technologies that can capture and store carbon. And for that, we need projects like Dobson’s.

Dobson: If we’re trying to address an issue like carbon, we have to look at the carbon cycle. Where is it? Where is it being emitted? Where’s it being sequestered? And we have to understand, too, that carbon is not just a bad thing. We’ve put it into imbalance. 

For the last eight years, we’ve been working in Livingston, New York, implementing a transition from conventional GMO corn and soy production to organic production, thus building a supply chain for the organic crops we grow. What we ended up doing is building a grain and forage supply chain to support smaller farmers who sell their food directly to eaters, retailers, and restaurants. Along the way, in 2015, we started Hudson Carbon, and established 15 permanent research sites across the farm to monitor the impact on soil carbon down to a meter deep.

We continue to use the farm to push the envelope on practices. We started going from a two-year conventional grain rotation to a four-year organic rotation. Then we added three years of perennials. So we have a seven-year rotation, and now we’re planting more and more trees and starting to work more and more to understand the forests and wetlands on the farm. 

Right now, we’re at a time where we are developing a methodology for this work. We’re submitting to the major carbon registries, we’re monitoring and measuring soil carbon, and we’re beginning to correlate that with satellite data and models so that it can be brought to scale. We’ve also started working in other regions in desert agriculture, monitoring agaves and plants that sequester carbon at night and close their stomata during the day. We’re working on grasslands in Montana and we’ll be starting to work on silvopasture in Brazil. But our home base is right here.

I think we need to develop in New York a strategy whereby natural carbon solutions are formally recognized within the framework of New York’s goals.

Dobson says that carbon offsets can be part of real climate solutions, but they need to be held to rigorous standards: 

There’s a tremendous amount of work right now, a green rush in carbon markets, where many of our biggest culprits are racing to carbon markets to be “carbon sellers.” So we’re seeing Cargill and many of the worst actors race to try to claim that they are sequestering carbon. 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.

Further reading: “Ms. Rockefeller’s Cannabis Farm”—Town & Country, June 21, 2021

The Visionary: Andrew Willner 

Andrew Willner, founder of the Center for Post Carbon Logistics

Sometimes it takes a big idea to break free. In farm and business communities 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 sail freight advocates like Willner hope will one day grow into a larger sail shipping network linking the Hudson Valley to the world.

THE SOLUTION: Two centuries ago, zero-emissions shipping dominated the Hudson River, supporting a thriving economy in port cities. Sail freight advocates want to revitalize the river as a shipping thoroughfare, and reimagine Hudson River 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 and other forms of zero-carbon transport 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: If international shipping was a country, it would be the sixth-largest emitter of carbon in the world.

The wind has powered cargo and freight vessels for more than 10,000 years. Until the mid-19th century, it was the only way to transport goods and people over any distance by water. Today, wind-powered and solar electric vessels are becoming more ubiquitous in the movement of goods and people. Building futureproof sail and solar, electric freight and passenger vehicles in the Hudson Valley means vessels will be locally built, from locally sourced and recycled materials, crewed with locally trained mariners, home ported along the Hudson.

The Apollonia is becoming part of this whole idea of a new post-carbon logistics. In its last trip to New York City, it delivered malted barley to breweries. It also met up at a pier in Brooklyn with Grain de Sail, a purpose-built transatlantic sail freighter that delivered French chocolates and fine wines and cognac to New York City buyers.

With that, plus cargo bikes for first- and last-mile delivery, we have the beginning of a post-carbon logistics system being developed on the Hudson. With new ships, and hopefully with help from state agencies and the US Maritime Administration, we can start building ships in Hudson Valley yards, for Hudson Valley mariners, for transporting goods and people up and down the Hudson River.

Futureproof ships will need piers, warehouses, trading houses, training facilities, and first- and last-mile logistics providers. Ports on the Hudson and New York’s canals will need to adapt to sea level rise and climate change. Rondout Riverport 2040 proposes a pragmatic, positive, and prosperous vision for the near future, in which the communities of Kingson and Esopus are enriched by a transformed port, boasting a shoreline synergy of leading-edge maritime commerce and working waterfront technologies that profit engaged individuals, businesses, and communities. That will allow for an equitable transition beyond fossil fuels, as together we forge a vital and vibrant economic bond with the greater Hudson Valley bioregion.

Further reading: “Winds of change: The sailing ships cleaning up sea transport”—The Guardian, October 23, 2019

The Decarbonizer: Melinda McKnight

Melinda McKnight, VP and CFO, Energy Conservation Services

If we’re going to decarbonize New York’s 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. And from the draftiest Victorian to the most futuristic office space, every building is a unique challenge. McKnight’s company in Port Ewen specializes in evaluating buildings of all ages and types of construction and finding opportunities to wring emissions and utility expenses out of older systems.

THE SOLUTION: The good news is that the technology for heating buildings without fossil fuels is already here—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 1970s design. Heat pumps that extract ambient heat from the air or the ground are now readily available. They’re a growing share of the market and can be used for cooling and heating. Modern insulation technology has come a long way, too. Both can yield major savings on heating costs in the long run.

THE OBSTACLES: Up-front expense is still a huge barrier to the widespread adoption of heat pumps, better insulation, and other building-decarbonization methods. New York State has some incentive programs through NYSERDA for homeowners and landlords, 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 boosting 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: We can’t really talk about achieving climate goals without talking about reducing consumption. The drive to green the grid has meant switching over to electrifying heating and cooling inside homes. In order for that to really be effective, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get to the bottom of where air leaks are, where buildings are losing energy, and where the air that you pay to heat and cool is leaving.

According to a statistic I heard at a NYSERDA conference, we need to weatherize 750 buildings per day for 30 years in New York State in order to bring down emissions sufficiently. There are not enough building science companies to do that work.

There are a lot of different ways we can incentivize weatherization and air sealing. 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. Yes, it’s a thorny issue because of the volume. But I think addressing the problem in a nutshell is really quite simple: It is finding a way to get folks to address their attic, get rid of old insulation that isn’t working well, and helping them understand that certain insulation materials just don’t work without air sealing.

Cost is certainly a barrier, although we do everything that we can to try to reduce that. But I think the biggest thing is that no one knows about it. I feel like there needs to be a major public service announcement campaign.

The Fortifier: Aaron Bennett

Aaron Bennett, environmental planner and floodplain manager, Ulster County Department of the Environment

One of the toughest problems in the battle for climate resilience is knowing when to retreat. When vital infrastructure is hit over and over again by flood or fire, it takes a toll on the whole community. In places where climate impacts are intensifying, the best solution is sometimes to relocate to safer ground. As an environmental planner, it’s Bennett’s job to help communities in Ulster County work through these issues. In Boiceville, a little hamlet in the rural town of Olive, Bennett is currently helping the local fire department and the town board move a fire station out of the path of repeated destructive floods.

THE SOLUTION: It’s a difficult decision to make, but when the increasing risk of repeated disaster becomes too high for the community to bear, it’s time for “managed retreat”: relocating critical assets out of harm’s way.

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, the existing state and federal programs that help communities do resilience work have rules that don’t make sense for every situation.

THE BENEFITS: If the collective effort to move the Boiceville fire station is successful, the fire department 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: In the Catskills, in the northwestern part of Ulster County, a lot of the 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. 

After Tropical Storm Irene, in the New York City watershed there was a movement to invest in proactive mitigation measures so that this does not keep happening.

The picture above shows Route 28, just west of Kingston and east of Phoenicia, during the height of Irene. The building in the upper left is the Olive Fire Department, Boiceville Company No. 5. That was the third time since 1980 that that building had been surrounded by flooding.

During a 100-year flood event, there are several feet of water around that structure. Critical community facilities really need to be protected at the 500-year flood level, which is impossible in that location. So the only option is to relocate it.

After several years of looking and asking, the local fire department got a flood hazard mitigation grant through the Catskill Watershed Corporation, but it doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of money we need. So I helped the department and town board apply to a state Department of Environmental Conservation Climate Smart Communities grant program in 2019, for about half of the money that was needed. At the time, $1.3 million was the total budget. We applied for a little over $700,000 of that, and we had the land already acquired.

The grant scored high with the program, but failed on a technicality: In order to qualify for Climate Smart Communities funding, the town needed to own the building, not the fire department, and that wasn’t feasible. Bennett and the town of Olive looked into applying for FEMA funding for relocation, but FEMA would only fund rebuilding on the same flood-threatened parcel, or else a full physical relocation of the existing building, which didn’t make sense because of the way the building was constructed. Back to the drawing board.

So FEMA money’s out the window, state money’s out the window. What they’ve decided to do is get some loans. We’ve had some bumps in the road, but they know that they don’t want to leave money on the table. It’s all volunteers, and the board members who are working on this are in their seventies. But they’re not giving up. They know this is pretty much their only shot in order to do this.

It seems like if the state is all in on this—and I believe they are—then they’re going to have to do more for these smaller communities that are just going to have a tougher time. Yeah, the damage numbers might not be as big as they are in some of the populated places, right on the coast or on the Hudson River. But these are lifelines for these rural communities, as we saw during Irene. Places being cut off for days, because a bridge washed out. Or a firehouse being inaccessible. That’s where people know to go. 

Further reading: “Managed retreat done right can reinvent cities so they’re better for everyone”—The Conversation, June 21, 2021

The Transformer: Rich Winter

Rich Winter, Callicoon beef farmer and founder of Delaware River Solar

In the Hudson Valley and Catskills, energy entrepreneurs like Winter are building community solar projects in farms and fields, and anyone who pays a utility bill can subscribe to get credits for renewable electricity.

THE SOLUTION: Solar and wind energy currently take up just a tiny slice of the state’s overall power generation pie, but they’re growing. Renewables have recently become cost competitive with fossil-fueled electric power in many places, which is giving the whole sector a boost. State policies that allow individual subscribers to tap into community distributed generation projects have been a boon to solar; soon, New York may see more solar-powered community choice aggregation models spring up, as well.

THE OBSTACLES: The biggest immediate hurdle for wind and solar projects is community opposition to siting. Local project opponents who are worried about solar farms’ impacts on views, property values, and community character are becoming more organized, and sometimes passing town ordinances against solar development. 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 and other measures to maintain grid reliability, since the sun and wind aren’t constant. 

THE BENEFITS: Building out zero-emissions energy will help New York meet its climate goals. That might be a bit ineffable for communities worried about their viewsheds, but when solar begins to displace gas and coal in earnest, the benefits of renewable energy will be felt keenly a little farther away, in places where fossil fuel plants have been creating public health problems for decades.

Winter: As a community solar developer, we are fully integrated. We do everything from finding the land for the site to getting the permits and working with the town. Then we do the construction. After construction, we find people to subscribe to the arrays. That’s our community. We do everything, front to back. We currently have a little more than 10,000 subscribers. By the end of this year, we will be close to 25,000 subscribers across the system. 

We’ve definitely run into resistance in siting some projects. There’s some NIMBYism, and some projects are sited poorly. At the end of the day, we have to connect to certain types of infrastructure. The grid is older, and the lines have to have what’s called three-phase—if you look up and there are three lines, we can connect to them. That limits places. And then further, some substations are not in great shape. The cost to upgrade them to handle this new energy is prohibitive. So we’re limited in where we can put some of them. 

It’s not worth it from a business standpoint nor a personal standpoint to go into a town that doesn’t want us there. There have only been one or two towns that have outright said, “We really don’t want you here.” One town that said that three years ago is now inviting us back. 

The bigger pushback now is about farmland. Are we using up good farmland? As a person who has a farm, I think it’s key not to conflate the issues of farmland and farmers. The people who are advocating for farmland aren’t necessarily concerned with whether the land is being farmed. 

Bethel farmer Pete Hofstee was very clear that he would be losing his farm if he didn’t have a solar array there to supplement his income. We’re in western New York, so 90 percent of our stuff is on farmland. We’re not saying every farmer who has a solar array is being saved from going bankrupt. But 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. Pete said it best: He’s milking the sun now, instead of milking cows.

Every farmer has 20 or 30 acres in a 100-acre farm that he doesn’t really want to farm, that is not as productive as the rest of it. That’s where we should site an array. It may be a little further away from an interconnection point, but there’s going to be a place where the value of the solar is more than hay or corn or something else.

The farmland is not disappearing. In 30 years, when we take the stuff off, it’ll still be farmland. And farming things are still happening, whether it’s sheep or we plant stuff that attracts pollinators under the panel. Maybe you don’t see a tractor going by and baling hay. But agriculture is still happening, and we’re not destroying the farmland. We’re using it for something else for a period of time. And then hopefully, 30 years from now, we can create that same amount of energy on a quarter of the space.

Further reading:Solar development is a tale of two cities”—Times Union, June 25, 2021

About The Author

Lissa Harris

Lissa Harris is a staff writer at The River and a volunteer firefighter. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017.
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