Climate’s Impact On Policy

Thiele senses change afoot in Assembly
A committee named by the East Hampton Town Board will consider whether waterfront buildings, like this one on the ocean in Montauk that was threatened by Hurricane Sandy, should be protected. Morgan McGivern

    On Sunday, the Web site of The New York Times published a series of interactive maps depicting coastal areas, including Long Island. Titled “What Could Disappear,” the maps predict a sea-level rise of five feet, and 5 percent of Long Island’s now dry, habitable land permanently submerged, possibly within 100 years, without engineered protection. Barrier islands will start to submerge, and the shore will move inland.
    Even if countries make moderate pollution cuts, sea-level rise may reach 12 feet by the year 2300, and portions of the North and South Forks will flood. Ultimately, all barrier islands will disappear, according to the map, and the southern shore will have moved one to five miles inland in most places.
    A more imminent threat is a rising incidence of extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy, and storms of greater ferocity, corresponding with the higher ocean temperatures of a warming planet.
    Climate change, and specifically its causes and effects, has been prominent in regional and national discussions about Hurricane Sandy. Now, with post-storm assessments nearing completion, some leaders at the municipal, county, and state levels have begun to factor climate change into proposed legislation, as well as the way they do business now.
    “You’re going to see decision makers at every level take this seriously,” said Jon Schneider, Suffolk County’s deputy county executive. “We’re going to have to make decisions on the local level that respect the impact of climate change.” Mr. Schneider pointed to the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, which dates to the 1960s. “One of the reasons the plan has taken so long is that there’s a growing recognition of the impact of climate change and how that affects our coastlines. As we move from the direct recovery phase, that plan has got to be at the core of what we do,” he said.
    Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. is encouraged by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s post-Sandy statements regarding climate change and his establishment, last month, of three commissions charged with strengthening infrastructure and improving emergency response, known as NYS 2100, NYS Respond, and NYS Ready. But, he said, “One of my fears might be that larger policy questions get overlooked.”
    Mr. Thiele has sponsored or co-sponsored legislation pertaining to the establishment of greenhouse gas limits and tax credits for solar energy equipment. “That’s been one of my high priorities, whether it’s been through the bill I passed last year for tax exemptions to encourage new construction to be LEED Platinum or Gold, or to encourage alternative energy such as wind and solar,” he said, referring to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
    Despite concerns about such legislation being left out of policy debate, Mr. Thiele predicts new bills relating to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change when the Assembly reconvenes next month. “I would expect that to be part of this, as part of the bigger picture. There is a consciousness on the state level. We clearly could be doing better.”
    Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, a not-for-profit organization promoting clean, sustainable energy use and generation, agrees with Mr. Thiele’s assessment. “While it’s important to strengthen our infrastructure to be prepared for the next Sandy and other impacts of extreme weather and climate change, we also need to go to the root cause and limit emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Otherwise, we’ll just make matters worse. If you’re in a hole, stop digging.”
    As residents of areas impacted by Sandy recover, they are asking questions, said Mr. Raacke, such as, “Is there a better way to build the system of energy supply that not only is more resilient but doesn’t contribute to climate change?” Governor Cuomo’s three commissions omit an essential component, “and that’s a commission to look at what we can do to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
    Thomas DiNapoli, the New York State comptroller, has taken greenhouse gases and their effect on climate change into account, but stops short of divesting state money from fossil fuel companies. “Comptroller DiNapoli views climate change as a significant threat to the global economy,” Eric Sumberg, a spokesman for the comptroller, said in an e-mail. “Since taking office in 2007, he has worked with a coalition of institutional investors that focused on pressuring fossil fuel companies to take steps to mitigate climate change. This includes supporting state, federal, and international efforts to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Our status as a shareholder empowers us to work with companies to address climate change issues. Divestiture would severely limit our ability to positively affect those issues.”
    Yet, while fossil fuels and environmentally sound policies become part of the mitigation discussion, “only a small fraction of leaders and the population are beginning to think about how we are going to adjust to it,” said Larry Cantwell, the East Hampton Village administrator. “Unfortunately it takes a disaster to bring that to people’s attention.”
    The village has already taken many steps to “green” its operations, Mr. Cantwell said, including the solar panels atop the Emergency Services Building, the Department of Public Works, and the Main Beach pavilion. The village’s fleet of vehicles includes hybrid and other energy-efficient models, interior lighting in its buildings has been converted to energy-efficient products, and a plan is in place to upgrade the buildings’ heating systems, which will include a conversion from oil to gas, Mr. Cantwell said. “In the little Village of East Hampton, we have a responsibility to change the way we do business,” he said. “These are small changes, but positive ones.”
    At the East Hampton Town Board’s work session on Tuesday, a coastal committee was formed to discuss adaptation to coastal erosion “as it pertains to recent events, taking a long view as well,” said Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, who will serve on the committee. “How do we adapt to this imminent threat, which seems to be getting worse and worse by all scientific projections?” he asked.
    Human beings have adapted to changing conditions throughout history, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “although the changes may have been slower. There’s clearly been a lot of change in a relatively short period of time. We know that there are contributing factors, so not to address ways that we can have a positive effect is foolish. At the same time, we need to adapt to that change.”