Climate change and its adverse effects are undeniable, but there are solutions, Judith Enck, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator, told attendees of Friday’s climate change conference at Union College.
More than 150 municipal and state officials, planners, engineers and students attended the daylong event, which focused on building community resilience in response to climate change.
“I think that climate change is the greatest economic and environmental challenge of our generation, and we are feeling the effects,” said Enck, the event’s keynote speaker. “The 12 hottest years on record have all happened in the last 15 years. [The year] 2012 was the hottest year ever in the United States. Sea surface temperatures are the highest they’ve ever been since we started measuring sea surface temperature back in the 1800s. In New York Harbor, the sea level is a foot higher than it was a century ago. We are having more intense and frequent storms.”
The Capital Region is experiencing more weather extremes and a warming trend, according to information presented at the conference by Richard Westergard of Shade Tree Meteorology and Union College Professor Richard Wilk.
The two cited data from the master’s thesis of 2013 Union graduate Elizabeth Rodiger, who studied extreme weather events and climatic changes in Schenectady and six surrounding counties. Between 1939 and 2011, the average daily temperature in the Capital Region increased about 3 degrees, with the four highest temperatures recorded in the past 20 years, Wilk noted.
Upward trends were also recorded between 1960 and 2009 in blizzards, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, high winds, hail, freezing rain and drought.
“Pay attention to Mother Nature’s whims, and consider those trends in planning,” Westergard suggested to the crowd. “Take these things into consideration and build with weather extremes in mind.”
Enck said it’s an economic necessity for the country to address climate change, citing the $60 billion provided by the federal government to New York and New Jersey for the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort.
Climate change can be combatted through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but in order to do that effectively, detailed, tough conversations about how to improve resiliency must take place, she said.
“We all have a role to play in tackling the climate crisis,” she said in an interview following her speech. “There are things we can do as individuals, but more importantly, there are things that we have to do in the business and government sector to drive down greenhouse gas pollution, and then secondly, we need to work collaboratively with mayors and local governments to prepare for future storms — and we certainly learned that through Irene and Sandy. To be effectively addressing the climate change issue, we need to drive down greenhouse gas pollution [while] at the same time preparing our communities for future Sandys and future Irenes.”
Suggested actions community members can employ to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include using mass transit and fuel-efficient vehicles, living close to work and using energy-efficient light bulbs.
In 2005, the city of Schenectady began implementing an energy conservation performance contract that reduced emissions by about 4 percent within three years, said City Council President Margaret King during a presentation at the conference.
“In terms of climate mitigation, we have entered a power-purchase agreement with SolarCity through [the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority] for the largest solar installation in New York state,” she noted.
The city’s wastewater treatment plant has been upgraded to use anaerobic digestion, a move that significantly reduced electricity usage, saving approximately $30,000 monthly in operating costs, she said.
Schenectady County has developed a community-wide climate action plan, expanded recycling efforts and is redeveloping multiple brownfield sites, noted Tony Jasenski, chairman of the Schenectady County Legislature.
Proactive preparations for weather-related disasters produced by climate change are a must, said conference presenter Jared Snyder, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He suggested communities incorporate climate change considerations into all plans they produce, including comprehensive land use plans, emergency evacuation plans and capital spending plans.
At the state level, NYSERDA is working to make New York more resilient to climatic extremes and weather events by investing in the electric utility industry and improving how the state responds to extreme weather events, said Janet Joseph, vice president of technology and strategic planning for NYSERDA. The state is also establishing a 3-billion-gallon gas reserve in Long Island and providing emergency backup generators to gas stations on critical roads in the state, she said.
Tackling climate change is possible, Enck emphasized in her speech.
“Remember the hole in the ozone layer? Well, it’s closing. There was a global agreement phasing out the chemicals that were harming the ozone layer, and the ozone levels are improving,” she said.
She also called attention to the fact that acid rain has been reduced by 65 percent since the 1970s, thanks to measures implemented by the United States and Canada.
“We can fix these problems if we choose to do so,” she asserted. “Solutions are out there.”