Town, county and state officials on both sides of the aisle agree that climate change poses a real threat to Long Island. That’s why they’re taking serious steps to address the issue, protect the environment and work to save the region from projected devastation.
In his March 24 State of the Town Address, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) devoted more time to the environment than any other issue, outlining measures taken by Brookhaven to reflect the growing threats of climate change, and sea level rise especially — noting the town has the largest coastline of any in the state.
Romaine said the town will continue working to restore its wetlands and limit residential and commercial development to such critical floodplain areas, among several other initiatives to prepare for the challenges ahead.
“It’s a wake up call if we don’t sound the alarm now and come together,” Romaine said in a phone interview. “Whatever I can do, I’m on board. I wish more people in my party shared that belief … but I’m absolutely dedicated to this because I’m a human being living on this planet that’s being threatened every day. Five of the past six years have been the warmest on record. It’s time to wake up.”
Building on ambitious goals set in the past — like cutting the town’s greenhouse gas emission by 50 percent by the year 2020 as proposed in his five-year capital plan two years ago — he said the town plans to replace 35,000 streetlights with energy-efficient LED lights within the next two years to save costs and reduce its carbon footprint; will continue to replace aging cars with hybrid, fuel-efficient models; has already revised its solar code to prevent deforestation and clear cutting of trees; and has instituted wind, solar and geothermal codes, requiring new residential home construction to be “solar ready.”
Resources to help make homes energy efficient
•Free energy audit:
Long Island Green Homes Initiative is a public-private partnership that offers homeowners a professional energy audit at no cost. It provides an easy-to-use website coupled with energy navigators that help answer any questions a homeowner has and schedule a free home energy assessment providing an in-depth analysis of a home’s energy efficiency. Visit www.longislandgreenhomes.org.
•Carbon footprint calculator:
Cool Climate, a program started at the University of California, Berkley, offers a webpage to help estimate your carbon footprint. Visit http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/carboncalculator to find out yours.
•No-cost energy upgrades:
EmPower New York provides free energy efficiency solutions to income-eligible New Yorkers. Whether you own your home or rent, a participating contractor will be assigned to you to assess if your home would benefit from free energy upgrades such as:
-Air sealing to plug leaks and reduce drafts
-Insulation to make your home more comfortable all year round
-Replacement of inefficient refrigerators and freezers
-New energy-efficient lighting
-Plus, free health and safety checks of your smoke detectors, appliances and more. Visit www.nyserda.ny.gov/All-Programs/Programs/EmPower-New-York.
•Solar energy incentives:
The NY-Sun Incentive Program provides financial incentives to help reduce the installation costs associated with solar electric systems. Incentives are based on building sector and size (residential, small commercial and large commercial/industrial), and within each sector, there are different incentives for specific regions of NY. Income-eligible households may qualify for a program that lowers the up-front cost of installing solar for a homeowner, double incentives for certain households and free home energy improvements. Visit www.nyserda.ny.gov/All-Programs/Programs/NY-Sun/About.
Neighboring towns Smithtown and Huntington are also investing in their community’s environmental future. Smithtown was named the first town in New York State to be a clean energy community, and Huntington soon followed. This means both towns completed several high-impact clean energy actions like saving energy costs, creating jobs to improve the environment and more, and are now qualified for grants to further clean energy improvement in the area.
Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who served on the county’s Climate Action Plan Committee, is no stranger to pushing aggressive energy and sustainability initiatives herself, like her seawater rise vulnerability bill introduced in 2013.
Although she feels as though there has not been a sense of immediate crisis when it comes to climate change among Long Island residents, she said it’s important for people to recognize the effects it will have on coastal communities and low-lying villages like Port Jefferson, Stony Brook and Setauket Harbor.
Hahn is passionate about increasing sewer districts and eventually switching to alternative on-site wastewater systems that remove nitrogen from wastewater altogether.
Only about 30 percent of Suffolk County uses a sewer system, she said, and the remaining 70 percent are antiquated septic cesspool systems, meaning “every time we flush, the nitrogen in most of our homes or businesses is going right into our drinking water … and eventually surface waters.”
Recently the county has followed the lead of states like Massachusetts in switching over to these new systems in pilot projects. Hahn, with the help of her colleagues and a funding stream to help with the costs, is working on a plan to make these alternative on-site wastewater systems a requirement in Suffolk.
Across the island in Huntington, Leg. William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) also wants to protect clean water from contamination. As the lead sponsor of the Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection Act — a bi-county legislation that controls drilling into the aquifer and protecting the water for the next 50 years — Spencer said further damage to the water would be a tragic event.
“We have to be aggressive,” Spencer said. “We have a program at the Southwest Sewer District, where we’re trying to reduce fossil fuels and pollution by taking sludge from cesspools and reconstituting that into the fuel oil, instead of burning so much regular fossil fuels. We’re working on reducing nitrogen pollution within the ground, as well as working with Brookhaven National Lab looking for clean forms of energy.”
Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said as a North Shore native her main concern has been erosion and stormwater management.
“So much here has to do with erosion from Superstorm Sandy and I’m always very concerned about these intense, ferocious storms we have and the damage created from them,” she said. “When we’re able to really significantly improve our stormwater infrastructure, the trickle down effect is that improved water quality helps not only recreation but people who derive their income from the bays and the sound.”
According to state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the leading environmental voice in the Assembly, the superstorm and recent high tides gave Long Island residents a preview of what an elevated water table would look like in the North Shore’s harbor areas like Port Jefferson, Huntington and Nissequogue.
But as New Yorkers, he said, we have an opportunity to set an example for the rest of the country in demonstrating a strong push for climate change initiatives.
“New York can sometimes be relied upon as a model for our sister states to examine and, in some cases, to reflect similar initiatives in their own legislatures,” Englebright said. “If we can do it here, we can demonstrate that it’s doable. Fifty-three percent of the population of our nation lives within 50 miles of ocean water — half of the nation is coastal. Implementing a more widespread use of renewable energy is one of the strongest directions we should try to move our communities toward in order to basically save our island from the ravages of an ever-increasing level of the ocean around us and the shrinking of our shorelines.”
As chairman of the Committee of Environmental Conservation, one of Englebright’s first assignments was to organize a climate advisory task force made up of legislators and set up a series of hearings. Based on the testimonies he received, the assemblyman wrote the New York State Climate and Community Protection Act, legislation first introduced last year and re-introduced again this year.
The bill addresses and mitigates the impacts of climate change in the state. While it’s still a work-in-progress, it has already been heralded by many environmental voices as a significant national model for state action.
“It sets out goals and objectives to begin to reduce our greenhouse gas output, track it more effectively, and establish a series of greenhouse gas emission regulations … [as well as] focuses on disadvantaged communities that have suffered from the effect of the carbon-based economy in a disproportionate way,” he said.
Englebright added residents can probably cut energy usage in the state by as much as 30 percent just with insulation and utilizing thermal windows.
“That’s a thrust I think is prominent in the vision and reach of this bill,” he said. “It sets goals to establish implemental capacity levels for going to renewable systems, be it solar or wind or geothermal. We want to move toward having a 30 percent capacity by 2020 and a 40 percent goal by 2025, and a 50 percent goal by 2030. It’s a very ambitious goal but if you don’t start to move in that direction, then the status quo is likely to be the best you can hope for … and the status quo right now will bring us rising sea levels, increased storm frequency and invasion of disease-carrying insects [like ticks that didn’t used to live at this latitude].”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) is adamant to address the restoration of Long Island’s coastal and natural defenses, including coastal vegetation, which he said acts as a natural storm barrier. The vegetation has been decimated due to the nitrogen pollution being pumped into our waterways, the county executive said, but there is good news.
“We know ecosystems have the ability to restore themselves if you remediate the pollution,” he said. “We need to learn to live better with water and put in the infrastructure that adapts to climate change. Post-Sandy, we’ve been raising houses up so they’re not going to be vulnerable to flooding. We can no longer sustain a continual year-after-year decline in water quality in this region.”
Bellone, who has been working closely with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and his team to fund wetlands restoration projects, said he’s concerned about the federal government’s retreat from addressing climate change.
“That’s just insanity,” Bellone said. “It doesn’t make sense to ignore the science on this. For all of us on Long Island, climate change can fundamentally change our quality of life and no one wants to see that happen. We need to do everything we can to address this issue.”