Sea-level rise, coastal erosion and flooding, more frequent and harsher extreme weather events, extinctions and crippling economic consequences — these are just some of the impacts of global warming we are already experiencing and can expect to escalate after mid-century if immediate action isn’t taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a dire report issued Friday by the federal government.
Further, communities across the country must act now to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change that are already occurring and will increase in the next couple of decades — even if immediate action is taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat in earth’s lower atmosphere, the report says.
Long Island is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events, sea-level rise and coastal erosion. Like all of the Mid-Atlantic coast, the area is experiencing sea-level rise at rates three to four times higher than the global average rate — because the land mass of the entire region is actually sinking, according to the report. Scientists project sea-level rise here to range from two feet to six feet above current levels by the end of the century.
Sea-level rise and other climate-related impacts pose serious threats to the local economy — tourism, recreation, agriculture and commercial fisheries — to critical public infrastructure and communities, natural areas and public lands and to ecosystems.
What can and should be done?
Communities must implement adaptation measures to mitigate the climate impacts they face in the very near future, the report says. But generally speaking, that’s not happening.
Riverhead Town is a case in point. Its land use plans and zoning codes do not account for the impacts of climate change — in fact, the town’s 2003 master plan, which did not mention climate change, and its zoning code actually encourages high-density development on the downtown riverfront, an area already increasingly susceptible to high tide flooding and weather-related inundation.
In recent discussions of possible zoning code changes, town officials have not mentioned sea-level rise or code revisions that would require construction to be set back further from the coast.
The town is currently forming an environmental advisory committee that will be tasked with developing “a long-term plan to create a more sustainable and greener community.” That will include resilience to flooding and storm damage, according to a press release sent out by the town supervisor this month.
“I believe we will need to develop resilience strategies for our most vulnerable areas, including our downtown, as we continue to encourage more housing and further development,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said Saturday.
“I would think we have to take this into account in all that we do,” Councilwoman Catherine Kent, liaison to the new Environmental Advisory Committee, said Monday. “We really need to update the master plan,” she said.
But local officials don’t yet know where the money will come from to fund new planning work or the environmental impact studies they require. The town hopes to secure federal, state and county grants to defray the costs, Kent said.
The new committee will not be focused exclusively on dealing with climate change adaptation. Its emphasis will also be to find ways to reduce energy consumption and minimize waste-with a focus on use of disposable plastics, according to the press release announcing the committee’s formation.
Blueprint for a regional approach
Lack of funding and lack of focus are the two major barriers to the ability of local communities to do what’s necessary to adapt to climate change, according to the Regional Plan Association. The nonprofit research and advocacy organization published a report last year (see below) urging the creation of a regional (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) coastal commission to “give climate adaptation the priority it needs.”
“The government we have today isn’t equipped to handle the changes coming — and in some cases, that are already here,” said Robert Freudenberg, Regional Plan Association vice president for energy and environment.
“There is no one agency that focuses solely on adaptation, one entity that has as its mission adapting to climate change,” he said. That is what’s needed — the same way a “completely dedicated” agency like NASA is what it takes “to achieve landing a robot on Mars,” Freudenberg said.
“Adaptation will probably be the biggest investment we make in our region over our lifetime and there’s no budget for it,” Freudenberg said.
Under the Regional Plan Association’s proposal, the three states would raise funds through surcharges on property and casualty insurance policies to create “adaptation trust funds” that would be managed by the states. The regional commission would oversee distribution of funding in the form of grants and loans. Each state trust fund would finance a minimum amount of in-state projects, while residual allocations would be prioritized for those region-wide resilience projects and programs whose benefits would extend beyond jurisdictional boundaries.
“The idea has not caught fire,” Freudenberg said in a phone interview Tuesday. Local officials fear a perceived threat to home rule, he said. But everyone agrees local municipalities need more support in adapting their communities.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she believes Suffolk and Nassau counties should work together on “a comprehensive plan for all of Long Island.” The individual towns can’t be expected to handle this on their own, she said.
“We all have a north and south shore that are being affected — from our agriculture, to fishing and our tourist economy. It needs to be done comprehensively,” Giglio said.
Giglio didn’t agree with the idea of a tristate commission, though. She said she believes that would just mean a lot of “political grandstanding — all rhetoric, all politics, especially on that big a level. At the end of the day, there’s no money.”
Climate change adaptation is “bigger than anything any town board can be expected to handle,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “We end up treating the symptoms rather than the long-term issues,” she said.
“We really need a holistic long-term plan of adaptation and it’s not happening,” Esposito said.
“Instead of us becoming less vulnerable, overdevelopment is causing us to become more vulnerable. Officials are not getting the message. We should be doing strategic retreat from the coast, wetland restoration, replanting of sea grass beds and we must stop overdevelopment,” Esposito said.
“The consequences are happening and will continue to happen. It’s no joke.”
‘We can watch the change on our property’
For residents who’ve lived on the water for many years, the changes are real.
Richard Wines of Jamesport lives on a bay-front farm that’s been in his family for generations.
“We can watch the change on our property,” Wines said Monday. The wetlands line has migrated 30 feet upland over the past 40 years he said.
“We’ve lost most of our oak trees” that were growing in what had been upland and is now wetlands, he said.
Some property owners on the L.I. Sound are witnessing bluff erosion that is beginning to threaten their homes. Other structures have already been lost.
Since Super Storm Sandy, Suffolk County has developed both a climate action plan and a hazards mitigation plan. The county has inventoried county-owned buildings and structures in low-lying areas and is trying to stay away from shoreline hardening, according to North Fork County Legislator Al Krupski.
The county has implemented many energy efficiency measures that have not only saved millions of dollars but have cut back on fossil fuel dependency, Krupski said.
“The county has been a leader since 2005 in energy reduction,” said Krupski, who chairs the county legislature’s Public Works, Transportation, and Energy Committee, which produced the Suffolk County Climate Action Plan in March 2015.
‘Clear and compelling’ evidence
Greenhouse gas emissions come primarily from burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — for transportation, electricity production and industry, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The emission of these gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases — creates a greenhouse effect by trapping heat in the earth’s lower atmosphere.
“Global average temperatures are much higher and rising more rapidly than anything modern civilization has experienced and can only be explained by human activity, especially the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Dr. David Easterling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a lead scientist on the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), said during a media conference call Friday afternoon. The evidence is “clear and compelling,” he said.
The impacts of global warming are many and potentially devastating to life on the planet. Earth has already begun to experience these impacts: sea level rise, more frequent and extensive high tide flooding events, high temperature extremes, drought, heavy precipitation events, ocean acidification and warming, the reduction of ice cover, snowpack and surface soil moisture, according to the report.
“These and other changes are expected to increasingly impact water resources, air quality, human health, agriculture, natural ecosystems, energy and transportation infrastructure, and many other natural and human systems that support communities across the country,” the report warns.
The more 1,600-page document was written by more than 300 scientists from 13 federal agencies.
Zeldin: A call to action
“The climate is changing, and this report should serve as a call to action for those on both sides of the aisle to work together to address this issue,” Rep. Lee Zeldin said.
“In a district nearly completely surrounded by water, rising sea levels and its impact on the coastal economy, fisheries and tourism is a pressing issue we must address,” he said.
Zeldin, a member of the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, said he looks forward to working across the aisle “to find common sense solutions that protect clean air and reduce emissions that are impacting our climate.” He cited as an example the caucus’ success “in defeating a toxic rider to the 2018 defense bill which would have barred the Department of Defense from assessing climate change.”
But the NY-01 representative receives poor marks from groups like the League of Conservation Voters for an “anti-environment” voting record that includes support for: easing emissions limits for hazardous pollutants from electric power plant; measures to strip funding for an Obama-era EPA effort to limit methane emissions from new oil and gas drilling sites; repealing a 2015 EPA rule establishing carbon dioxide emission guidelines for new and modified power plants, and delaying the compliance date for ground-level ozone standards. The League of Conservation Voters, which ranks legislators on a scale of 0 to 100, has assigned Zeldin a lifetime score of 10 percent on environmental issues. See LCV’s national environmental scorecard for the congressman.
Congress — and increasingly the nation — has become divided along partisan lines on environmental issues, climate change in particular.
President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly referred to climate change as a “hoax” — and just before the release of the NCA4 last week tweeted about that a “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS” and asked “Whatever happened to Global Warming?” The president withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement less than six months after taking office. The Trump administration has pulled back on Obama-era environmental rules opposed by oil, gas and coal industries. It has also proposed new, more relaxed emissions rules for cars and light trucks.
Environmental advocates criticized the White House for releasing the report ahead of schedule, on the afternoon of Black Friday — a four-day holiday weekend for many people.
Administration officials declined to discuss the timing of the release during the conference call Friday and declined to say who decided to release it then instead of at a large scientific conference to be held in Washington, D.C. Dec. 10-14, as originally planned.
“In light of the report’s findings, it’s critical that federal, state and local governments take aggressive action to protect U.S. residents by both reining in emissions and helping communities adapt to the climate impacts that are now inevitable,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, the director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the NCA4 report authors.
“While the report doesn’t offer policy recommendations, the findings certainly make a convincing case that the White House should stop rolling back climate policies and recognize that a much larger scale response is required to keep people safe.”