Enhancing resiliency to climate change impacts such as rising sea levels is one of the program's objectives. Heidi Behr Way along the Peconic River in downtown Riverhead in October 2018. File photo: Peter Blasl

Riverhead Town has taken a pledge to become a “climate-smart” community.

The town board at its meeting Tuesday adopted a resolution taking the “climate-smart pledge,” the first step in New York State’s “Climate Smart Communities” certification program, which aims to help local governments deal with the impacts of climate change. The board approved the measure 4-0, with Councilwoman Jodi Giglio absent.

By adopting the resolution, Riverhead Town becomes a registered community in the program, making a commitment to addressing the 10 areas described by the state program:

  • build a climate-smart community;
  • inventory emissions, set goals, and plan for climate action;
  • decrease energy use;
  • shift to clean, renewable energy;
  • use climate-smart materials management;
  • implement climate-smart land use;
  • enhance community resilience to climate change;
  • support a green innovation economy;
  • inform and inspire the public;

These action areas are described in detail here.

Local governments then pursue mandatory, priority and optional actions defined by the program to achieve certification by the state as bronze, silver or gold climate-smart communities. The certification is based on a point system, with different points assigned to different actions.

The mandatory and priority actions are those “deemed foundational to a successful local climate action program, some of which must be completed for each certification level,” the program website states. Applicants must complete the required number of mandatory and priority actions for each level.

Participating in the program does not subject the town to any regulation by the state, the website states.

“Though we use the word mandatory, keep in mind that the CSC program is a voluntary leadership recognition program and the use of the word mandatory should not be construed as having any regulatory implications,” the CSC website says.

Certification in the program will better position the town for future grant funding, said Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who put the resolution forward at the recommendation of the town’s new Environmental Advisory Committee, which was established in November at her initiative. Kent is the town board liaison to the committee.

“It’s a New York State program that helps us reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate,” Kent said.

The first order of business for the town will be to designate “a point person” for the program (10 points) and create a CSC task force with community members (20 points). Both of those are “mandatory actions” required to attain the first level, bronze certification, which requires 120 points. The town can then choose from a list of optional actions that will earn the remaining 90 points for bronze certification.

The website provides local governments with comprehensive information about each action — why it’s important, likely costs, step-by-step instructions on how to implement it, and links to online resources about the issue and particular action.

When Kent brought the resolution forward at the July 11 town board work session, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she was not familiar enough with the program to vote on it and she wasn’t sure she agreed with the premise of the resolution anyway.

“In the first paragraph where it says ‘the Town of Riverhead believes that climate change poses a real and increasing threat to our local and global environments and it is is primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels and other anthropogenic effect’ and, you know, ‘We believe that climate change is going to endanger our economy and livelihoods harm our farms, orchards, forests and fisheries …’ I don’t know I would — I don’t know that I agree with all of that,” Giglio said.

“It’s going to take me a little bit of time to absorb it and figure out and talk to maybe the Farm Bureau and see how maybe it’s affecting their farms and orchards,” Giglio said.

The subject of climate change is a divisive political issue, with President Donald Trump questioning and often mocking the basic science of human-caused climate change. He has called it a “hoax” invented by China. He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement shortly after taking office. His administration has rolled back Obama-era environmental rules designed to fight climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and proposed new, more relaxed emissions standards for cars and light trucks.

The president also dismissed the federal government’s own dire National Climate Assessment report, issued in November — a more than 1,600-page document was written by more than 300 scientists from 13 federal agencies. In a statement issued after it released the report on Black Friday, the White House said the report was “largely based on the most extreme scenario” of global warming.

The report said sea-level rise, coastal erosion and flooding, more frequent and harsher extreme weather events, extinctions and crippling economic consequences 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.

The report urged immediate action by communities across the country 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. See news analysis: “Is Riverhead prepared to handle the impacts of climate change?” (Nov. 28, 2018)

Councilman James Wooten said enhancing the town’s ability to obtain grant money was important, regardless of one’s opinion about climate change.

“Without debating the whole thing of global warming and all that stuff — I mean it’s obvious the weather’s changing. What’s the cause of that we can debate till the cows come home,” Wooten said. “But this is pretty mute as far as I’m — it opens us up to opportunities. It would be pretty foolish not to,” he said.

Councilman Tim Hubbard said he was OK with making a pledge. “I think just as a pledge — I think it’s OK because it’s not a firm commitment. It’s just a way to get the ball rolling.”

Giglio said she was going to be away on July 16, anyway. “So you guys can vote on it,” she said.

On Tuesday, former councilman George Bartunek, co-chair of the town board’s Environmental Advisory Committee, urged the board on Tuesday to move forward with the resolution.

It is something, he said, the town needs to take very seriously.

“Climate change is not only affecting the natural environment but also humans,” Bartunek said.

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith noted that the town has already embarked on many energy-saving measures, including undertaking a comprehensive energy audit to identify infrastructure improvements that will save energy and money.

“Just on a budgetary level decreasing our energy use is good for our community,” Jens-Smith said. “It’s also good on everyone’s wallet.”

In Suffolk County, every town except Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island had already at least registered in the Climate Smart Communities program, according to the CSC website. East Hampton and Southampton are so far the only towns in Suffolk that have achieved a certification; both are certified at the bronze level.

On Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act into law. It requires the state to achieve a carbon-free electricity system by 2040 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, with an interim mandate of 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.

It also mandates that at least 70 percent of New York’s electricity come from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar by 2030, and that the state’s power system is 100 percent carbon-neutral by 2040.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.