Peconic Riverfront parking lot south of East Main Street at high tide in October 2018. File photo: Peter Blasl

Levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high, according to a report released yesterday by the World Meteorological Organization.

And the gap between what we need to do to reduce those emissions to a level we can live with and what we are actually doing keeps growing, the United Nations Environment Program said in a report published today.

Residents concerned about the impacts of these trends — and what local communities need to do to both cope with those impacts and mitigate them — gathered at Riverhead Town Hall last night for a presentation by the State DEC’s Office of Climate Change.

Mark Lowery of the NYS DEC’s Office of Climate Change discussed the impacts of climate change and the state’s Climate Smart Communities at Riverhead Town Hall Nov. 25. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Controlling greenhouse gas emissions is the key to limiting global temperature increase to a level that will avoid catastrophe, Mark Lowery of the Office of Climate Change in Albany explained.

Climate scientists say we need to limit the increase in the Earth’s average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above what it was in the pre-industrial era — that is, mid- to late-19th Century — to prevent catastrophic impacts.

According to the U.N. report, we need to reduce emissions by 7.6% every year from 2020 to 2030 to cap the Earth’s average temperature increase at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“If we do not, we will miss a closing moment in history,” the U.N. Environmental Program warns. “If we do nothing beyond our current, inadequate commitments to halt climate change, temperatures can be expected to rise 3.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with devastating effect,” the U.N. report says.

Earth’s average temperature has already increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius above that pre-industrial baseline, Lowery said last night. The impacts of the increase in average temperature are already being seen, he said.

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Satellite image of Superstorm Sandy, October 2012.

Among them: more precipitation; more extreme precipitation events — both rain and snow; more frequent and enhanced coastal storms; loss of arctic sea ice; changes in the jet stream; and sea level rise.

Sea level has already risen 13 inches on the New York coast since the 19th Century, Lowery said. And those of us who live along the coast are already witnessing and coping with the impacts of “unstoppable sea level rise.”

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 U.S. Geological Survey. 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 will cause loss of tidal ecosystems, increases in hydrostatic pressure that will put critical infrastructure at risk, and saltwater intrusion of the drinking water aquifer.

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Much of downtown Riverhead was inundated by storm surge from Sandy in October 2012. File photo: Peter Blasl

“We’re already beginning to see these impacts,” Lowery said.

“One hundred and ninety-seven nations signed the Paris climate accord. If all of them kept their commitments, we will lock into 1.5C by 2030,” he said.

However, as the U.N. report released today shows, there is a significant gap between greenhouse gas emission commitments in the agreement and achievements. The U.S. has pulled out of the agreement altogether, with the Trump administration rolling back regulations aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions, Lowery said.

New York State this year enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which adopted “the most aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals of any major economy,” Lowery said. The act lays out a path to carbon neutrality, calling for 70% renewable energy (wind, water and solar) by 2030, an 85% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 and 100% clean electricity by 2030. New York defines “clean” electricity to include electricity produced by nuclear reactors, Lowery noted.

To meet the goals set by the act, New York will have to eliminate all emissions from its transportation and housing sectors, which account for two-thirds of emissions produced in the state.

The state’s climate action council is developing a scoping plan with recommendations for achieving greenhouse gas limits by January 2022.

Meanwhile, communities across New York are asked to join the Climate Smart Communities Program, pledging their commitment to address 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; and
  • inform and inspire the public.

The Riverhead Town Board in July adopted a resolution to register in the Climate Smart Communities Program. As of now, every town in Suffolk, except Shelter Island, has registered in the program, Lowery said.

In all, 285 communities across the state have registered, he said. However, only a relatively small minority of them have taken their programs to the next level, becoming certified as communities who have taken concrete actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To become certified, local governments must 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. Thus far, no community in the state has reached the gold level, Lowery said. In Suffolk, while nine of the 10 towns are registered, only two — Southampton and East Hampton, have become certified.

The first step toward certification at the bronze level is for a town to complete two mandatory actions: designating a program “point person” (10 points) and creating a Climate Smart Communities task force (20 points). The town can then choose from a list of optional actions that will earn the remaining 90 points for bronze certification.

Riverhead Town has not yet taken either of the first two steps, Deputy Supervisor Catherine Kent said last night. Kent brought the resolution to join the Climate Smart Communities program to the board in July. She said she thought the Environmental Advisory Committee would serve as the CSC task force.

In addition to members of Riverhead’s Environmental Advisory Committee, members of Southold Town’s CSC task force attended the meeting in Riverhead last night, as did at least one person from Southampton Town’s task force and members of the general public.

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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.