to the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative
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Real Climate Action
by Matt Butler
Climate change might be the most significant issue facing the human race going forward, with new studies coming out seemingly every day that claim humans have an ever shortening amount of time on this planet.
As those studies have increased, the seriousness with which humans treat climate change has appeared to rise rapidly over the last 5-15 years. According to Gallup polls from this year, 67 percent of Americans believe human activities are responsible for global warming, compared to a 55-percent average from 2001-14. Meanwhile, 45 percent of Americans now think global warming will pose a serious threat during their lifetime, up 10 percent from 2001-14.
With that shift of opinion have come increased national attempts at reducing harmful actions to the environment, such as the Green New Deal, even as President Donald Trump’s administration downplays the severity of climate change’s global impact and works to offset some of those attempts, such as withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.
Similarly, local efforts are ongoing, but can be far more visible than those continuing at the national or international level. Gay Nicholson, the executive director of Sustainable Tompkins, is one of the most well-known environmental advocates in the area, along with the organization she leads, which works to equalize opportunities for people to get involved with energy-reduction activities and preserve the overall wellbeing of the environment.
Sustainable Tompkins’ efforts are numerous and widespread. Perhaps most recent is a partnership with HeatSmart Tompkins to combine Sustainable Tompkins’ carbon offset grants with incentives for alternative heating sources (in this case, heat pumps). A primary theme that emerges from many of the different environmental struggles is the push to lower some of the financial thresholds that it may take to apply some of the fixes that are being considered for individual homes now, such as heat pumps, which use thermal energy from the earth to heat homes and water. Nicholson said this has become one of the focuses of Sustainable Tompkins’ grant programs.
“We hope to be putting together some nice packages together for low-income households,” Nicholson said. “We’ve been leaders on the topic of energy democracy, making sure that nobody is left behind in this transition to clean energy. Our focus is making sure that low-income folks get to participate, and by giving them carbon offset grants, and now putting together this package for heat pumps, that means that someone on a lower income can go zero-carbon by converting to heat pumps for their heating and cooling.”
While Nicholson is hesitant to talk about some of Sustainable Tompkins’ future campaigns, since they are not finalized, she did point to a recently-implemented measure in Great Britain that mandates rental properties to meet certain energy requirements if their owners want to retain their right to legally rent to tenants.
Another focus in the area has been to involve students of varying ages in energy-usage reduction efforts, as young minds can provide a necessary jolt to the overall thought process. They have achieved this through their Youth Climate Challenge Program, which rewards students up to $1,000 for research and projects that can help lessen energy usage in households. The young minds can provide a necessary jolt to the overall thought process. This year, two students, Tilden Chao and Abigail Glickman, conducted their research on the dangers of hydrofluorocarbons in refrigerators (which receive far less publicity than carbon dioxide and methane) and allowing them to escape into the air, culminating in an event at the Tompkins County Public Library and a website called KeepItCoolTompkins.org. Nicholson notes with delight that despite the vast amount of work and countless hours being dedicated to the subject at area universities and the like, Chao and Glickman were able to find a niche and make an impact of their own.
“None of us had been paying attention,” she said. “And then here’s these kids. For existing equipment, we need people to do a lot better job with monitoring.”
There is no uniform shape or way to fight climate change, either. The Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT) acquires massive swaths of lands throughout the region, effectively shielding them from future development and ensuring that they will remain protected for decades going forward. Overall, the trust is currently preserving 21,000 acres of land in New York State across 35 different territories. Over the last few years, FLLT has amassed hundreds more acres across Tompkins County, even as the county undergoes an unprecedented and extended development boom. It represents one of the situation’s paradoxes: frequently, progress in the fight against climate change is made by stopping other forms of progress from occurring.
Legislatively, there are also ongoing efforts to make a positive impact against climate change while balancing four primary factors: affordability, impact, flexibility and the aforementioned achievability, according to Sustainability Coordinator Nick Goldsmith, who works for the City of Ithaca and the Town of Ithaca. While the city’s version of the Green New Deal was just passed unanimously, officials are waiting on the completion of the city’s Green Building Code, which will install a point-based threshold system that new projects will have to satisfy in order to gain approval from city review bodies. Projects can score these points by including things like ground-source heating, simple design, and a high wall-to-window ratio, etc. Ultimately, the code will likely include tightening restrictions in 2025 and 2030, by which time projects must be net-zero energy to be approved.
Peter Bardaglio, coordinator of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), said he’s seen an increase in interest in stemming climate change, both among community individuals and from businesses. TCCPI’s goal is to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and have joined other cities in an effort to monitor, control and reduce building energy, water use and carbon dioxide emissions.
“It’s also just that it’s becoming clearer to people that climate change is happening now,” Bardaglio said. “It’s not just going to happen 10 or 20 or 30 years down the road.”
The TCCPI, which is a coalition of organizations and businesses working to combat climate change, publishes an annual report that documents how climate change is being fought in Tompkins County, and the wide range of bodies involved, including non-profit organizations, for-profit businesses, and municipal governments and more.
Places as large as Cornell University and Cayuga Medical Center made prominent efforts last year: Cornell grouped together 20 other universities in the state to collectively purchase renewable energy projects, while CMC began the extended process of converting all of its interior lighting to LED bulbs. Alongside those local behemoths are smaller entities like Finger Lakes ReUse, which exists to divert materials from landfills in order to re-sell them to people who can repurpose them, and that also saw donations increase 52 percent from 2018 to 2019; or, the Town of Caroline, which received a grant to install heat pumps at its town court building and town hall.
Like Nicholson, Bardaglio highlighted the rise in student involvement in climate crisis efforts and emphasized the important effect it can have. Though grim, it’s true that the younger one is, the higher the stakes are for the planet to be healthier.
“For me, the most hopeful development is the involvement of young people in the climate movement,” he said. “They recognize that this is their future, and they’re going to have to fight for it [...] It’s not going to affect my personal future to the extent that it will affect the lives of people who are in school right now.”
Ithacans, like most people, can sometimes be more interested in easy, superficial actions like holding a sign at a rally, while shying away from the tangible steps necessary to actually address an issue. While that history could prove too strong for the momentum the climate change resistance effort currently has, Bardaglio and Nicholson at least seem optimistic that headway is being made.
“There’s definitely increasing awareness about the seriousness of the climate crisis and people’s thinking about that has become more sophisticated,” Bardaglio said. “They think, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ Not just individually, but lobbying for different policies at the local government level, I think you’ve seen that if you come out to Common Council meetings. You see a lot more people at those meetings advocating for actions that would reduce the community’s carbon footprint. [...] These are all really positive steps to me.”