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December 07, 2016
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Welcome to the sustainability revolution

A relentless drumbeat of news in recent months suggests that climate change is for real, that it is happening faster than expected, and that it is largely caused by human actions. For instance, according to the National Ice and Snow Data Center, arctic ice is at record summer lows, shrinking in early September to an area 45% smaller than lows reached in the 1980s and 1990s. The rate of loss this summer was 50% worse than projected. And August was the 330th month in a row worldwide with temperatures higher than the 20th-century average.

Amid this barrage, Richard A. Muller, a professor of physics at Berkeley, known hitherto as a leading climate skeptic, has flipped. In a New York Times article describing his recent study, he wrote, “My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project… Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.”

James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote of a study he co-authored, showing a “stunning” increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, “Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

The response of the United States has, unfortunately, been weak to non-existent. The U.S. failure to sign the international Kyoto Protocol, directed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has become a running joke. The Republican platform this year has no mention of climate change; Democrats give it lip service, then laud “solutions” like shale gas and offshore drilling rather than an aggressive campaign concentrating on conservation, green building, truly sustainable energy sources and sustainable practices.

That means that any solution is going to have to start at the grass roots: households, businesses and municipalities changing their behaviors with regard to what and how much they buy, their energy sources, where their food comes from, how they landscape their properties, how they handle their refuse and more. That’s what Sullivan County’s Climate Smart Communities Pledge, and its initiative to formulate and pursue a climate action plan, is all about—and making it happen is the task of the recently formed Sullivan County Climate Action Plan Advisory Panel.

It’s a big job, and there are two major obstacles. The first is despair. To try to hold back the catastrophe of climate change one county at a time, when the whole planet is at stake, is daunting to say the least. But start a movement, enlist the counties one by one, and pretty soon you have a country, and then a world. Instead of falling victim to hopelessness, Sullivan County has the opportunity to become a leader in a great change.

The second obstacle is the myth that environmentally sound practices are economically unsound. But history suggests that it is precisely in the great periods of transformation from one way of doing things to a radically different one, like the industrial revolution or the cyber-revolution of the late 20th century, that the greatest economic opportunities occur.

It’s time for a sustainability revolution. New ways of building, growing and distributing food, new transportation paradigms, manufacturing cycles that take items from cradle to grave and back again—all are opportunities for rates of investment, employment and growth far beyond the dreams of the overly mature, fossil fuel-driven paradigms. For just one example: there are framing techniques for housing that actually reduce costs, using five to 10% less board feet of lumber and 30% fewer pieces—but also save energy by allowing more space and deeper cavities for insulation. Hard to sell? A study on the housing market in Seattle shows that environmentally certified new homes there sell for 8.5% more per square foot in 22% less time. And green energy can serve as a bigger job driver than traditional sectors (riverreporteronline.com/editorial/16/2011/07/26/beginning-conversation). Locally, Green Jobs - Green New York is showing the way.

A Sullivan County Climate Action Plan designed to mitigate climate change while taking advantage of such economic benefits is being developed, and you will be hearing more about it in coming months. We invite you to become part of the process. If you have questions to ask or ideas to offer, email Richard.Riseling@sullivan.co.ny.us.

[Anne Willard is a member of the Sullivan County Climate Action Advisory Panel, but her opinions are not necessarily that of the panel. She has been the editorial writer for The River Reporter since 2004. She is leaving the newspaper and this will be her last editorial.]