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On Election Day, New Yorkers have climate change on the ballot

J. Peters for Fire Island National Seashore

On Tuesday, New York voters will decide whether to amend the state’s Constitution to include the right to “clean water, clean air, and a healthful environment.”

Next year on Election Day, they can choose to put their money where their mouth is. The New York League of Conservation Voters said the state has a fighting chance against climate change — that’s if voters approve another proposal to earmark at least $3 billion for the environment on next year’s ballot.

J.D. Allen, host of WSHU's climate podcast, Higher Ground, spoke with Julie Tighe, the league’s president, about how upcoming environmental ballot proposals could benefit Long Island.

WSHU: Some New Yorkers want to tackle environmental issues, but there needs to be local, state and federal policy, and probably funding, to make these individual and collective ways even possible.

Julie Tighe: So, the New York League of Conservation Voters advocates at the state and local level for policies that will make sure that we're preparing for climate change. And some of those policies mean that we're working on mitigation, meaning trying to reduce the amount of pollution that we're all generating in the first place to try and minimize impacts. And other policies that we pursue are what we call adaptation or making our communities more resilient because New York State, and probably Long Island in particular, are going to be vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge and more frequent and frankly, more strong storms, as the climate warms as a result of climate change and excessive carbon dioxide.

And thinking about how our communities can be better prepared for climate change and making sure that we're not dealing with the same level of community devastation that we had when we had Superstorm Sandy is now really trying to be smart with our land use planning, right? And that in the state of New York, generally speaking, it happens at the local level. So that's something that the county and the town can adopt. And there are some state policies related to coastal erosion hazard areas to make sure that nature does what it does best, right?

WSHU: So, what’s the bottom line? How much money do we need?

JT: On the the state level from a funding perspective, this year, we advocated for passage of a $3 billion Environmental Bond Act that will provide funding for those exact kinds of projects for restoring our wetlands, for protecting our coastlines for investing in natural solutions, shoreline rehabilitations and projects that will address flooding. That's going to be on the ballot in 2022. So that's going to be something for Long Islanders to look for.

But there's $3 billion available to help us improve water quality, which will allow these natural resources to do what they do best, which is help protect us.

We're trying to educate homeowners and their contractors about ways that they can use what we call natural shorelines. And that's something that homeowners can do instead of hardening their shorelines, using vegetation instead and natural structures to buffer their properties from storm surges, which will also be better for their neighbors.

WSHU: You're trying to make sure the state and federal money is there for local communities to be able to do the projects that will help them in the long run. But to some extent, this makes coordinating efforts for local climate adaptation and resiliency projects more difficult, right?

JT: It definitely can, which is why there needs to be action at the local level. I mean, they control land use, and frankly, they know better what's happening down at the local level versus at the state level, you know. Yes, that can be a little bit more politically fraught. But certainly, I think there's a better understanding of the very specifics of the habitats and their communities. And I think making sure that policymakers are educated and are communicating about what their needs are related to that I think will help to minimize the impact of politics and really allow science to dictate what actions we take on that front.

And one of the things that's included in the Bond Act, actually for the first time, is an opportunity to do buyouts of properties that are located in flood prone areas, before they are devastated by a storm. Because right now, typically, when we do buyouts of buildings, it's because there's already been a major flood that has devastated a family or a community. And there has not been a real effort to try and do what we call strategic retreat, which is where you're moving proper structures back from waterways that are prone to flooding in those particular areas, so that the water can go where it's naturally inclined to go and therefore reduce the amount of damage that occurs.

WSHU: What you're talking about would be on a case-by-case basis, and while that's a large chunk of change, it's not going to move the entire coastline of Long Island back out of floodwaters.

JT: Right, and again, that $3 billion is just statewide. I think it's important that we're looking at a lot of different pieces, right? Again, the state is doing some action now. There are other places where we'll be able to elevate structures so that we can, you know, minimize the impact on the building and allow water to move more freely. I always say the water always wins. And so you need to be mindful of that and sort of let science guide where it is best to go on that front.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.
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