Text of Ned Sullivan's Oct. 24 Speech to the World Affairs Council of the Mid-Hudson Valley

October 25, 2007 - 9:36am -- Jason Taylor

I thank the World Affairs Council for inviting me. And I applaud you for the important role you play in creating awareness of pressing global issues here in the Hudson Valley. As the great mathematician and educator John Kemeny used to say, "The world is our brother, and we are our brother's keeper."

Several weeks ago, after learning that he and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to educate the world about global warming, Al Gore was business as usual. "This is a chance to elevate global consciousness about the challenges that we face now," he told reporters. "It truly is a planetary emergency, and we have to respond quickly."

The urgency of his message was underscored by recent reports from the Arctic. 2007 shattered records for the largest amount of melting sea ice--more than 1.63 million square miles, the size of six Californias. In one six-day period, an area of polar ice the size of Florida--69,000 square miles--completely disappeared. The thaw even opened a Northwest Passage--a sea route from Europe to the Orient via Canada--that Henry Hudson and other early explorers searched for in vain. How warm was it up there? Here's what Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier had to say last March: "For the first time in history, my community has had to use air conditioners. Imagine that: air conditioners in the Arctic."

Of course, you don't need to be at the poles to see the effects of global climate change. No doubt you know about the massive wildfires in California--that have scorched more than 645 square miles in seven counties, forcing the evacuation of 350,000 homes affecting 950,000 people. Fire conditions are dangerous this year as a result of the driest season since records began 130 years ago. The South is undergoing a terrible drought--the worst in a century. Without sustained rains, which are not expected, Atlanta's main reservoir will be dry within months. Elsewhere, climate change is in large measure responsible for the expansion of the world's deserts by 15 million acres a year, and is a major factor in the loss of 1,000 species annually.

Here in the Hudson River Valley, we don't see polar bears stranded on ice floes, nor house-sized chunks of glaciers falling into the water with enormous splashes. But you don't need to look hard to find the deleterious effects it's having on our local environment--all of which are traceable to our dependence on fossil fuels and their heat-trapping emissions. As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "You can no longer deny the science and bury your head in the sand -- climate change is real."

The most evident local impact is on temperature. Winter temperatures in the Hudson Valley are now about what they were in Washington, D.C., a decade ago. Things could get even worse by the end of the century. The Union of Concerned Scientists--a highly respected team of experts from America's leading research universities--last year released a study entitled Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast. Its data indicates that if we don't begin to take steps to cut down on carbon emissions immediately, your average summer afternoon in Poughkeepsie by 2100 will resemble a sticky July day in South Carolina now--meaning we better start stocking up on the fixings for mint juleps. Overall, the experts predict that temperatures in the Northeast will rise at least 5 to 12 degrees above historic levels in winter and 3 to 14 degrees in the summer. If higher emissions prevail, temperatures could rise as much as 8 to 12 degrees in summer and 6 to 14 degrees in winter.

Along with higher sustained temperatures will come more heat waves. Already, we experience longer periods of high summer temperatures than we did a decade ago. Just you wait: Scientists expect that Northeastern cities will experience 30 or more days of temperatures over 90 degrees by the end of the century under a lower-emissions scenario, 60 or more days with higher emissions. Even worse, the number of days with temperatures hovering at 100 degrees or higher will range between 14 and 28, again depending on the level of emissions.

Okay, so we will be a little more uncomfortable, you say. Unfortunately, the higher temperatures are but a harbinger of the disasters that could occur.

  • The increased heat will throw out of balance--I should say has begun to throw out of balance--the Hudson Valley's natural environment--what brings millions of people to the region and generates billions of dollars for our economy in tourism and agricultural dollars. We're already seeing an influx of invasive species that are crowding out our native plants--purple loosestrife, oriental bittersweet and the aptly named mile-a-minute vine. As temperatures continue to rise, trees and plants that depend on cool winters will die out, while cash crops will no longer thrive beneath the sweltering sun. The Catskills' beautiful pine forests will be decimated; our maple trees, whose leaves provide the breathtaking color that brightens our autumns, will likely perish. Stunning landscapes unchanged since the arrival of Henry Hudson will be denuded and barren. And the birds we love to watch through our binoculars will have migrated northward, along with other precious local wildlife.
  • Higher temperatures also will impair our health. Hotter weather will cause a rise in ground-level ozone, meaning more unhealthy air days, exacerbating incidences of asthma, lung cancer and premature death. Heat-related deaths--especially among the elderly and very young--will increase. And the sultry weather will be a perfect breeding ground for insects carrying diseases such as malaria, equine encephalitis, West Nile virus and Lyme disease. And let's not forget the loss of recreation opportunities: With less snow, those of us who love to ski will have to find new ways to exercise. In summer, we'll be less likely to want to walk or jog in the withering heat.
  • The ongoing melting of glaciers will cause an elevation in sea level, directly impacting the Hudson River estuary--that part of the river influenced by the Atlantic's tides. Over the last 5,000 years, sea level in the Hudson has risen at a rate of about 3/10 of a meter--a little less than a foot--each century. Yet by 2095, and perhaps much earlier, scientists have predicted that as far north as Troy the river could rise as much as 23 inches--and perhaps as high as 4 feet. For waterfront communities, this could spell disaster. Houses and streets adjacent to the river would likely be permanently flooded. Vital infrastructure located on the shoreline, such as wastewater treatment plants, could be inundated, perhaps spewing untreated sewage and storm water directly into the river.
  • Some of our most beautiful parks, including Scenic Hudson's own Foundry Dock Park in Putnam County and Esopus Meadows Preserve in Ulster County, would be submerged. Encroaching salt water would drown fresh-water wetlands that we depend on to purify the Hudson. Combined with increased erosion along the river and tributaries, it also will imperil our drinking-water supplies.
  • Extreme precipitation--primarily rain--will be more prevalent thanks to changing weather patterns caused by melted polar ice. Scientists predict that devastating nor'easters that previously stayed to our south will approach our region in greater frequency--as many as 10 to 15 percent more storms each year by the end of the century. These storm surges will drop several inches of rain over a longer period of days, exacerbating flooding. Making matters worse, overdevelopment throughout the region increases the amount of impervious surfaces--particularly driveways and parking lots--which prevent more precipitation from being absorbed into the ground. How much damage these will cause to homes and businesses cannot be calculated. Certainly it will be considerably greater than the already considerable $130 million in damage such storms caused in the Northeast in 2005 and 2006.
  • This is a dire scenario, indeed. And unfortunately, some of it is unavoidable. We have done so much damage that even if we begin to cut down on our reliance on fossil fuels today, temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise. As Al Gore has said, "We are entering a period of consequences." That's all the more reason why we have to take action NOW.

How do we slow down this catastrophic juggernaut we created and perpetuate? Part of the solution lies in our hands--and in our homes. William Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Community and Regional Planning, has done important studies on sustainability. He has written, that, quote, "most of the known global ecological problems facing us today are the end result of myriad individual actions and economic processes." To solve them, he adds, and again I quote, "action must be implemented locally." In other words, each of us must take responsibility for halting global warming. We in the United States really have our work cut out for us: While only five percent of the world's population, we generate nearly a quarter of global carbon emissions each year.

Scenic Hudson has been helping local citizens create a healthy, sustainable environment for nearly 45 years, since our founding in 1963 to halt construction of the world's largest hydroelectric plant on Storm King Mountain, one of the Hudson Valley's natural landmarks. The 17-year successful fight is credited with sparking the modern grassroots environmental movement. Our lawsuit led to the "Scenic Hudson Decision," which gave citizens the right to present evidence in court when their precious environment is threatened. And it ushered in groundbreaking federal legislation such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Most important, it proved that people, working together, can achieve the seemingly impossible.

Since then, we've been empowering residents all along the river to protect their communities' natural beauty--the lifeblood of our overall quality of life. We've shown municipal officials and developers that the environment has its own intrinsic benefits, economic, recreational and spiritual. And we've led the local movement for smart growth, preserving precious farmland that provides healthy local produce while proposing development in downtowns and on brownfields. We've shown the way by transforming industrial wastelands into stunning waterfront parks.

Earlier this year, Scenic Hudson also committed itself to being a local leader in the battle against global warming. Here are some strategies we're beginning to implement:

  • Scenic Hudson has been preserving land in the Hudson Valley for more than a decade, with almost 25,000 acres purchased or under easement. Our land holdings, particularly forested properties, represent an investment in sequestering carbon dioxide. For a variety of reasons, including climate change, Scenic Hudson is accelerating our land-acquisition program, adding staff and raising additional capital funds from public and private sources. However, we also are reviewing our criteria for acquisition, looking to identify more "upland" properties that will not be submerged by higher tides or damaged by flood surges associated with climate change. We will be looking to purchase lands that will allow for upland "migration" of tidal swamps and sub-aquatic vegetation as tides rise. We are also beginning to factor into our land-acquisition strategies the northward migration of plant and animal species that are being forced to move to cooler climatic zones.
  • In our parks, Scenic Hudson already strives to use recycled and environmentally benign materials, including forest products that are raised and harvested with sustainable practices. This will continue and increase in the face of climate change. We are developing and implementing new strategies to utilize indigenous plants for landscaping and materials grown and produced in close proximity to their end use. We are examining our park stewardship operations to ensure we are minimizing fuel consumption.
  • Through our land use planning and advocacy, Scenic Hudson has for the past decade campaigned for development focused in town and city centers, rather than sprawling across the countryside. In addition to protecting open space for farmland and recreational uses, this kind of "smart growth" reduces carbon emissions associated with ever-expanding motorized travel that is driven by sprawl. We are recommitting ourselves to advocacy of pedestrian and transit- oriented development that can take advantage of lower carbon-emitting mass transit.
  • Scenic Hudson is beginning to conceptualize an idea to create "climate change waterfront zones" with municipal officials and other partners. Our goal is to work with local leaders to begin to conduct audits of the resources and facilities along their waterfronts that will be vulnerable to rising tides, increased erosion and flooding, and other effects of climate change and to develop plans to protect those assets. Increased setbacks from rivers and streams, and vegetative buffers and wetlands that will absorb storm surges are the kinds of strategies that communities may begin to consider in this context. Scenic Hudson is engaging with a variety of partners and officials to explore what kinds of incentives would help local officials to ensure that water and wastewater facilities, transportation corridors and other key assets are protected from the effects of climate change.
  • In the City of Beacon, Scenic Hudson is working in partnership with a private developer, the Foss Group, to create one of the first L.E.E.D. (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold-rated hotel and conference center. Scenic Hudson owns the land and is responsible for developing a public park and boardwalk on a former contaminated industrial site. The Foss Group is responsible for developing the project in a manner that will make this a model of cutting-edge sustainable development. Once built, the hotel and conference center will provide an ideal venue for corporations and institutions to develop strategies to combat and adapt to climate change in their fields.
  • Scenic Hudson's public policy initiatives in Albany and Washington reflect the importance of integrating climate change strategies across the spectrum of legislative and regulatory fronts. We particularly applaud and support Governor Eliot Spitzer's ambitious "15 by 15" initiative--mandating a 15-percent reduction in energy use statewide by 2015, and his creation of an Office of Climate Change--New York's first ever--within the Department of Environmental Conservation. And we hail the regional Climate Change Action Plan, a cooperative agreement between Northeastern states and Canadian Provinces to reduce fossil-fuel emissions 75 to 80 percent below 2001 levels.
  • I am serving on a recently announced Blue Ribbon Comission to advise the Metropolitan Transportation Authority--one of the country's largest transportation agencies--on how to make systemic changes in its operations to increase sustainability and reduce climate impacts.
  • Finally, Scenic Hudson has been taking a hard look at our own carbon footprint. A recent audit revealed that we sequester 100 times as much carbon as we produce. For this we can thank the 7,000 acres of forests we've preserved, whose trees sequester 25,200 tons of carbon each year. Our next step will be to target how we can reduce our dependence on automobiles and other fuel-burning resources.

Through our communications and membership initiatives, Scenic Hudson frequently gives ours members tips on how to conserve energy and not contribute to climate change. But we--and other environmental organizations--must do an even better job of educating Hudson Valley residents that their wasteful actions are contributing to the destruction of the planet. Even more important, we must convince them to change their lifestyles. This will be an enormous hurdle. Studies show that while most believe climate change is real, few are willing to do anything about it. William Ruckelshaus, former commissioner of the Environmental Protection Agency, once noted that "You go into a community and they will vote 80 percent to 20 percent in favor of a tougher Clean Air Act, but if you ask them to devote 20 minutes a year to having their car emissions inspected, they will vote 80 to 20 against it." Paul MacCready, the pioneering aeronautical engineer, said it best: "Your grandchildren will likely find it incredible--or even sinful--that you burned up a gallon of gasoline to fetch a pack of cigarettes!"

We must motivate residents to adopt the principles of what we call SIMBY, short for Start in My Backyard. Those who have the means can cut down on their carbon footprint big-time by investing in cutting-edge energy savers such as photovoltaic panels, geothermal heating and hybrid cars. But taken together, even the following simple measures can make a significant contribution.

  1. For a start, switch from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents. Each compact fluorescent uses 66 percent less energy than a standard bulb. Switching to these bulbs in even a modest-size house can reduce carbon emissions by thousands of pounds. Amazingly, if every U.S. household switched to just 1 of these bulbs, it would be the equivalent of removing 1 million cars from the road.
  2. Walk whenever possible. Every gallon of gasoline consumed contributes 25 pounds of carbon to the air. If you must drive to work, join a carpool. If every U.S. commuter car carried one more person, we'd save eight billion gallons of gas a year. And don't forget to get your tires checked: properly inflated tires increase mileage by 3 percent, also vastly reducing carbon emissions.
  3. Plant a tree. During its lifetime, a single tree removes 1 ton of carbon dioxide from the air.
  4. Adjust your thermostat. Lowering your home's temperature 2 degrees in winter and raising it 4 degrees in summer--neither of which will have much impact on your personal comfort--removes another 2,000 pounds of carbon from the air. And when you're not home, remember to lower the temperature even further.
  5. Buy local and organic. Yes, locally grown food tastes better and is better for you--but it's also better for the environment. The average American meal takes 1,200 miles to reach your table; frozen food consumes 10 times more energy to produce than fresh. Organic food also is a huge boon to the planet because organic soil stores more carbon dioxide. In fact, if all corn and soy in America were grown organically, we'd stop 580 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from fouling our air each year.
  6. Get out of hot water. Replacing your shower head with a low-flow model will reduce carbon-dioxide outflow by 350 pounds annually. And washing clothes in warm or cold water rather than hot will save 500 pounds.
  7. Take advantage of nature. Relying on sunshine--and an old-fashioned clothesline--to dry your clothes for half a year saves 700 pounds of carbon from reaching the atmosphere.
  8. Unplug those appliances. Don't forget that even when they're off, DVDs, televisions and cell phone chargers still use power, consuming five percent of all U.S. energy produced each year. That's 18 million pounds of carbon.
  9. Our own actions will go a long way toward tackling global warming. But to achieve the kind of change that will truly make a difference also requires a concerted effort by our government--federal and state--to explore ways of phasing out the biggest producers of carbon emissions: coal-burning power plants and low-mileage automobiles. We must elect officials who take this issue seriously, who recognize that reversing the impacts of global climate change is one of the highest priorities for our future, and who are willing to take an international stand. In addition to leading by example, they must pressure and aid developing countries to adopt stringent carbon-cutting strategies; and they must demand an end to deforestation that claims 76 million acres of trees--the equivalent of 145 Dutchess Counties--every year. As citizens, we've got to lobby on behalf of the environment, making sure our leaders do the right thing. Speaking about the dire state of our planet, John Gummer, Great Britain's long-time environmental secretary, once said that "The alarm bells ought to be ringing in every capital of the world." It is our moral responsibility to make sure they keep on ringing until we get the policies we deserve.

In Climate Change in the Northeast, the authors make the point that reducing carbon emissions locally will not check serious global climate change. However, as the center of finance, technology and innovation, and one of the leading producers of greenhouse-gas emissions, our efforts to reduce our own carbon footprint could be seen as a model for others to emulate. Taking responsibility in our own backyard--individually and through initiatives like the forward-thinking Climate Change Action Plan--could spark a revolution that would, indeed, slow down the effects of global warming. What would it take? A reduction of emissions 80 percent below 2000 levels by 2050 would require an annual reduction of about three percent--which is certainly doable--yet would have an enormous impact on our planet. The study's scientists make abundantly clear what's at stake: "The choices we make now," they write, "will dramatically affect the climate that our children and grandchildren inherit."

If that's not enough to incite us to action, God help us.

Thank you very much.