Environmental groups holding off on climate change legislation

Environmental lobbyists have decided not to push for a bill to prepare coastal and riverfront municipalities for climate change this session, saying cities and towns aren’t ready for a law until they learn more about what’s to come.

“I think we anticipate doing that, but probably not this year,” said David Sutherland, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut chapter. “I haven’t closed the door completely on it, but I think at this point we still need to do some legwork with some local communities we’ve been talking with.”

He said it’s “a complicated issue.” Scientists expect that increased flooding and high-tide marks will threaten people and wildlife’s safety and cost cities and towns a lot of money if they have to rebuild or fix sewage treatment plants and coastal roads, walls, and buildings in the coming decades.

“I think we’re becoming more aware of some of the complexities and some of the issues,” Sutherland said. Sutherland said he’s spent a lot of time meeting with municipal leaders who need time to figure out how they would plan and pay for such things.

The last climate legislation passed in Connecticut, in 2008, established goals for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in an effort to reduce global warming; the first target date is in 2020.

At the same time, a subcommittee of the Governor’s Steering Committee on Climate Change has been developing plans to help the state prepare for the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, diminishing snow and more rain.

“We’re not trying to scare people,” said Bob Kaliszewski, director of planning and program development for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and a member of the Adaptation Subcommittee. He said the group is charged with helping the state be prepared.

Its next report, on how Connecticut should adapt to changes that scientists have outlined in hundreds of studies, is due out soon, probably in January. Committee members say they hope citizens will read it and participate in public hearings.

The group is a little skittish about that because its first report, which documented the basics of what’s happening and expected to happen in the Northeast, was issued in April to almost no notice.

Members of the committee said that the new report deals with conditions that are here now or will be in a decade and later, and offers specific actions to deal with them.

Among the recommendations likely to appear in the new report:

  • Farmers must be ready to adapt to changing weather patterns. In its earlier report, the climate committee said that the dairy industry, maple syrup production, and apple and pear farming, among others, will suffer here for the long-term. New practices and crops might have to replace these. The report also will outline which pests could get worse and how farmers ought to deal with them.
  • The state must reinforce its infrastructure. Because Connecticut is, on average getting wetter, with more rain each year, and because the sea level is rising, the state must reinforce roads, dams, sea walls, sewage treatment plants, and certain buildings to prepare. State, regional, and local agencies will have to coordinate their work to bolster facilities. The report will list ways to alter building codes to account for more intense occasional storms expected.
  • Health problems will accompany the changes. Increasing rain aside, periodic droughts and more intense heat waves are expected to threaten public health. The report will outline steps health agencies should take to protect vulnerable people from more intense heat waves, and all people from longer seasons for disease-causing mosquitoes and ticks.
  • Because climate change will alter and in some cases threaten natural resources like beaches, marshes, certain species of animals and plants, the report will list specific places and species that ought to be protected.

The two adaptation committee members who are overseeing the new report are Kaliszewski and Roslyn Reeps, an environmental analyst at the Connecticut DEP. The report relies on a large science-based study, the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment, done by the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 50 independent experts.

The Connecticut committee also uses data gathered from various sources by the city of New York, which has been working longer than Connecticut has on practical plans for changing conditions. New York’s program, known as Planyc, uses committees that include scientists and policy makers. The group has studied a radius around New York that includes Connecticut.

Public meetings in advance of the Connecticut adaptation committee’s first report drew very few citizens to comment, Kaliszewski said. “We didn’t get the participation we expected. It was in the total of a dozen.”

He added, “Some of the people who came wanted to argue with whether climate change was happening or not,” he said. “We are avoiding engaging in that debate.”

Kaliszewski said that the most likely scenario in New England is that climate change’s realities will unfold very slowly, over generations. “People will see the change gradually and may not recognize it,” he said. “The people it impacts, the guy who relies on maple sugar production for this farm, he may be fine, but the next generation that takes over his farm might have to do something different.”

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the DEP, said that some people concerned about climate change resist efforts to adapt to the changes, stressing instead that we ought to try to stop accelerated climate change that is attributed to people’s burning of fuels.

“This isn’t a substitute for mitigation,” he said. “We still continue full steam ahead with efforts to reduce emissions at the same time we are looking at adaptation.”