Five Years of Climate Protection in Tompkins County
by Dominic Frongillo, Founding Member of the TCCPI Steering Committee
As the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) celebrates its fifth anniversary, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the progress made and challenges ahead. In the past five years, the county as a whole has moved forward in three major areas of climate protection: public awareness, mobilization of existing organizations, and new collaborative ventures.
The community’s understanding of climate disruption, its projected impacts, available solutions, and the need for action has advanced significantly since 2008. Higher temperatures, rising food prices, and unprecedented weather events like Superstorm Sandy have fueled the sense of growing urgency. In addition, the expansion of fracking operations in neighboring states has demonstrated the costs of our dirty energy economy and the need to accelerate our transition to a clean energy world.
Existing organizations and institutions have taken major steps forward on the climate protection front. In each of TCCPI’s five sectors — education, local government, nonprofit, business, and youth — organizations have leveraged their climate commitments,
implemented action plans, and developed effective leadership.
Higher education, in particular, has continued to play a key role in the community. Cornell University, Ithaca College, andTompkins Cortland Community College have each made substantial efforts in institutionalizing their climate commitments and integrating climate action into operations. Cornell has phased out coal and brought online a more efficientcombined heat and power (CHP) plant. Ithaca College has made significant headway on installing and upgrading sub-meters on campus. All three have carried out extensive energy efficiency upgrades, transportation advances, waste stream reductions, and local food sourcing, and several new LEED-certified buildings have been constructed.
Local governments have emerged as key drivers for climate action. Tompkins County and the Town of Ithaca have committed to cutting emissions 80% by 2050, and the City of Ithaca is considering a similar target. All three, plus the Town of Caroline, have adopted Climate Smart Communities pledges.
Tompkins County itself has been leading the charge, having adopted its 2020 Energy Strategy, incorporated climate adaptation and resiliency into its hazard mitigation planning process, achieved a waste diversion ratio of 60%, introduced single-stream recycling, established aZimride ride sharing service, and completed the first green airport master plan in the nation.TCAT, the county’s transit system, has upgraded its buses, broken ridership records year after year, and gained recognition for being the best transit system of its size in North America.
Many municipalities in the county have undertaken energy efficiency and performance contracting improvements to government buildings with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. The Town and City of Ithaca have both made substantial progress with hiring sustainability staff, energy and sustainability planning, and installing upgrades to the waste water treatment plant. Several other towns and villages have also made notable efforts, and eight of the county’s nine towns have adopted bans or moratoria on fracking.
As with education and local government, the nonprofit sector has deepened its role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the last several years. Cayuga Medical Center achieved LEED Silver for its new wing, and is seeking LEED certification for its new laboratory and surgical
center. Numerous outreach and education efforts have been launched, including Cornell Cooperative Extension’s “Lighten UpTompkins” campaign, which reached 17,000 households, and other work by theTompkins Energy Corps.Ithaca Carshare has been growing rapidly, and now has 1,300 members and 21 vehicles. Sustainable Tompkins’s Finger Lakes Climate Fund has made numerous grants to help families complete energy efficient retrofits in their homes, and the Museum of the Earth and Cayuga Nature Center have expanded their climate change education programs and exhibits. Many if not most of these activities in the nonprofit sector have benefited enormously from the generous support of the Park Foundation, which has demonstrated an unstinting commitment to addressing climate change and promoting a clean energy future.
The business sector has also stepped up, with Alternatives Federal Credit Union expanding itsenergy efficiency loan programs, local energy efficiency companies such as Snug Planet outpacing the rest of the state in the number of homes retrofitted, and new efforts to engage landlords in energy efficiency improvements. Downtown Ithaca Alliance has become a crucial voice in the call for clustering major new development in Ithaca’s downtown area and renovating the city’s pedestrian mall with new energy efficient utilities. HOLT Architects has signed the American Institute of Architects’ AIA 2030 Commitment and provided critical leadership to the Upstate New York U.S. Green Buildings Council, and Travis Hyde Properties has completed NYSEG’s Small Business Energy Efficiency Program for its entire portfolio, replacing over 2,300 lighting fixtures and purchasing all Energy Star appliances for its residential apartments.
At the same time, young people have joined together to build a vibrant student movement. In 2009 and 2011, young people in Tompkins County mobilized coordinated delegations to Power Shift in Washington D.C., and 300 young people called on local municipal leaders to follow the County’s lead and cut climate pollution 80% by 2050. In their respective institutions, students provided key leadership on issues involving fracking, sustainability course requirements, and endowment divestment from fossil fuels. In 2013, students from Lehman Alternative Community School received statewide recognition for winning Yoko Ono’s Artists Against Fracking award for its original video and song, “You’ve Been Fracked,” and Ithaca was one of 15 cities to host a youth-led Summer of Solutions program to build partnerships for climate justice.
Besides growing public awareness and increased efforts by existing organizations over the past five years, several new climate initiatives have emerged in Tompkins County involving significant
collaboration among TCCPI’s five sectors: the EPA Climate Showcase Communities grant with EcoVillage at Ithaca, the Aurora Pocket Neighborhood, and Tompkins County Planning Department, which is sharing lessons in building more sustainable communities and improving zoning and building codes; Black Oak Wind Farm, which has raised over $1.2 million in start-up capital among over 80 local investors for an 11.6 MW project in Enfield; theEnergize Ithaca downtown heating and efficiency project; the Get Your Green Back Tompkins energy saving campaign;Building Bridges, which is addressing economic and social inequities and environmental sustainability in the community; the new downtown Sustainability Center and its accompanying internship program; and Solarize Tompkins SE, which is bringing affordable solar to homes in Caroline, Danby, and Dryden and is now expanding into a countywide program.
Despite our successes, it is clear we also face major challenges. Most important, neither the federal government nor New York State has enacted comprehensive climate protection legislation. Furthermore, financing and capital flows are problematic issues in every sector. Federal stimulus funding provided some needed capital for climate protection efforts but was insufficient and temporary. Many initiatives are also experiencing difficulties working with outdated physical, institutional, and economic infrastructures, including establishing an effective working relationship with the region’s investor-owned utilities.
Looking ahead, in the next five years, Tompkins County needs to address these issues and be proactive in three areas: preparation and resiliency, multi-sector collaboration, and policy advocacy.
First, we must prepare for accelerating climate destabilization. A concerted effort must be mounted to communicate the reality of climate disruption to every level of leadership and the general public. The county must get ready for increasingly likely worst-case scenarios, as summer months become drier, flooding becomes more frequent, infrastructure and economies are disrupted, and in-migration begins from inundated coastal areas. Coordinated action is needed to build the resilience required to meet all these challenges.
Second, we must strengthen our multi-sector collaborations. Some of our biggest advances have been made by joining together across organizational boundaries. We must create more linkages and connections, in particular, among campus and community; among energy, food, transportation, and waste initiatives; and among community, institutional, business, and political actors.
Finally, we must advocate for appropriate state and federal policy. To move successfully to a clean energy economy, we need a national-scale mobilization larger than that which occurred during the Second World War. State and national leadership is urgently needed, and Tompkins County leaders need to be more assertive in pushing for comprehensive state and federal solutions. One key opportunity is the draft New York State climate action plan, which is still awaiting action by Governor Cuomo. The need for a state action plan has received renewed attention in light of the recent report by Stanford and Cornell researchers, which lays out an ambitious plan to achieve 100% renewable energy for New York State by 2030.
In summary, Tompkins County has made significant strides in climate protection efforts over the past five years, led by the many institutions, governments, organizations, businesses, and youth groups that are members of TCCPI. Yet, as the latest science and news makes clear, the deepening climate crisis will require even greater leadership now and in the years ahead.
Dominic Frongillo, former Councilmember and Deputy Town Supervisor in Caroline, New York, is a founding member of the TCCPI steering committee. He is currently the international business development coordinator for Thomas Daily, a sustainability-focused urban development market information leader, based in Freiburg, Germany.