Community Climate Action Subject of Newly Published Colgate Research 

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Colgate researchers have found that collaborations between municipalities and colleges may be the key to future climate action planning efforts across rural parts of New York State.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Andy Pattison, Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Chris Henke, and Colgate Director of Sustainability John Pumilio, joined with village and town officials in 2016 to work on what would eventually become Hamilton, N.Y.’s Climate Smart Communities program a NYS interagency program to help communities reduce their carbon footprint while helping them to prepare for the worst impacts of climate change. The three decided to document their efforts as a way to explore how other rural communities might benefit from a similar town/gown collaboration. 

The result of that work is now published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, titled “Community-based climate action planning as an act of advocacy: a case study of liberal arts education in a rural community.”

So, what is a Climate Smart Community, and why is it important? Pumilio explains that there are two broad approaches to becoming a Climate Smart Community: climate mitigation and adaptation. 

“Climate mitigation involves measuring operational and community emissions and then developing strategies to reduce those emissions,” Pumilio said. “Climate adaptation involves identifying current and forecasted climate-related impacts to a particular locale and then identifying key assets and vulnerabilities within that area to develop actions and strategies that reduce those vulnerabilities.”

Those vulnerabilities are real, even in a rural area of upstate New York. 

“Over the past 20 years, we’ve had 19 declared FEMA events in Madison County,” Pumilio said. “This includes historic and disastrous heavy rain events and flooding, severe storms, and droughts. We are approaching an average of nearly one climate-related disaster per year.”

Pattison said dozens of Colgate students in his sustainability and climate and action planning course, along with Henke’s students in a course on community-based study of environmental issues, engaged with the town and the village as part of their work to create the climate action plan. 

“Projects included greenhouse gas inventories, drafting fleet fuel efficiency policies, benchmarking energy performance in municipal buildings, developing community outreach plans, resiliency plans, climate adaptation plans, and more. As our recently published article indicates, much of the work that the town and village have done in the Climate Smart Communities program would not be possible — or would have taken much longer and/or would have required an expensive private sector consultant,” Pattison said.

After more than five years of monthly meetings, the town and village are now certified Climate Smart Communities.

Henke said he hopes the new paper will encourage other communities to interact with their nearby colleges and universities to collaborate and help lighten the burden of climate planning for the future.

“Higher ed is not the entire answer, but we argue in the paper that it can be an important part of the answer for New York State, especially for smaller communities that don’t have the planning resources and other means to develop complex climate plans,” Henke said. “There are resources available to these communities via state grants and other sources of support, but oftentimes those resources don't carry over for the longer term. Ideally, communities are supported through capacity building and community development.”