BY Laura Curran, Nassau County Executive
As I write this, the skies above Long Island are filled with smoke blown east from the wildfires raging across the western United States. Meanwhile, the first day of school across the South Shore was cancelled – not due to COVID-19, but because of extraordinary flooding. We’re currently experiencing the most active hurricane season on record, and unfortunately Nassau homeowners are becoming accustomed to their lives being disrupted by extreme weather this time of year. Fighting COVID-19 and reopening our economy has rightly been our central focus this year, but the events of recent weeks have reminded us of something, like COVID-19, we can’t ignore: the climate crisis is real, it is happening now, and like with COVID-19 – Long Island has been thrust onto the frontline.
The science is clear about the climate change we’re experiencing. The five warmest years from 1880–2019 all occurred since 2015, while nine of the 10 warmest years occurred since 2005. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average temperature worldwide in 2019 was 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit above the twentieth-century average of 57 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the second-warmest year on record. Meanwhile, Long Island’s temperature rose 3.3 degrees per 100 years from 1895 to 2018. Sea level rise on Long Island, which has already increased roughly 8 inches since 1900, has become a present reality for those living in coastal communities on Long Island. It is predicted that seas will rise somewhere between 1.9 and 6.3 feet in the New York region by the end of the century due primarily to melting polar ice caps.
This may seem like an abstract concept or a matter of fractions, but slight climate change has huge consequences – and we’re already feeling them. Extreme weather events, shifting seasons, more intense rainfall, changes to marine life (including an increase in sharks by the shore) and dramatic sea-level rise – these accelerating trends pose a threat to our way of life on Long Island.
Some say we shouldn’t try to do anything because the climate crisis is simply too big a problem for local governments to address. I disagree, because I know what we do here matters. Like how Long Island was thrust into the epicenter of a global pandemic, we are on the frontline of the climate crisis by nature of being a low-lying island. We ought to lead the way on climate not just to preserve our own health and safety and not just to ensure a habitable Long Island for our children – but also to demonstrate that local governments need not abandon bold environmental leadership in difficult times.
Earlier this year, I signed Nassau County up for New York State’s Climate Smart Communities program, which sets ambitious goals for carbon dioxide reduction and transitioning to green technology and infrastructure. My Administration is now prioritizing initiatives that protect the environment and save taxpayers money, like decreasing energy usage, modifying LEED standards for new facilities, and incorporating energy efficient technologies. We’re shifting to clean, renewable energy and reducing solid waste while protecting open space and water quality. Importantly, the County is enhancing community resilience to climate change by better protecting against sea level rise and storm surge. I believe Nassau [County] is becoming a national leader among coastal communities when it comes to combatting the climate crisis.
Here’s another reason why. For decades, excessive nitrogen levels have contributed to the collapse and erosion of marshes on the South Shore, which are critically important natural resources that help mitigate storm surges from reaching land. This week, I’ll announce the completion of one of the most significant environmental upgrades to the Bay Park wastewater treatment plant since it began operating in 1949. Bay Park’s new Biological Nutrient Removal (BNR) system is now operational and removing more than 40 percent total nitrogen – an additional 5,000 pounds per day – from being discharged into Reynolds Channel.
The results of this upgrade will not only improve water quality for fishing, swimming and recreational activities, but offer greater protection for thousands of homeowners along the South Shore who rely on salt marshes in the Western Bays to act as storm surge barriers and mitigate flooding. Projects like this can be replicated elsewhere, and they are just the beginning.
For this Climate Week, let’s renew our commitment to protecting our planet; preserving our clean air, water, and land; and ensuring Long Island remains beautiful and habitable for generations to come.