Chautauqua County citizens join forces to fight climate change

After spending years lamenting the lack of political action on climate change, Julia Wilson decided to stop complaining and start acting. Wilson, a math professor at SUNY Fredonia, had heard talk about the largest climate change event in history, the People’s Climate March, which was scheduled to take place in New York City on Sept. 23, 2014.

Wilson and a few others decided to organize a local rally in the nearby village of Fredonia on Sept. 20 in solidarity with the People’s Climate March. The turnout was not huge, Wilson said, but it laid the groundwork for a new volunteer organization called Chautauqua Citizens Respond to Climate Crisis.

CCRCC aims to raise awareness about the issue of climate change and work with local politicians to address climate change in the area. The organization’s members and allies include students and faculty at Fredonia, parents, senior citizens, activists, political organizers and a local politician: Stephen Keefe, the mayor of Fredonia.

One of their major campaigns right now is to advocate for tax credits for homeowners in Chautauqua County who use solar and wind energy. Wilson said the tax credits have existed in the state for over a decade but frequently expire. Wilson and other members of CCRCC have been writing to county and state officials to renew them because they make solar and wind energy more affordable for individuals and families.

Minda Rae Amiran, a former dean at Fredonia, became involved with CCRCC last summer, but her involvement is only a portion of her environmental activism. Amiran has been fighting fossil fuel infrastructure in the area — particularly natural gas wells and high-volume, horizontal hydrofracturing. Chautauqua County contains 50 percent of the natural gas wells in the state, according to Amiran and Bill Boria, a water resource specialist at the Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services.

“I’d been opposing [fracking] in our area because of its contribution to climate change and because of the way I felt it would endanger both our agriculture and tourism,” Amiran said.

Hydrofracturing, often referred to as fracking, is a method of natural gas extraction whereby water and chemicals are pumped into a shale rock formation underground. This creates fractures in the rock, releasing natural gas.

In 2013, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued a permit to Hayden Harper Energy to drill a natural gas well in Bemus Point, just across the lake from Chautauqua Institution. Amiran attempted to organize individuals in the area to protest the well because of the pollutants from the fracking that could leak into waterways like Chautauqua Lake.

“You can imagine what that natural gas well would do to Chautauqua Institution, with 24-hour trucking noise,” she said.

Her concerns were mitigated when Governor Andrew Cuomo banned fracking statewide in December 2014, citing the health and water supply risks posed by the extraction method. But because the governor, not the legislature, enacted the moratorium on fracking, it is not necessarily permanent, and Amiran believes the political pressure to reinstate fracking is great.

At this time, Amiran said she believes CCRCC’s most important goal, however, is to reach out to those who believe climate change is not happening, or not a concern.

“So many people said to me last winter, ‘Oh, they talk about global warming, but look at this winter,’ as if that were proof that there were no such thing,” she said. “That just means people don’t know enough.”

Jonathan Titus, a biology professor at Fredonia who specializes in botany and ecology, spoke at CCRCC’s rally last September and gave a lecture at the Institution on invasive plant species earlier this season. He compared arguing about whether or not climate change is happening to arguing with someone about whether or not the world is flat.

“First off, it was discovered back in 1890 that greenhouse gas molecules will absorb infrared radiation,” he said. “There’s no debate in the scientific community about how these molecules behave. That’s old.”

He cited changes in temperature and precipitation patterns and changing ranges of animals, plants, insects and diseases as evidence of climate change. Malaria, for example, has expanded into mountain ranges where it had not previously been recorded due to warmer temperatures.

“These changes are dramatic and fast,” he said. “The trouble is, people are impatient. If there’s global warming going on, people expect us to have palm trees everywhere. If you go back to glacial periods, it took a four degree centigrade drop for New York State to be under ice. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s all it takes, because it’s a global average.”

Mayor Keefe has been working with CCRCC and supportive of climate initiatives in the village. Under Keefe’s leadership, Fredonia has installed energy-efficient lighting in its public buildings and reuses the methane gas released from its wastewater treatment plant to heat buildings in the town. The mayor also hopes to eliminate the use of plastic bags in stores in the village, as plastic bags take up to hundreds of years to biodegrade, pose risks to sea life and release greenhouse gases during the process of biodegradation.

While the Institution does not aim to bring awareness to one particular issue the way CCRCC does, Keefe, a regular visitor, said he appreciates how Chautauqua invites diverse speakers to discuss relevant issues, including climate change.

“Whether they’re speaking for or against any issue, they bring attention to that issue,” he said.

He said, regardless of whether one accepts the science of climate change, taking steps to improve one’s own environment and decrease emissions benefits everyone.

“If nothing else, look at the number of people with asthma, people having trouble breathing with COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and things like that,” he said. “A clean environment is good for everyone involved.”

Because CCRCC is only about a year old, most of its members are concentrated in the Fredonia/Dunkirk area, though all are welcome to attend meetings. Now that it is summer, Wilson anticipates the group will become more active because many of its members are busy studying or teaching at Fredonia during the school year.

Amiran said the group serves as an effective way to combine the efforts of many climate-related initiatives happening throughout the county.

“CCRCC is composed of individuals, and some of them represent different groups, so it’s a heterogeneous organization,” she said. “It would be ridiculous if we were pursuing climate change issues separately. We need to work together to have any impact.”