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Commentary: the Adirondacks and “the Just Transition” to a Fossil-Free Future

Commentary: the Adirondacks and “the Just Transition” to a Fossil-Free Future January 10, 2024
A one-day, once-in-a-century storm, typical of the extreme weather attributed to climate change, took hundreds of thousands of dollars away from the Adirondack Park’s tourism economy in July. Above: the travel corridor’s important intersection at State Route 30 and Route 28N in Long Lake was open only to emergency vehicles.
A one-day, once-in-a-century storm, typical of the extreme weather attributed to climate change, took hundreds of thousands of dollars away from the Adirondack Park’s tourism economy in July. Above: the travel corridor’s important intersection at State Route 30 and Route 28N in Long Lake was open only to emergency vehicles.

In December, the global climate conference in Dubai was gaveled to a close with a commitment to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” 

That “just, orderly and equitable” transition will require  political fortitude not only from the world’s powers but from governments such as New York State’s and its citizens – us, in other words.

Here in New York, Governor Kathy Hochul has vetoed legislation that would have prohibited companies that contribute to tropical deforestation from contracting with the state. If she is to reconsider the bill during this legislative session, voters will need to make their voices heard.

Governor Hochul has, however,  told two state agencies – the Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) –  to create a cap-and-trade program that will help New York meet its self-imposed mandates – a 40% drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, an 85% drop from 1990 levels by 2050. 

The two agencies released the outlines of their cap-and-trade program on December 20. Remote informational meetings will start January 23.

Once the program is in place, the state can start to disincentivize the emission of greenhouse gasses. The largest producers will be compelled to pay for permits, called allowances, for every ton of carbon they propose to emit. The number of allowances available will be capped at an agreed-upon limit, one that will shrink every year thereafter, guaranteeing that  New York continues to reduce its annual output. Proceeds from auctions where producers will bid for the allowances, which they can use or to sell to others, will be reinvested in clean energy projects. Those projects, generating electricity through wind, solar and hydropower,  will enable the state to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels even further.  

“New York’s program will catalyze a nationwide movement towards carbon pricing,” Governor Hochul’s administration asserts. 

In fact, lawmakers across the country believe that a North American carbon market, comprising a network of states and Canadian provinces, is the most direct route toward a fossil fuel-free future.

Cap-and-Trade and Prices at the Gas Pump

Obstacles, however, have already presented themselves. Oil refineries and distributors are among the businesses required to participate in carbon pricing systems, and they’ve persuaded many consumers that higher prices at gas pumps are the fault of cap-and-trade programs.

In Washington state, according to Stateline, the Pew Charitable Trust’s news site, “a voter initiative that’s likely to be on the ballotin 2024, stoked by anger over prices at the pump, threatens to repeal (the cap-and-trade program) altogether.”

New York state officials are reportedly watching trends in  that state’s public opinion with concern. 

“That [consumer backlash] has been a concern from the beginning,” Stateline was told by New York state Sen. Kevin Parker, a Democrat who has championed cap-and-trade. “I’ve been following other places. Gas prices are one of the big concerns.”

Dr. Elizabeth Marino, a professor of anthropology and sustainability at Oregon State University, told a group of reporters, including one from this newspaper, that “a just transition away from fossil fuels must make sure that the costs of adaptation and mitigation aren’t just born on the backs of those who are already suffering.”

Albany’s guidelines for its cap-and-trade program do prioritize “Affordability” and require the  DEC and NYSERDA to mitigate the costs of the state’s new program to consumers,  especially those who can least afford them.

Overcoming Rural Residents’ Skepticism About Renewable Energy

If voters in the rural parts of upstate New York, such as the Adirondacks and the North County, express opposition to the cap-and-trade program it will, in all likelihood, be due to fears of higher prices for energy and transportation.

According to the public opinion firm Embold Research, which surveyed 2,645 rural Americans between August 9 and 16, 2023, 40% of rural Americans believe a transition to a fossil fuel free future will have a negative impact on their communities. 

Less than 20% rate the availability of low-cost energy in their counties as “excellent” or “good.” A majority believe the cost of energy is a key driver in their communities’  lack of affordability. 

The poll concluded that skepticism about  renewable energy’s potential contributes to the belief of many rural Americans that the country should continue to rely on fossil fuels. 

To counteract consumers’ fears, New York’s cap-and-trade program should include an educational component, one that reminds voters that prices for energy for homes and vehicles will stabilize once those prices are set by a North American-wide market in greenhouse gas allowances. (According to those with expertise in these matters, prices for allowances stabilize when the number of permits to emit greenhouse gasses available is equal to the number of required. Moreover, as more renewable energy projects come on line, the demand for permits -and their price – will decline.)

The Costs of Climate Change 

Any accounting of the costs borne by consumers should include the economic impacts of climate change on the tourism economy of Lake George and the Adirondacks. 

According to the Journal of Geophysical Research, 15 years’ worth of ice-in/ice-out records show a pronounced, impossible-to-ignore warming trend over the past 100 to 200 years.  The lakes have warmed six times as fast in the past 25 years compared with any other quarter in the past century. On average, lakes froze 11 days later and thawed 7 days earlier. Lakes were frozen 17 days less per century over the entire record for each lake. 

Dave Richardson, a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a co-author of the study, said “If we continue at this same rate, over the next 75 years we’ll lose 106 more days of ice cover on average across our lakes.”

Scientists familiar with the Adirondack Mountains’ winter recreational economy, such as Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager, have noted that lakes are freezing later or not at all and the snows upon which ski resorts depend to make a profit are increasingly less predictable. 

“It matters that we’re losing our winter because winter defines the Adirondacks,”  Stager frequently tells his audiences.

Of course, the loss of winter would affect the Lake George region’s off-season economy as well, something we can’t help but be aware of as Winter Carnival events get displaced, Ice Castles morphs into an entirely different event and Warren County invests $3 million in a light show hardened against the weather.

Climate change, even or especially as it alters the lake’s finely tuned ecosystem, also threatens the summer resort economy.  A recent study of Vermont lakes, for example, found that as a milfoil spreads, property values sink by one to sixteen percent. Those real estate values, and the revenues they generate in property taxes, drive our schools and local governments. And a water-based recreation study conducted by the Lake George Park Commission found  that the water quality of Lake George was the leading factor in attracting vacationers.

If we ever needed reasons to get behind “a  transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems,” our economic well-being would be more than enough to provide them. 

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