Paris Climate Accord withdrawal sparks local activism

A view of the Saugatuck Reservoir from Popp Mountain in Trout Brook Valley in Easton. — Photo courtesy of Aspetuck Land Trust

By Susan Hunter on July 3, 2017 in the Easton Courier

President Donald Trump’s June 1 announcement that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord has spawned reactions from environmental activists on local, state and national levels. The resounding message locally is that work to combat climate change and threats to the environment is stronger than ever in Easton and other communities.
Verne Gay, president of Citizens for Easton (CFE), terms Trump’s decision “a spectacular disappointment. It’s frustrating for people like me, people who are community activists interested in environmental issues,” he said,
CFE’s goal is to preserve the town’s rural and natural character.
The federal government is “ceding moral leadership,” Gay said, and local communities “have to be the one to take the lead. It means everyone has to double down and be more dedicated. If the country is going to cede that position, it’s more incumbent on communities and individuals to step into the breach. You lead from the bottom up.” Gay referred to the familiar phrase, “Think globally, act locally” to sum up his feelings.

The aim of the Paris Climate Accord, an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aims to hold the global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius in order to limit global warming.

The pact was signed by 195 nations, and the United States and China vie as the largest polluters on the planet, according to Internet sources.

Scientists agree that the climate is changing as a result of global warming caused by human beings operating power plants, cars or airplanes that release greenhouse or heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The result has been a warming atmosphere that will continue to produce severe storms, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, drought and mosquito-borne disease.

Trump argued that the Paris pact was a threat to the U.S. economy and imposed unfair environmental standards on American businesses and workers.

Since the president’s announcement, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said the state would join the United States Climate Alliance, a coalition of states committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement.

Cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have indicated they’ll abide by the guidelines of the pact.

Local reaction

Cathy Alfandre, chairman of Easton’s Energy Task Force, voiced her opinion about President Trump’s announcement.

“I think Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord was an embarrassment,” Alfandre said. “Climate change is real, and our economy has helped to create the problem. Our country should be a leader in the global effort to tackle the enormous challenges we face. It is actually in our self-interest to participate!

“I can’t really understand the president’s narrow thinking. Thank goodness other world leaders — and other U.S. state and city leaders — are showing continued commitment and vision.

Alfandre said the Easton Energy Task Force would stay focused on its mission to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy, just as it has always been doing.

“There’s no time to waste,” she said. ”I’m confident that countless local, state, and national groups will keep moving forward, even if the U.S. government seems to be moving backward.”

Easton First Selectman Adam Dunsby, who also serves as a Connecticut state Representative (R-135), credited the Energy Task Force for the town’s focus on energy efficiency.

The town has installed a large solar array that supplies much of the power to Samuel Staples Elementary School and plans to expand the project.

Easton has installed a charging station and has boosted its recycling program.

“We think we’re taking steps in the right direction here in Easton,” Dunsby said. “It’s done independently of what’s happening on the federal level.”

In 2012, Easton signed a Clean Energy Communities Municipal Pledge, which includes a commitment to reduce town building energy consumption by 20% and to buy 20% of municipal energy from renewable sources by 2018.

David Brant is executive director of the Aspetuck Land Trust, which maintains 45 trailed preserves in Easton, Weston, Fairfield and Westport.

The Aspetuck Land Trust is a non-profit membership organization whose mission is the preservation and conservation of open space, including the Trout Brook Valley Preserve. — Brian Russell photo

The Aspetuck Land Trust is a non-profit membership organization whose mission is the preservation and conservation of open space, including the Trout Brook Valley Preserve. — Brian Russell photo

Trump’s announcement to pull out of the climate accord “reinforces the importance of people taking individual action to make positive change to support local organizations like Aspetuck Land Trust and to counteract decisions being made in Washington,” Brant said “There’s strength in numbers. It’s important for individuals to be active to support things to support the environment.

“We’re seeing the climate change before our eyes,” he said. “We see the direct effect of climate change on our properties. It’s happening all around us.”

There are more invasive plants, drier streams and extreme rain events, Brant said, and he cited information from climate activist Bill McKibben’s book End of Nature, which claims that as the earth warms up, vegetation changes and pine forests move north.

McKibben, a founder of the climate change group, spoke to Aspetuck Land Trust members in August 2013 at the Pequot Library in Fairfield.

He wrote an editorial in the New York Times on the heels of Trump’s announcement, saying the decision repudiates diplomacy and science and “undercuts civilization’s change of surviving global warming.

“The hope of Paris was that it would send such a strong signal to the world’s governments and its capital markets, that the targets would become a floor and not a ceiling,” McKibben wrote.

The accord would also have led to countries moving faster toward renewable energy, and in fact this has been happening.

India has forgone planned expansion of coal plants in favor of more solar panel arrays, and China is shutting coal mines and building wind turbines, McKibben said.

“We will resist,” he wrote.

“The [Trump] administration’s approach to the environment is a contrast and is challenging to environmental activism,” said Connecticut state Senator Tony Hwang (R-28), representing Easton, Fairfield, Newtown, Weston and Westport.

Equally concerning are Trump’s recent appointments, Hwang said, including Scott Pruitt to head of the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.).

Pruitt, as Oklahoma attorney general, has sued to block the E.P.A.’s major environmental rules and has called for the dissolution of much of the agency’s authority, according to the New York Times.

“It’s a point of concern as a legislator and an individual who values the environment and actions to protect it,” Hwang said. “Pruitt’s past philosophy and approach runs counter to the environmental philosophy that I espouse.”

Connecticut’s state legislature can make an impact by focusing on open space and land preservation, said Hwang, who was twice named a “Legislative Champion” by the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters based on his environmental scorecard.

“My tone is one of cautious concern, but we can make a local commitment by supporting local environmental advocacy groups to maintain our natural treasures.”

Funding cuts to state parks “have been a significant change,” he said. “The parks are being hurt. It’s important for us to be diligent to preserve our natural resources for future generations.

“We have to be very proactive and respect water rights and waterways,” Hwang said, “and strike a balance between water use and management, conservation and local control.”

A case in point was the potential use of Easton’s reservoirs by other municipalities during the recent drought.

“In Easton, water is a precious commodity,” he said, and he cited the controversial move by the Niagara Bottling plant to build a facility in Bloomfield.

The company agreed “to tap millions of gallons of water to use as bottled water,” Hwang said. “We have to make sure there are checks and balances.”

It’s difficult for people to advocate for environmental protection if they don’t experience the benefits of the state’s waterways and the fishing and canoeing they offer, he said.

“Environmental activism is a visceral reconnection,” he said. He walks the trails of the Aspetuck Land Trust to unwind after grueling days in the Hartford state house.

Map of Trout Brook Valley and Devil’s Den. — Photo courtesy of Aspetuck Land Trust

Map of Trout Brook Valley and Devil’s Den. — Photo courtesy of Aspetuck Land Trust

“How fortunate we are to have the Long Island Sound and woodlands and trails. I’m encouraged that environmental activism begins in our communities. We can make a small difference. The federal program doesn’t alter my commitment.”

Protecting local resources

William Kupinse, a Republican former Republican first selectman in Easton, calls Trump’s decision “ … a mistake. I disagree with President Trump,” he said, because “virtually every nation” has joined the Paris Accord.

But Kupinse said he sees favorable things happening despite Trump’s decision.

“The world is going to change,” Kupinse said. “Coal isn’t going to be coming back. Easton has a solar program. We are doing something already. A number of states will conform to the accord. Unfortunately we have a U.S. Congress which is ineffective, because there are too many Republicans or too big a division.”

Kupinse urges Easton residents to support the moves not to develop the land between Easton’s two reservoirs.

“Water is extremely important,” he said, and many people depend on the reservoirs for their water.

Verne Gay, president of Citizens for Easton,  also pointed out the importance of Easton’s reservoirs that  “play a countywide role” and need to be preserved.

Gay said he doesn’t want “intensive housing development on property that would impact the watershed.”

Tom Herrmann, a former Easton first selectman and a Republican, said Eastonites “will remain guardians of our region’s water supply and continue to minimize any contamination that may make its way into the reservoirs of our town. I don’t think [Trump’s decision] will influence our community’s attitude toward preservation and conservation. I think it’s up to the United States as a member of the global community to work with other nations to control pollution and minimize the adverse impact we may have on the planet.”

Robert Lessler, a Democratic Board of Selectmen member in Easton, also pushes for protecting the reservoirs.

“We recognize our responsibility for the region as the water source for the area,” Lessler said.

He said he’s “saddened and disappointed, but not surprised” by Trump’s decision.

“Most people understand that whether you think climate change is man-made or a natural phenomenon, we need to try to mitigate its impact. Mr. Trump is only interested in the politics of it.

“Economically, green energy is going to be much more of a growth factor than coal. Mining jobs will be taken over by machines,” Lessler said, and by promising jobs, Trump is “pandering to his coal country base. He’s being dishonest.”

On the local level, “Easton has committed to whatever we can do to reduce our energy consumption,” Lessler said, including installing the solar array, energy efficient light bulbs and an overhauled HVAC system at Staples School.

“Easton is very sensitive about clean energy and environmental issues in general. We’re working hard to reduce our carbon footprint. Everybody is so sensitive to environmental issues. We’re of one mind,” Lessler said.

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