Both town and village of New Paltz took the pledge almost ten years ago to become an official Climate Smart Community, certified as such by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). But until a couple of years ago, that vow went fallow for lack of volunteer participation. It wasn’t until local climate activists realized they were going to lose a $30,000 grant New Paltz had received to execute the program that the wheels were set in motion again.
Janelle Peotter found out about the potential loss of the grant while attending New Paltz Climate Action Coalition meetings. Having retired early from a 30-year career as a school social worker in Green Bay, Wisconsin, she’d relocated to New Paltz two years prior, when a long-distance relationship evolved into marriage. “I moved here and was doing what retired people do for less than a year when I started to become progressively more concerned about climate issues,” she says. A lifelong environmentalist, Peotter was on the organizing committee for a group called “Wisconsin Greens” in the ‘80s, founded to provide a voice for green activist groups in that state and since morphed into the Wisconsin Green Party.
At one of the climate action meetings Peotter attended locally a little more than two years ago, she learned that the grant to implement a Climate Smart Community program in New Paltz was scheduled for return because neither the town nor village had fulfilled the DEC requirements for certification. The first steps for a municipality implementing the program are to form a designated climate smart task force and appoint an official coordinator for the group.
“A comment was made that, ‘We really need someone to step forward and be the coordinator for the task force,’” Peotter remembers. “And sometimes naiveté is a good thing when you’re volunteering! I didn’t know what I was getting into when I tentatively raised my hand and said, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ It was definitely a steep learning curve.”
Peotter began the process of coordinating the efforts of the New Paltz Climate Smart Task Force by doing “a deep dive into research,” she notes, learning what the certification process was all about. She got some help from a few SUNY New Paltz interns, and “together we all learned a lot and then got rolling.”
Core members of the task force have fluctuated over time but today include Amanda Gotto, Mark Varian, Jim O’Dowd, Wendy Rudder, Orelle Feher, Liz Elkin, Joe Bergstein, Hope Nitza, Lynn Cherry, Jim Gordon and Victoria Hilton. They meet on the third Monday of each month at 7 p.m. “And lots of other people are working on different pieces of the project,” says Peotter.
An annual community potluck held as a means of brainstorming ideas — the date for this year’s event yet to be announced — serves as one of the ways the task force determines what climate actions New Paltz residents deem important in the effort to minimize both individual and governmental impact on climate change.
At the first potluck held after the task force was formed two years ago, “We literally came away with more than 100 ideas,” Peotter notes. “Subsequently we had some small group meetings to corral all this information; grouping similar ideas and combining things that were really a rewording of the same thing.”
Ultimately six subcommittees, now grown to eight, were organized, each focusing on specific aspects of climate action. Those eight groups have now been reframed as “action groups” to reflect Peotter’s vision that all of this is not about committees in meetings but rather “somebody leading an action; doing something.”
And it doesn’t take a big commitment of time to participate in the process, she adds. “None of the action groups even have a set meeting time; a lot can be done on email, or on the phone. My key message is that people don’t need to feel like ‘I don’t have time for that.’ It’s about incorporating action into your everyday life and just being informed enough about how to do that. Putting your head together with some other likeminded folks and making a difference.”
How the program works
The statewide Climate Smart Communities (CSC) program provides local governments with a structured framework; a “to-do” list, so to speak, of specific tasks to fulfill that guide a community through the process of minimizing their impact on climate change. Certification as an official CSC is achieved through earning points for activities completed. Becoming a “bronze” or the more work-intensive “silver” level community gives local governments an increased likelihood of obtaining grants.
As of this writing, both town and village of New Paltz — who have separate applications in to the DEC but who function as one project under the same task force — are awaiting confirmation of whether their applications for bronze level certification will be approved. Some of the climate actions taken are the same for both municipalities, explains Peotter, but others change accordingly when certain entities are not in their jurisdiction, such as the town being in charge of the police and the village of the fire department.
Certification is likely, as New Paltz Climate Smart Task Force submitted proof of progress earning far more than the 120 points required for each municipality, in order to have a buffer in case some of their activities aren’t approved. If the DEC does approve the village and town of New Paltz as bronze level Climate Smart Communities, they will join the 32 currently certified across the state.
An inventory of greenhouse gases emitted in the town and village revealed that “the majority of our footprint has to do with vehicle traffic,” says Peotter. The task force is currently working on developing a Complete Streets policy for New Paltz that will encourage better pedestrian and cyclist access and make the town and village less car-centric.
Only two silver level certifications (which require 300 points) have thus far been awarded — to Tompkins County and Ulster County as a whole — but New Paltz has earned enough points in both town (184) and village (156) that Peotter believes the community is on the way to eventual silver certification. That would open the door to even more possibilities of climate action grants for New Paltz, but the process shouldn’t be just about earning points, she says.
“My vision is to make this something that will fit what the community wants, and not just be things we do purely to get points. Because that’s not the point; the point is to actually make a difference. There are things we’re doing that you don’t get points for, but they’re important to do.”
Peotter says she has conflicted feelings when people will tell her, “It’s so great what you’re doing,” meaning it as a compliment. “But we all need to be doing this. It’s not enough, where we’re at today, to think a few people in a committee can take care of this, and I think that’s what happens.”
How to get involved
Interested residents may contact Peotter at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the email list for the monthly newsletter she writes about current activities of the task force. The newsletter is also available on the town and village websites, where there is additional Climate Smart information, and the group has Instagram and Facebook pages. They sponsor a monthly book club focusing on climate change issues, which utilizes Zoom online conferencing for those who cannot attend the meeting in person, and host monthly “meetups” locally at a different location each time, where people can gather with other climate activists looking for lifestyle changes. Topics have ranged from a discussion of how a plant-based diet benefits the environment to Repair Cafes and electric vehicles. (“And you may not be able to afford an electric vehicle, but you can change what you eat at breakfast,” Peotter notes.)
As coordinator of the New Paltz Climate Smart Task Force, Peotter has joined a number of the other climate-oriented groups in town, including the Environmental Conservation Board and the New Paltz Bicycle/Pedestrian, Solar at the Landfill, Solar Law and Ad Hoc Complete Streets committees. She’s even a member of the activist brass band Tin Horn Uprising.
“I’ve joined a lot of these groups because it’s a good way for me to learn more about a community I haven’t always lived in. And I think because I came to all this after a career in social work, I’m comfortable with complexity and see the interconnections in systems; I’m a systems thinker. I see all of these groups as part of a whole system.”
There are “a lot of good people doing a lot of good things in individual parts of New Paltz,” Peotter adds, “but sometimes these groups get ‘siloed’ and one doesn’t know what the other is doing, or have found a way to work together. But the common thread, in my mind, is climate. And climate impacts everything.”
For detailed information about the Climate Smart Communities process, visit https://climatesmart.ny.gov/actions-certification/actions/. Visit the Facebook page NewPaltzClimateSmart and their Instagram @newpaltzclimatesmart for more information.