In this edition of our Community Climate Champions series highlighting individuals and organizations building a better future for their neighborhoods, we focus on Climate-Smart Rhinebeck in Hudson Valley.
It takes a community effort to properly prepare local residents for the effects of climate change. But sometimes it’s really hard to get started. Where do you begin? Who takes the lead?
New York’s Climate Smart Communities (CSC) program was designed to stir community-level action by creating a concrete checklist for climate preparedness. As of March 2020, the Village of Rhinebeck, New York officially earned bronze certification through CSC – marking an important step toward a more just, resilient society for all.
Here’s how they did it.
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A “Climate Smart Community” Defined
Taken directly from the New York State Government website: “Climate Smart Communities (CSC) is a New York State program that helps local governments take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a changing climate.”
New York implemented its Climate Smart Communities program in 2009 to structure town and county-level climate resilience and bring visibility to communities doing a good job at it.
To be certified as climate smart, communities need to check a series of boxes, including completing an inventory of their emissions, shifting to more renewable energy, taking on energy efficiency projects, preserving local land, and hosting community events to educate the public about protecting their environment.
Every box a community ticks earns them a set amount of points toward certification – 120 points for bronze-level certification, and 300 points for silver.
There are benefits to being labelled “climate smart” beyond just good PR: it can help you earn state-funded grants and give you access to networking and trainings. And of course, taking community-wide environmental action comes with the added perks of saving money, becoming more resilient to weather events, preserving local biodiversity, and upkeeping attractive green spaces for local residents to enjoy.
To date, over 300 New York communities have registered for the CSC program, including counties, towns, cities, and villages. 51 communities have been at least bronze-level certified, with 4 earning the prestigious silver certification. All told, climate smart communities account for more than 8.7 million New York residents!
Which leads us to one community that just earned their bronze certification: Rhinebeck, New York.
How Rhinebeck Got Bronze Certified
The first step toward becoming certified as a climate-smart community is to set up a CSC task force with a coordinator to lead the charge. Vanessa Bertozzi took over in 2019 as Rhinebeck Village’s CSC coordinator, helping to organize volunteers who would make up the task force.
“As a community, we already had so many people who cared about these issues,” Vanessa told us. “It has really been a matter of organizing and harnessing that energy to steer the village in the right direction.”
The task force built out a website and social media to spread awareness about the importance of climate resilience in Rhinebeck. They began hosting monthly task force meetings at Village Hall, with all local residents welcome to join and offer input. And they got to work on a variety of initiatives to reduce emissions and prepare the village for future consequences of a changing climate.
It hasn’t been a walk in the park. Here are a few of the actions Rhinebeck has undertaken—some in the past year and some over the past decade—which paved the way to their bronze status:
- Assessed their village fleet, their watershed, and their climate vulnerability, among other items, to establish a baseline for needed future improvements
- Upgraded outdoor and indoor lighting across the town; in fact, today more than 90% of municipally-owned buildings’ interior lights (and 76% of outdoor lights) have been switched to LED
- Installed solar on the Rhinebeck Village Town Hall
- Engaged the community through educational public events, PR, and publications
- Installed charging stations for electric vehicles
- Made the village more walkable by expanding key sidewalks
- Implemented village recycling in public places
- Ran public food waste presentations
- Built key partnerships with other nearby municipalities to reduce the costs associated with environmental action and to leverage political impact, such as through the Hudson 7
Along with a host of other initiatives, each of these actions contributed to Rhinebeck’s accrual of 135 points, 15 more than the 120 required for bronze certification by the CSC program.
How To Make Being Climate-Smart Fun
“The challenge is cutting through the noise to get people to stop and listen,” Vanessa told us.
Anyone working on environmental initiatives can relate. People are busy. They usually don’t have time to stop and focus on new initiatives. Climate action is often inconvenient. It requires changing habits, reshaping perspectives, and reprioritizing.
So people need to be motivated. And making climate action fun helps a lot with that.
New York is trying to help out here by gamifying the climate-smart communities program – with a concrete list of measurable steps, points, medals, climate action transforms from a nebulous call for change into a friendly competition for good.
That’s exactly the type of motivation that fueled Rhinebeck, led primarily by its public schools, to join the Drawdown eco-challenge in 2019. They finished second out of over 1,000 global team entrants. Now they’re seizing upon that kind of momentum with events and opportunities that expand interest to residents of all ages and backgrounds.
“One of our task members is in high school,” Vanessa told us. “She reminded us that, while it’s great that we collaborate with the library to host lectures, we need to do more to engage younger people. When I asked her how, she proposed ideas like a clothing swap, or planting pollinator gardens.”
Rhinebeck youth have done a climate strike, have raised questions about the schools’ use of disposable utensils, and have expressed interest in starting a pollinator garden. “More and more what we are trying to do is create activities where people can learn about something, meet other like-minded people, and get some real hands-on work done that they can apply to their own lives,” Vanessa said.
Being part of a community is fun – and so is doing work that you know is good for the planet. The Village of Rhinebeck is harnessing the power of feel-good teamwork to make an impact on the future.
The Future of Climate Smart Communities
Rhinebeck’s journey isn’t done yet; now that they’ve achieved bronze-level certification, they have silver to look forward to. Of course, getting to the next level takes some tougher action, with priorities from a full greenhouse gas emissions report to a municipal government environmentally-preferable purchasing policy.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other New York communities are working on their own certifications. Of 307 registered communities within the program, 256 have yet to earn bronze. Step by step, and with the support of state incentives, community-level action will accumulate. As more villages, towns, and counties succeed, they build a model of success for others to follow.
The result will be twofold: the effects of climate change will be lessened, and the towns that have prepared will be ready to deal with the consequences that do come.