After four years of federal inaction, climate activists are pushing for action on the single-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, transportation accounts for over a quarter of the total and it is growing. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, for the last 30 years, emissions from transportation increased more than any other category. In East Hampton Town, transportation is clearly on the minds of a committee that drafted the town board’s recent climate emergency declaration.
The nonbinding statement is an ambitious outline of steps that East Hampton could take to “green” itself. As a model, town governments should make reducing greenhouse gas emissions a “guiding principle” in everything it does. It specifically lists all policy, purchasing, and all planning and zoning decisions as areas that should be viewed through this lens. What this would be in practice is not spelled out, but if taken at its word, it would require massive shifts. Transportation would obviously be at the top of the list.
Despite decades of effort, East Hampton Town has not been able to adequately curtail development. There are now more and larger houses than the land itself can accommodate, especially in terms of water pollution. The resort industry has boomed at the same time, with short-term vacation rentals, though mostly illegal, allowed to flourish. Existing hotels have been expanded, again, sometimes without proper oversight. And with the replacement of mom-and-pop shops with high-end chain stores, residents have to drive elsewhere for necessities, such as clothing, or depend on parcel delivery by trucks and vans.
All of this has created an ever-expanding demand for services beyond what locally based tradespeople can supply. The dreaded trade parade of work vehicles backed up on the Sunrise Highway and winding through South Fork villages and hamlets is itself a serious source of greenhouse gases. And, as electrical demand falls elsewhere on Long Island, it is growing on the South Fork, meaning that for the time being, there are greater demands on pollution-causing sources of power.
For town officials, bringing policy and land-use decision making into conformity with the climate declaration might require a massive about-face. This will call for far more than just requiring green technology on new residential construction and sprinkling a few Tesla-charging stations around. Growth would have to be capped, and existing laws enforced to the letter in order to dial back emissions-causing activity.
We are not convinced that closing East Hampton Airport would make much of a difference, as some activists have claimed. Though the heavy use by jets and helicopters are important sources of emissions, it is likely that the air traffic would shift elsewhere, with no net positive impact at a global scale.
East Hampton Town has set a goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy use by 2030. If it is going to get even close over the next nine years, bold action must begin immediately.