Hope and Resilience in the Face of Climate Change: My Year at the Hudson River Estuary Program
Clifton Staples is a graduate student at the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College in New York. When he's not studying, he works for Cornell University in conjunction with the Hudson River Estuary Program building resilience to climate change in the Hudson Valley.
When most people think of climate change, they imagine things like starving polar bears on thinning sea ice, or a wreck of debris after a major hurricane on the Gulf Coast. This is certainly one aspect of the climate crisis. However, there’s another more personal and immediate reality unfolding every day across small-town America.
Flooding, extreme heat, and drought are occurring more frequently and are the everyday kind of hazards that affect people’s lives. All of this might sound rather depressing, and indeed, it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude in the face of all these changes, but I would argue not impossible.
Seeing the Climate Crisis from Inside
After working for one year on the Climate Resiliency team at the Hudson River Estuary Program, I’ve had the privilege to see another side of the Climate Crisis, one marked by the dedication and passion of all the people who have mobilized to fight this crisis. And out of this tremendous effort, sometimes beautiful ideas are born.
The Estuary Program is an offshoot of the NY Department of Environmental Conservation focused on the health of both people and ecosystems in the Hudson River Estuary, which runs from NYC in the south to the Troy Dam in the north. The Estuary Program is located in the New Paltz field office and contains many sub-programs and teams, including the Trees for Tribs program, the Watershed team, environmental educators, fish and wildlife, among others.
As a member of the Climate Resiliency team, it’s been my job, along with my colleagues, to work with Hudson River waterfront communities in preparing for the increased flooding, extreme heat, and drought associated with climate change. According to our own numbers, the combined estimated damage for prominent waterfront communities in the Hudson Valley is $483 million from just today’s 1 percent chance flood. That’s not even accounting for the projected 60 inches of Sea Level Rise we could see by year 2080 in the Hudson Valley. Extreme heat events are also on the rise, like the heat wave that swept the U.S. on July 20 of this year (2019), causing brownouts and dangerous conditions in cities across the nation.
With risks like these on the rise, you might imagine trying to prepare for a more dangerous future could be downright depressing. But while it’s true being inundated with these kinds of statistics and stories can be challenging, the front lines of the Climate Crisis are actually a very inspiring place to work, and are a showcase for the kind of resilience, innovation, and grit that are the best aspects of humanity.
Projects like the Climate-adaptive Design Studio Bring Hope
A good example of this from the Estuary Program is the successful Climate-adaptive Design Studio (CaD) in partnership with Cornell’s Department of Landscape Architecture. Every semester, the Climate Resiliency team coordinates a landscape design studio that places landscape architecture students from Cornell in waterfront communities in the Hudson Valley to re-imagine their waterfronts in the face of rising sea levels.
This effort is truly collaborative, and has been a real-life lesson in the types of stakeholder engagement strategies I learned as a graduate student at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy.
Image Credit: Luyao Kong, Hong Gao, and Qianli Feng
The final result of this semester-long studio is a series of re-imagined landscapes, complete with innovative new approaches to waterfront development that incorporate features like constructed wetlands, kayak launches, permeable pavement, flood-adapted buildings, and many more. One design even went so far as to imagine a completely new channel through which a part of the Hudson River could flow in Kingston.
Sometimes it might seem that the Climate Crisis is beyond our ability to cope. I understand that sentiment, but after this internship I feel a lot more hopeful about our ability to fight back. And to those of you out there feeling powerless, I would invite you to look at something like the Climate-adaptive Design Studio. Because while the Climate Crisis certainly brings new challenges, and is changing the way we live, it will also inspire new solutions to those challenges, and new ideas that could improve the way we live.