Fire and Rain; the devastation of climate change

Staff reports
The Chronicle Express

This year, COVID prevented my husband, children, and me from taking our yearly family trip to visit grandparents in Colorado. We usually fly out, spend a few days at my parents’ farm on the Eastern plains, then drive through the stark splendor of perfectly flat grasslands into regal mountains that suddenly rear up, reaching powerful peaks to the sky. 

N.Y. Senate candidate Leslie Danks Burke

This year, when my children should have been getting their annual lesson from my dad in how to carefully lower the tractor’s front-loader bucket to turn over acreage, or hiking a mountain with my husband’s parents, we instead watched in horror from 2,000 miles away as a wildfire raged just across the canyon from my in-law’s home. The Grizzly Creek Fire shut down the only interstate highway across Colorado for two weeks, burning over 32,000 acres, the largest fire in the history of the White River National Forest. But it was just the first in the series of Western state wildfires that are so mind-blowingly huge this year that now, all the way out here in New York, my children and I can watch the sun setting into Cayuga Lake through the orange haze of ash spewed into the air half a continent away. 

Climate change is here, and it’s devastating. Hurricane Sally smashed into southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle. With the Gulf of Mexico warmed up, this Category 2 hurricane turned into a deluge that devastated Gulf Coast communities. 

Climate change forces our own upstate farmers to contend with unpredictable dry and wet spells. Our infrastructure, culverts, and drainage are not ready for the extreme rainfall events that are predicted for every county in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes. FEMA still hasn’t finished cleanup from the 2018 devastating flash flood that destroyed property in Lodi and other Seneca Lake communities. Tropical Storm Lee wreaked destruction along the Susquehanna in 2011. Like the devastating drought that forced 18,000 New York farmers to apply for federal disaster aid in 2016, these floods will continue to be part of our regional weather patterns. 

There’s another reason to invest in extreme-weather-resistant infrastructure here: With changing climate, our local farms and businesses will need new approaches to survive and thrive. We are fortunate to have an abundant supply of water and fertile land; with a longer growing season, farmers will need to shift to warmer weather crops that now flourish to the south of us. We also have a wealth of experts in our region to advise us, from world-class agronomists at Cornell University or master farmers who train students at our community colleges and through the Farm Bureau. While this investment might be able to buoy us for the short-term, it will eventually fail us if we do not address the root cause of climate change. Like other parts of the United States, our region will lose its battle with climate change, no matter how much we adapt. Our experts will eventually lose that fight, so we need to move quickly. 

Our politicians must curb the speed of climate change and adjust to what is irreversible. New York State should stop ignoring our region and step up right here to manufacture green energy infrastructure like solar panels, windmills, and hydropower plants to make us carbon neutral. It’s past time to upgrade our aging municipal waste-water plants and drinking systems so that they can weather the stronger, more extreme storms. We can no longer stand for state-level politicians who let dangerous deferral continue for flood mitigation projects, like dredging the flood control channel in Ithaca. Woefully outdated geological maps that inaccurately pinpoint flood plains and other areas must be updated so our engineers can work with accurate data. Local farmers need tax and regulatory cuts, so they have the technical and financial support to adjust to climate change. 

Standing on the lake with my children, watching the huge red sun sink into the horizon through ash that came from trees near their grandparents’ home 2,000 miles away, I can visibly see that our children will inhabit a very different world than the one we know. Now is the time to build the infrastructure that will let all our children navigate the warmer Earth.

Leslie Danks Burke is running to represent the rural five counties and small cities of the 58th district in the New York State Senate. She is an attorney and a longtime advocate for education, healthcare, and rural economic development.