The fate of our warming planet, in light of the United Nations’ dire report last week on the acceleration of climate change, was very much on the minds of environmentalists at this year’s New York League of Conservation Voters congressional candidate forum in Riverhead Monday night.
Throughout the evening, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin highlighted his work helping allocate federal money for local environmental causes, while his Democratic challenger this November, Perry Gershon, expressed concern for the direction the Trump administration is taking federal environmental regulatory agencies.
The room at Suffolk County Community College’s downtown Culinary Arts building was filled to its legal capacity, with many people left outside because they had not registered in advance to attend the event.
While this is the first forum this fall at which both candidates were slated to appear, the longstanding format of NYLCV forums, in which each candidate answers questions during a block of time, without the other candidate in the room, was followed for this event.
Most of the questions asked by the three-member panel, comprised of Louise Harrison from Save the Sound, Kevin McAllister from Defend H2O and Adrienne Esposito from Citizens Campaign for the Environment, focused on national issues that are also important locally. And climate change was at the forefront of their concerns.
Ms. Esposito asked the candidates what they would do about the administration’s focus on “eviscerating clean air and climate protection” and its support for fossil fuels and coal.
“When the Trump administration puts through a policy that’s counter to federal law, or even counter to federal norms, Congress has a right to hold a hearing,” said Mr. Gershon. “That’s what happens when we have a Congress that’s properly putting a check on the Executive Branch. For whatever reason, the current House of Representatives is not doing that. We need to get numbers in Congress that will stand up to the president.”
“We need to make sure the EPA is doing what the EPA is supposed to do,” he said. “The abuses that went on under Scott Pruitt were atrocious, and not just for the environment, he was abusing money and Congress did nothing about it.”
“We don’t have time to let the temperature of the planet continue to rise,” he added. “We need to get back into the Paris Climate Accord. We need to take appropriate steps before it’s too late.”
“The Clean Water Act has been a bipartisan success for decades,” said Mr. Zeldin. “Making sure the Clean Air Act is working well, for its intended purpose, the state has a very important role. The federal government’s role is primarily oversight. A lot of these standards get set on a state-by-state basis.”
“I believe that it’s hugely important to ensure that we have stringent standards, to be able to provide clean air and clean water for Long Islanders and for people across the entire country,” he added. “We have to be smart about how we do it. We have to set ambitious goals but they also have to be attainable goals. We don’t want to end up causing the cost of electricity to double because we set a goal that we weren’t able to attain.”
Ms. Harrison, of Save the Sound, reminded the candidates of the legacy of conservationist president Theodore Roosevelt, who preserved more than 230 million acres of public land during his time in office.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” she said, quoting Henry David Thoreau, then asked the candidates to weigh in what that quote means to them, and on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s current focus on divestiture of public land.
Mr. Gershon focused in his response on the plan to allow oil drilling off the U.S. coastline.
“We can’t allow the selling of federal lands, and we can’t allow offshore coastal exploration, which is, by extension, the same thing,” he said. “In the last 18 months, [Department of Interior] Secretary [Ryan] Zinke authorized offshore coastal drilling in the Atlantic Seaboard. That’s a problem. Lee Zeldin has spoken up against it, at least as it pertains to Long Island…. Florida got an exemption. Lee Zeldin’s hoping he’ll get an exemption for Long Island. But that’s not the way to deal with a problem…. The problem is that we’re selling off our coastal seaboard for exploration. We need to stop all Atlantic coastal exploration…. We shouldn’t be pushing American crude oil. We should be pushing alternative energy.”
Mr. Gershon added that Mr. Zeldin hadn’t signed on to a letter from numerous members of Congress asking Secretary Zinke to call off drilling on the entire Atlantic Seaboard.
“That’s the letter that you should sign if you want to fight offshore oil drilling,” he said. “Obviously we care more about our own backyard, but it’s a problem for the entire country.”
Mr. Zeldin said that there are battles out west over property rights that “we’re not familiar with here on the East End.”
He touted his work on the effort to preserve Plum Island, continuing to use the research infrastructure there, while keeping the 90 percent that is undeveloped in its natural state, with more public access to the island. He added that there has been “some interest from the state” to take over the island.
“There are some in Congress who want to sell off more land. They remain very much in the minority, but it’s an important voice, especially when you’re trying to pass something and get it through the Senate in unanimous consent,” he said. “You only need one senator to block it.”
He added that he is hoping Congress will work soon to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, in place since 1964, which expired at the end of September.
Mr. McAllister, of Defend H2O, asked the candidates about what they would do about future coastal zone management, in light of last year’s new New York Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines to plan for 16 to 30 inches of sea level rise in the next 40 years. Sea level here has risen just 4 inches in the past 40 years.
“With respect to areas that are vulnerable to coastal inundation — Fire Island, Dune Road, Hashamomuck and lower Mastic Beach, I would submit that it’s not possible to throw sand at it,” said Mr. McAllister. “I would like to know your thoughts on adapting to sea level rise, looking out several generations.”
“I don’t want, in the meantime, downtown Montauk to fall into the water,” said Mr. Zeldin. “Hashamomuck Cove, it’s in pretty bad shape. In some of the areas, the beach is gone…. When there’s an overwash, just south of the Mastic peninsula, you should address that overwash because of the consequences of not having an emergency project done, in order to protect people, lives, their homes.”
“Coastal resiliency needs to be part of this as well,” he added. “We have overdeveloped on the coast, which has contributed to a lot of the problems that we have.”
Mr. Zeldin added that 4,400 homes are going to be raised as part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Fire Island to Montauk Point project.
“Some people might suggest, the further away that you live from our great congressional district… to move inland,” he said. “Rising tides, they would say, that’s on you. You chose to live on the water…. I actually do believe the sand replenishment projects, some of them are really important.”
“ We also should be rewarding mitigation with reductions in flood insurance,” he added. “There are many things we should be doing, instead of telling all our constituents that they need to leave.”
“The reality is, long-term, as sea levels rise, we’re going to need to move further back away from the shore,” said Mr. Gershon. “You can put Band-Aids on as much as you want. Sandbags — they work sometimes, they don’t work sometimes.”
“The storms seam to be bigger than we predict them. We’ve found that out the past two years,” he added. “The answer is to move back. Where the shoreline is today is not where the shoreline is going to be tomorrow, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we’re going to be able to deal with the future.”
“Having said all that,” he added, “I’m an optimist, and the steps we should be taking to make our future better are to fight climate change. Let’s get back into the Paris Accords. Let’s move the world and the country on to clean energy technology. We should be supporting solar. We should be supporting wind. We should be giving more incentives, at a federal, state and county level for people to put solar panels on their roofs. There’s no reason for any roof in Suffolk County that has a southern exposure not to have solar panels on it. The government’s job should be to encourage clean energy.”
Ms. Esposito asked the candidates for their views on the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has stricken references to climate change from its 2018-2022 Strategic Action Plan.
Mr. Zeldin said he believes climate change must be part of FEMA’s planning goals, and added that Defense Secretary James Mattis, in his confirmation hearings, “talked about the importance of continuing to work strategically” on climate issues.
Mr. Zeldin added that he is one of the Republicans who voted against an amendment that would strike that language from a defense bill.
“As a consequence, the Department of Defense is able to continue their mission,” he said. “That was Mattis’s ask of Congress.”
“The President, who was on TV last night with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, denied climate change,” said Mr. Gershon. “Regardless of what the president says, we as a country must have a strategic plan to fight climate change.”
“We need to take steps to be ready,” he added. “We need to understand what is happening to deal with it.”
Election Day is Nov. 6.