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Blair Horner: New York Needs To Lead On Climate Change

In a year of much bad news – both in New York and across the world – something positive has happened.  In Paris, France 195 countries met to hammer out an agreement to commit to curbing global warming.

The agreement adopted a target for limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. If that were to be achieved, it would likely ward off some of the most severe effects of climate change.

Proponents argue that this agreement sends a clear message that much of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves must stay in the ground.  The agreement allows that at least some fossil fuels can continue to burn, as long as a larger number of “greenhouse sinks,” like new forests, absorbs the greenhouse gas emissions.

The agreement requires nations every five years to review how well they are on target for the emission reductions.  Also every five years, starting in 2018, the United Nations will “take stock” of the pledges to see how much progress has been made in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and limiting the increase in the temperature of the planet. 

But the agreement is voluntary.  

Here in the U.S., the agreement makes it difficult for Congressional opponents to derail the deal – for example, the Administration argues that since the agreement is voluntary, it does not bind the United States to a course of action.  In addition, since the Paris accord is tied to a previous agreement (approved during the Bush 1 Administration), the Obama Administration argues that they have the authority to carry out climate commitments without going to the Congress for approval.

But Congressional opposition continues to exist.  Powerful members of Congress not only oppose the agreement, some don’t even believe the science documenting that global warming is occurring largely as the result of human activities.

While the Obama Administration has done all it can to keep the agreement in force, the Congressional opposition – and disbelief in scientific fact – could undermine the Paris accord.

Given that the deal is voluntary, a new President who does not believe in the science of climate change could work to undermine the agreement.  If he or she succeeded, the limited progress achieved under the Paris agreement could be weakened.

And the world cannot afford a weaker agreement.

With nearly every nation having now promised to gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, much of the burden for keeping those promises shifts back to the countries to take the steps needed to deliver on their pledges.

While national actions are important in the U.S., the ongoing Congressional opposition makes it important for state actions to help build support for policies that boost reliance on alternative energy sources and which seek to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

New York State must be such a leader. 

New York is developing a plan to make its energy grid “smarter.” Under the current utility structure, the power sector in New York is on track to spend an estimated $30 billion to replace and modernize the state’s aging energy infrastructure over the next decade. 

The Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative recognizes that the existing energy model is unsustainable and that the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the long term environmental and public health degradation caused by continued reliance on antiquated technology requires a wholesale transformation of the state’s energy systems.  REV offers a unique opportunity for New York State to create a new, national model for generating, distributing and using energy while reducing the emissions that fuel global climate change.

The Paris accord is on the books.  Now is the time for action – and New York’s REV process could offer the nation a way toward a more efficient and greener energy future.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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