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Blair Horner: Holding Climate Change Policymakers Accountable

Last week, western North America suffered through a record-breaking heat wave.  In the month of June, nearly 90 percent of the western US was in a state of drought made worse by climate change.  Lakes have been at historically low levels and restrictions were imposed on water use across the region.  Canada is getting hit too.  As one Canadian climatologist commented, “I like to break a record, but this is like shattering and pulverizing them.  It’s warmer in parts of western Canada than in Dubai.”

Records being set in the western United States are equally impressive.  For example, Phoenix hit a record-breaking 118 degrees last week.  Tacoma Washington hit triple digits for only the third time since 1945.  CBS News described it as “Pacific Northwest bakes under once in a millennium heat dome.”

Alarmingly, according to the world’s experts, the worst is yet to come. In a leaked draft report that became public last week, the world’s experts in climate change painted a devastating picture of what is to come unless aggressive actions are immediately undertaken.  The draft report, prepared by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predicted that millions of people worldwide are in for a disastrous future of hunger, drought, disease, and massive dislocation. 

According to media outlets, the report stated that "Climate change will fundamentally reshape life on Earth in the coming decades, even if humans can tame planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.”  The report, due to be released in final form next year, predicted that "The worst is yet to come, affecting our children's and grandchildren's lives much more than our own."

Even though it is well-known that global warming is fueling both the record heat and the growing droughts across the world, the IPCC draft report carried a punch.  The report makes clear that unless the world takes immediate actions, rising sea levels will threaten coastlines and major cities, many species of life on Earth will become extinct, and devastating heat waves will make parts of the world unlivable causing widespread famine and disease.

Action must be taken.

Here in New York, the state has set aggressive goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to shift power generation to non-fossil fuel sources.  In 2019, a state law was approved that established a road map for responding to the growing crisis by requiring:

  • net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050;
  • 70% of electricity be generated by renewable sources by 2030;
  • new efficiency targets for reducing energy use in buildings; and,
  • massive increases in the reliance of solar and wind power as well as a mandate to dramatically boost energy storage capacity.

While those are the types of goals that the world must adopt to avert a climate catastrophe, such a plan must have broad public support in order to succeed.  To build that support, these goals need to be in sync with the reality of the state’s performance, so that New Yorkers know the state is doing everything it can to protect their health and their future.
Unfortunately, New York has had a poor track record when it comes to matching its impressive rhetoric with its real performance.  For example, in 2009 New York set a goal of generating 45% of its power from solar and wind by the year 2015.  Today New York only gets approximately 5% of its electricity from wind and solar.

In order to build public support and to hold officials accountable, a monitoring system must be developed.  New York – and every government – should create an open, scientifically verifiable, “report card” that allows the public to understand how well government is doing in moving toward its climate goals.  For example, in New York, for the state to have 70% of its power generated by renewable sources in eight and a half years, it must show its annual movement in that direction.  New York currently generates 27% of its power from renewable sources (if hydropower is considered renewable).  Thus, the state must expand its reliance on alternative sources by approximately 5% annually.  How will New Yorkers know?

In the two years since it set its aggressive climate goals, it is still difficult for New Yorkers to discern what progress, if any, the state has made towards those goals, and how far it still needs to go.  NYPIRG recently released a review of the state’s goals and how far it has yet to go, but getting access to the data was difficult and incomplete.

The incomplete picture it painted was that New York is not on pace to achieve its goals.  With so much at stake, New York – and the world – must set significant climate protecting goals and establish a way for their performance to be measured.

Blair Horner is executive 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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