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Commentary & Opinion

Despair about events, or act to change them?

It’s hard not to despair considering the news. Violence around the world puts millions at risk. The war in Europe threatens to escalate. Political and racist violence feels like it could tear the nation apart. Overheated – and usually false – political rhetoric poisons the nation’s civic life.

And while all of those threats – violence, civil discord and the rise of authoritarianism – are real, none (at least not yet) pose an existential threat to humankind in the same way as the climate changes resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.

The threat posed by global warming is a real existential threat to the future of the planet – and all that inhabit it. The atmosphere is heating up and with it the temperatures of our air and water. Last week, it was reported that temperatures in the Indian peninsula are hitting record highs.

In a region of 1.5 billion people, triple digit temperatures are baking India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. For India, this past April was the hottest in 122 years and followed the hottest March on record. For Pakistan, it was the hottest April in 61 years. Nighttime temperatures are staying in the 90s, granting little relief for the overheated.

The sweltering weather has reportedly killed at least 25 people in India and 65 people in Pakistan, though the true number of casualties is likely much higher. Even birds are getting heat stroke. Hundreds of birds have been sent to animal hospitals during deadly heat waves. One Indian animal hospital said it had treated a record number of birds for conditions such as fever, dehydration and heatstroke as temperatures rose to over 114.8oF this week.

Surging electricity demand and stress on the power grid triggered power outages for two-thirds of Indian households. Outages in Pakistan have lasted up to 12 hours, cutting off power when people need cooling the most. Without electricity, many households have lost access to water. The hot weather has also increased dust and ozone levels, leading to spikes in air pollution in major cities across the region. The heat melted mountain glaciers faster than normal, triggering flash floods in Pakistan. That heat will impact other nations too, for example the hot temperatures are threatening wheat production, which could push already rising food prices even higher around the world.

It’s just May. Those Asia subcontinent nations have to be poised to react to the summer months, when the heat could really take off.

So, it is easy to despair.

The false and hateful rhetoric that poisons our civic life cannot be allowed to drive policymaking. As the old adage goes, “denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet it is far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.”

New York State has to do the good works to “light the candle.” When it comes to strengthening its democracy, the state has to show that elections can be fairly run at the same time as it makes it easier for all those eligible to vote.

New York can take a page from the turn-of-the-20th Century Progressives and expand its independent, professional civil service system to more governmental positions, including the enforcement of elections and ethics.

It must also show how to tackle the existential threat posed by global warming. Here the state has taken important steps, such as setting scientifically-sound greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. And banning the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles by the year 2035.

Yet the false information advanced by the oil and gas industries, echoed by its witting (and unwitting) allies, are seeking to roll back those environmental goals and to block their implementation. We see it in the fight to keep expanding oil and gas pipelines and the continued reliance on gas to power new buildings, a reliance that runs directly in opposition to the state’s climate goals.

Yet reliance on electricity for powering buildings and transportation, electricity that will rely more and more on solar, wind, and geothermal sources, is the real solution, not the fake options advanced by the fossil fuel industries and their allies.

Will Albany strike the match and light the candle? Or will our elected leaders do nothing and curse the darkness? New Yorkers will know by early June.

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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