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New York unveils its climate roadmap

The planet is rapidly heating up. The warmest years in the instrumental temperature record have occurred in the last decade, with 2016 and 2020 being the two warmest years in the period since 1850. The increasing warmth is fueling changes that have resulted in stronger storms, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, famine, and human migration.

The increasing heat is primarily driven by human activity, most notably the burning of oil, gas, and coal to power civilization.

Scientists and climate experts have urged policymakers to move away from the use of fossil fuels and move toward reliance on renewable forms of energy, powered by the sun, wind, and increased efficiencies.

Some governments have reacted to that call. Here in New York, former Governor Cuomo teamed up with former Vice President Gore in 2019 at a ceremonial bill signing to enact legislation that set up science-based, aggressive goals with the goal of slashing the state's greenhouse gas emissions 85% below what they were in 1990.

At that event, the former governor stated, "Cries for a new green movement are hollow political rhetoric if not combined with aggressive goals and a realistic plan on how to achieve them." While that legislation set aggressive goals, it did not include an implementation plan. That was left to the Climate Action Council established in the legislation.

The Council began its work two years ago and last week publicly released its plan. The 400-plus page document is expected to be approved with little or no changes at a meeting of the Council this week.

Assuming that the plan is followed, New Yorkers would see dramatic changes in their lives – from greener energy sources to the use of electricity to heat homes and buildings, and to power their vehicles.

The report spends significant time, appropriately, on ensuring that low-income and other front-line communities are adequately considered and protected as new technologies come online. These communities have suffered far more than most from the public health harm caused by air pollution. In addition, the report details plans for establishing the necessary labor transition from a workforce relying on climate damaging fossil fuel infrastructure to one that relies on green technologies. Current workers can’t be left behind.

The report also seems to endorse the continued use of New York’s Vietnam-era nuclear power plants – facilities that utility ratepayers have already spent billions in special subsidies to keep open. The plan also seems to advance the possibility of using untested and flawed technologies that promise to capture fossil fuel pollution and “sequester” it – usually in the ground. That’s been long promised but has failed to produce results at a scale that makes it a viable process.

One potentially fatal flaw in the plan is that it relies on the current roster of state agencies to do the heavy lift of running these new programs. New York’s state agencies have long suffered from fiscal neglect and are in no position, currently, to administer existing programs, much less handle gigantic new responsibilities. It is in this area that the Legislature should focus attention.

Moreover, while the report discusses at length the need for public accountability, its proposals appear to fall short. While discussing the need for annual reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, much of the public assessments of its actions occur less frequently.

Until the public has an easy-to-understand, easy-to-access dashboard that tracks the progress the state is making toward its goals, there will be insufficient accountability. After all, the climate law was approved three-and-a-half years ago and only now the required report is being released. In addition, if the plan is approved the state government has to follow its normal regulatory process. Thus, it’s possible that these plans will take time to come online, maybe in the next year or so.

Given the worsening climate catastrophe, there is no time to waste. New Yorkers need to be able to hold their climate policymakers accountable, which cannot be done without real-time information. And the government can’t deliver the goods with its existing structures.

Lastly, there was little about how much money will be needed to deal with the climate crisis. The report is about moving New York to a green future, which is necessary. But even under the best of circumstances, the state will have to spend tens of billions of dollars to respond to the rising sea levels and intense storms resulting from a hotter planet. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it will take $52 billion to protect New York Harbor alone! And that’s just a small part of mitigating projected damage – transition to renewable energy and a modern electric grid will be a huge, expensive undertaking.

So, the question remains: Who will pay for those costs? Those bills will definitely come due. An important addition to the Climate Action Plan is a strong policy signal that the polluters – the oil companies – who created this mess and long profited from it should be on the hook to pay for the cleanup. That type of justice is something we should all want.

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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