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The climate culture war comes to New York

The fight over how New York should address the worsening climate crisis has hit a fevered pitch at the state Capitol as lawmakers debate the state budget. Embedded in the state Senate’s “one house” budget is a series of initiatives to match New York’s climate goals with policies to achieve them. Most notably, a plan to mandate that new buildings constructed later this decade would have to be powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels, like gas, was advanced by the Senate, the Assembly, and the governor.

Opponents have launched a well-financed counter-offensive to stall these measures as part of a national strategy to protect the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry and their utility allies.

The industry’s counter strategy hinges on a few talking points that get repeated over and over, the cornerstone of any effective propaganda campaign.

First, opponents always state that they do believe that the climate is changing so they can neuter criticism that they don’t believe in science. It is, after all, well-documented that the planet is heating up and in a way that poses an existential threat to civilization as we know it.

Second, opponents use culture war language to attack the policies that are being advanced as well as attack the supporters of those policies. Front groups funded by the fossil fuel industry, and their ideological allies, will repeat that climate protection policies are “radical” and that supporters are “zealots.” The head-in-the-sand crowd instead repeatedly raises the specter of huge costs to be borne by utility ratepayers and the public at large in an effort to shift the conversation away from climate to one of costs.

The opponents’ campaign is comprehensive and well-funded. It seeks to stoke fear and build anger among the public. Their goal is to bamboozle the public enough that they ignore the looming threat posed by a rapidly heating planet.

In order to respond, let’s first start with the science.

First, there is no scientific doubt that the planet is heating up to a level that poses a threat to human civilization and the health of all species. Moreover, the world’s climate science experts agree that human activity is driving this heating. Primarily the burning of fossil fuels, oil, gas, and coal, plus the methane emissions from the extraction and transportation of gas supplies, are at the heart of those human activities fueling global climate changes.

Second, the world’s climate science experts have issued dire warnings, most recently last week, that unless we shift to powering the world through non-fossil fuels, the climate may reach a tipping point of no return.

Third, there is broad agreement about what should be done. The world agreed to a target of keeping the global heat increase at no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above what it was before 1900. While that doesn’t sound like much, the increase to date has triggered sea level rise, more intense storms, unprecedented wildfires, famine, and violence across the planet. Exceeding the 2.7-degree limit will undoubtedly result in far more damage. Beyond that point, scientists say, the impacts of catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures and species extinction become significantly harder for humanity to handle.

The world’s experts have stated that public policies will need to make an immediate and drastic shift away from fossil fuels to prevent the planet from overheating dangerously beyond that level. Specifically, in order to avert climate disaster is the need for immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors of the economy. According to the scientists, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 43% by 2030. And the world must meet a goal of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Those goals track New York’s 2019 climate law; hardly a “radical” idea if state public policies are following the best science.

Last year tied with 2015 as the fifth hottest year on record with human-driven greenhouse gas emissions rebounding after a short dip in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis from NASA. Additionally, NASA researchers reported that the past nine years have been the warmest years since modern record-keeping began in 1880. It is virtually certain that the trend will continue.

There can be no doubt that we will all have to sacrifice in order to avert the worst of climate changes. But we cannot follow the people who lied about the dangers of the burning of oil, coal, and gas to again bamboozle us about the direction of public policy. In fact, those industries should be on the financial hook since they have, and continue to do, all they can to undermine climate policies designed to save lives and the planet.

The Senate package considers that too and puts the world’s largest oil companies on the hook for some of the state’s future climate costs.

As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Let’s make sure that the fossil fuel industry and their mouthpieces are not able to block science-based climate policy in New York.

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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