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Albany fiddles while Canada burns (and we gasp)

Last week, Albany was a tale of two “cities.” Outside the Capitol building, Capital District residents and much of upstate gasped for air, stunned by the dystopian scenes of an orange air mass enveloping downstate New York due to the toxic smoke plumes from the incredible wildfires plaguing Canada.

Inside the Capitol, was another story altogether. Many lawmakers, while not oblivious to the “smoke bomb” that had hit New York, were unwilling to take on the policy challenges that the unprecedented wildfires presented.

Governor Hochul to her credit urged New Yorkers to stay indoors, wear masks if venturing outside, and dispatched firefighters to help the Canadians.

While the smoke surely focused New Yorkers on the rising dangers from climate change, the impacts on many were immediate and tangible. Flights were cancelled, businesses took a hit, schools closed, and those with underlying health conditions suffered. In New York City, for example, hospitals saw twice as many asthma ER visits as toxic air blanketed the city.

What’s happening in Canada is unprecedented: So far, more than 2,300 fires have consumed over 9 million acres of forest, far higher than the roughly 650,000 acres that burn, on average, by this point in the season.

Governor Hochul’s public actions urging safety and deploying resources to help Canada are appropriate, but at best short-term responses. The “smoke bomb” of June is likely to be followed by a “heat bomb” later this summer under which New Yorkers will suffer. Then hurricane season follows that. Next year will be more of the same, but likely more intense.

All of those difficulties will cost New York taxpayers – and cost them big. Rising sea levels, hotter temperatures, more disease and illnesses, additional costs and stress to our health system, damage from more intense storms are all on the horizon. Right now, New Yorkers are on the hook for all of those costs.

Despite the governor’s rightful efforts to protect the public last week, it was her Administration that earlier this year blocked a Senate plan in the state budget that would have shifted those costs onto the fabulously profitable biggest oil companies.

Yup, you heard that right: The governor killed that effort.

In reaction to the “smoke bomb” last week, the state Senate did respond and approved legislation that would have shifted the costs onto the oil companies – again. But this time the opposition came from the Assembly leadership. Despite the scores of members who supported the legislation, the Assembly chose to block the measure from a floor vote.

In both cases, the public is the one getting stiffed as a result of the decisions made by the governor and then the Assembly leadership.

As mentioned earlier, the costs to New Yorkers of the climate crisis will be enormous. Experts estimate climate change will cost New Yorkers over $100 billion over the next decade, but that estimate does not include damages from wildfire smoke. New Yorkers have already been on the hook for $800 million in climate-related costs this year alone. A report by the think tank Rebuild by Design estimated that the climate costs to New York could be $55 billion by the end of this decade. Furthermore, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineersestimated that it would cost $52 billion to protect NY Harbor alone. As storms get worse, sea levels rise further and surface waters pose a higher risk of flooding -we don’t even really know what the price tag will ultimately be. Clearly, New York is facing growing – and staggering – climate costs.

The legislation that attempted to shift the costs from taxpayers to Big Oil, is known as the Climate Change Superfund Act. That legislation is modeled on the existing toxics superfund law (which deals with land and drinking water contamination) and would make corporate climate polluters financially responsible for the environmental damage that they have caused. The bill builds in protections so these costs wouldn’t fall back on consumers, according toan analysis from the think tank Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU Law.     

Yet inside the Capitol “bubble,” despite the efforts of the state Senate, this commonsense legislation was blocked. New Yorkers’ tax bills will continue to rise to cover the mushrooming costs of climate change.

Voters should let lawmakers know how they feel about footing the bill for the damage caused by Big Oil. It is expected that the Assembly will return later this month. When they do let them know that Big Oil should pay.

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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