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The biggest issue of 2023

As we bid farewell to 2023, a year marked by global upheavals such as conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, and internal threats to democracy, the task of pinpointing the most pressing issue becomes a formidable challenge. Yet, when evaluating the threat that affects the largest swathes of humanity, the accelerating climate crisis emerges as the paramount concern. 

The past eight years are already the hottest on record. It is expected that 2023 will be the hottest in human recorded history. The hotter climate drove extremes around the world in 2023. For example, Phoenix, Arizona saw 54 days of 110 degree temperatures or more, a new record. Unfortunately, it wasn’t only the Southwest that endured brutal heat waves: China, southern Europe and Latin America also saw intense heat. There were also the devastating wildfires in Hawaii

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Africa, Asia and South America all had their warmest Novembers on record. North America had its second-warmest November, while Pacific Island nations comprising Oceania had their fifth-warmest November. 

The toll of climate change wasn't confined to far-flung areas; the northeastern United States faced its own share of climate-related disasters. New York was plagued with terrible air quality, at one point air that turned orange kept many indoors, thanks to unprecedented Canadian wildfires

Deadly storms rocked the state; with serious flooding upstate, including the Adirondacks, and downstate, including Long Island and New York City. There can be no doubt that as the climate warms, these types of storms will worsen

The escalation of such storms is an undeniable consequence of a warming climate. 

Here in New York, the economic ramifications are substantial. A study by New York State Comptroller DiNapoli revealed that over a ten-year span, more than half of New York localities' municipal spending outside of New York City was or will be linked to climate change. New York City may need to spend around $100 billion to upgrade its sewer systems to withstand intensified storms. And those costs are on top of the$52 billion that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated it will cost to protect New York Harbor from rising sea levels and storms. Estimates suggest that Long Island alone could incur up to $100 billion in climate-related costs. 

These financial burdens are projected to escalate, potentially reaching $10 billion annually for New Yorkers by the middle of the century. 

Recognizing the untenable situation, 100 local elected officials in New York recently advocated for a legislative measure compelling major oil companies to contribute to climate-related expenses. This proposed legislation would demand these companies, responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, to pay apportioned fees totaling $3 billion annually. The legislation aims to prevent these costs from being shifted onto the public, as confirmed by an independent think tank’s analysis

However, despite these concerns, the Hochul Administration appears inclined to pass climate-related costs onto the taxpayers, with over $2 billion pledged for climate projects over the past year. 

There are forces that are doing all they can to undermine the steps needed to address the worsening climate crisis. They slavishly followed the lead of the fossil fuel industry and for years argued that climate change was a hoax. We now know that the oil industry knew for years that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to a climate catastrophe, but they chose to mislead the public instead of helping the world to avoid the situation that we’re in now. 

Their supporters have now started to shed the “hoax” argument instead describing science-based environmental measures as “radical” and “unaffordable.” Inaction in this area equals maintaining a disastrous – and worsening – status quo. The urgency of the climate crisis calls for decisive action and dismissing environmental measures as "radical" or "unaffordable" perpetuates a perilous status quo. 

As we step into the new year, we all must hope that among Governor Hochul's resolutions is a commitment to maintaining New York's leadership in transitioning to a renewable energy-powered economy and to also hold corporate climate polluters accountable for the mess they have contributed to.

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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