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Lawmakers make another run at protecting tropical rainforests

When it comes to the worsening climate catastrophe that we are living through, the news just keeps getting worse. Last week, it was reported that the world’s leading climate scientists expect global temperatures to rise to at least 2.5oC (4.5oF) by the end of this century. Many of the scientists see a “semi-dystopian” future, with famines, conflicts and mass migration, driven by heatwaves, wildfires, floods and storms that will intensify over time. 

There are many reasons why their pessimism is warranted. Fundamentally, far too little is being done to shift the planet away from its reliance on fossil fuels in the face of ideological and partisan opposition. 

There is no “magic bullet” to turn the tide. It will take a comprehensive approach that touches upon all aspects of modern life. Accomplishing what needs to be done will take political courage and leadership from elected officials at all levels of government. 

Protecting the world’s rainforests is one of those essential measures. Trees and other forms of vegetation are critical tools in fighting the climate crisis – they serve as natural carbon sinks, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and help keep the planet cool. 

However, deforestation of tropical forests is worsening the global climate crisis. It has been estimated that global loss of tropical forests contributes approximately 20% of global carbon emissions annually. 

An area of 18 million acres, more than half the size of New York State, is lost every year due to deforestation. Not only is this contributing to global warming, but it also contributes to violations of indigenous land rights in many countries and loss of habitat for hundreds of animal species. 

Last year New York lawmakers decided to do what the state could to help combat tropical deforestation. The legislation that was advanced would ensure that New York does not contribute to these harmful practices by limiting the purchasing of tropical hardwoods. Advocates cited the fact that as the eleventh largest economy in the world, New York State’s purchasing power is an important tool in helping to stop deforestation. 

The legislation was approved by the state Assembly and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support last year. 115 Assemblymembers voted in support of the bill. In the Senate the margin was 42-19. Both margins were “veto-proof” majorities, meaning that the votes could be there to overturn a gubernatorial veto. 

A joint statement by the Senate sponsor and an Ecuadorian indigenous leader noted: “Yet despite our different contexts, we are united on a mission to stop deforestation in the world’s tropical forests — a critical effort to defend frontline communities, protect biodiversity, and curb the climate emergency.” The legislation had a diverse coalition in support. 

Despite those huge legislative margins and widespread support, Governor Hochul vetoed the legislation. Hochul’s veto memo cited the bill’s burdensome impacts on businesses — “particularly small businesses.” But it was big businesses who hired the lobbyists to oppose the bill. 

Instead of voting to override the governor’s veto, this year lawmakers are instead moving a narrower version of it. Seemingly, both houses are set to act soon since the bills are currently “live” and on the Senate and Assembly floors awaiting action. 

New York has taken significant actions to address climate change within the state’s borders, although there is much that still needs to be done. The legislation to protect tropical rainforests is a tangible contribution that New York can make to address the larger, global issue. To combat tropical deforestation, the bill closes loopholes in existing law to more effectively limit the purchase of tropical hardwoods, as well as to require contractors doing business with the state to certify that goods derived wholly or in part from tropical forest-risk commodities and sold to a state agency or authority are not contributing to tropical primary forest degradation or tropical deforestation. 

This year, lawmakers should anticipate that the governor will continue to have problems with the bill – even if they hope she will not. Since the bills are poised to be acted upon, quick passage coupled with a decision to immediately send the bill to the governor could force her to make a decision while the Legislature is still in session. Under New York’s rules, once the governor receives legislation, she has ten days to act. Passage of this legislation this week could create a scenario in which those big legislative majorities could act to overturn a bad decision. 

That action would reward the hard work of advocates and lawmakers, but most importantly send a clear message that New York wants to help to protect the world’s rainforests because they protect us.

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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