Archive for July 2019
Posted by NYPIRG on July 29, 2019 at 11:47 am
Posted by NYPIRG on July 22, 2019 at 10:57 am
Plastic pollution is a major problem for the world. Not only does plastic pollution choke
waterways, devastate sea life, and pose a health threat, but plastic
manufacturing also plays a significant role in the fight over curbing greenhouse
The crisis over the mass production and disposal of
plastic products hit home when the Chinese government made a decision in 2017
not to accept any more of our plastic waste.
China had been one of the nation’s chief dumping grounds for plastic
trash since the mid-1990s. Its refusal
to continue has forced American national, state and local governments to
grapple with the excessive amount of plastic pollution we generate.
In addition, plastic pollution has had a devastating
impact on the world’s oceans. Pictures
of sea life killed or injured by plastic products highlighted, in a way no
policy paper could, that plastic trash in the oceans poses a threat to the
animals and fish that live there.
Estimates are that by the middle of this century, there will be more
plastic than fish – by weight – in the oceans.
Plastic products can leach contaminants that pose a
public health threat. Black plastic,
used in everything from kitchen utensils to children’s toys, cellphone cases,
and thermoses, appears to be particularly dangerous. The plastic is often sourced from recycled
electronics that contain phthalates and heavy metals. Even at very low levels, these chemicals can
cause serious health problems.
The spread of single-use plastics often sold to consumers
as protection from contamination, has allowed the underlying chemicals that
make up plastics to show up in our food and water. Bottled water, sales of which are increasing in
part because people are seeking alternatives to contaminated local water
supplies, now contain plastic as well. A 2018 study found that 93 percent of
bottled water samples contained microplastics, the tiny bits of plastic that
result as plastic breaks down into smaller pieces.
Due to the rising environmental and public health threats
posed by plastics, a growing number of communities are enacting new
restrictions. In March, the European
Union voted to ban single-use plastics by 2021. In June, Canada followed suit, with its Prime
Minister pledging to not just ban single-use plastics such as bags,
straws, and cutlery, but also to hold plastics manufacturers responsible for
their waste. One hundred and forty-one
countries, including China, Bangladesh, India, and thirty-four African
nations, have implemented taxes or partial bans on plastics.
Here in the United States, eight states have enacted
plastic restrictions and more than 330 local plastic bag ordinances have passed
in 24 states. Thanks to passage of
legislation this year, New York State will ban the distribution of single-use
plastic bags in March of 2020.
The industry is now organizing itself to combat this
rising tide of new restrictions on plastics.
And here is the global warming tie in.
Plastic is almost entirely the product of fossil fuels. Plastics are derived from materials such as
cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil.
As a result, oil and gas companies are deeply engaged in the
current plastics market now worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Historically low oil and gas prices have meant
that the cost of making new plastic is very low. The low prices have led to the expansions of
old plastic-producing plants and the construction of new ones by Chevron,
Shell, Dow, and Exxon, among other companies.
Given the sources of plastic, the fossil fuel industry
has a stake in its success and is deeply involved in fighting efforts to reduce
the world’s use of plastics. The various
plastics trade associations include big oil companies.
Two tactics that they are employing include state laws
that prohibit localities from enacting municipal restrictions. This tactic is based on the reasonable belief
that the industry’s wealth and political connections make it far more likely to
succeed in blocking legislation at the state level than in the hundreds of
localities, which are much more sensitive to an energized public.
They also tout the “recyclability” of plastic. Recycling plastic sounds good, but
essentially doesn’t exist in practice.
For example, in 2015, the U.S. recycled about 9 percent of its plastic
waste, and since then the number has dropped even lower.
Plastics just end up being dumped in landfills or burned
in incinerators (which creates its own environmental and public health
problems). Given the threat of plastics,
what should be done?
Here in New York, the state has enacted a strong ban on
the retail use of plastic bags; now it must implement it with strong
regulations that do not create loopholes for certain plastic bags and which do
not undermine existing local bans. Then
the state should follow the lead of some localities that have banned other
plastic products. And lastly, New York
should expand its bottle deposit law to include new products.
The fight over plastics is a fight about the enormous
waste our society generates, but it is also a battle with an industry that has
done more than anyone to pollute the planet and has threatened life on this
planet – through the burning of oil, coal and gas which has triggered global
These are existential fights; ones we have to win.
Posted by NYPIRG on July 15, 2019 at 9:15 am
The big state news last week
was Governor Cuomo’s approval of the Climate Leadership and Community
Protection Act. The governor signed the
legislation with considerable fanfare.
His team organized an event and invited a large crowd of activists,
lobbyists, labor groups, businesses and elected officials.
The governor shared the
stage with former Vice President Gore, whose movie “An Inconvenient Truth”
brought the science of global warming to the general public.
The new law sets ambitious
environmental goals for New York State:
- The state promises to slash greenhouse gas
emissions from all sectors. Under the
bill, greenhouse gas emissions, released by the burning of oil, gas and coal, will
be capped in the year 2050 to no more than 15 percent of the total emitted in
the year 1990—an 85% reduction in heat-trapping gases.
- The state pledges to boost its reliance on renewable
energy. The law mandates that 70% of the
electricity consumed in New York State will come from renewable sources by 2030
and 100% by 2040. Last year, about 26% of electricity on the state’s grid
was generated by renewable sources, with most coming from hydroelectric
plants. Only about 5 percent of the
state’s energy is generated by solar, wind and geothermal.
- The law is vague on how it will achieve these ambitious
goals, but empowers a commission to figure it out. Overseeing the emissions reductions
will be a newly established 22-member New York State Climate Action Council,
consisting of state agency leaders, business leaders, community and
environmental advocates. The governor
will appoint the members of the council.
However, the law is supposed to create a process to ensure
at least 35% of investments from clean energy funds are invested in lower
income and communities of color, which have been disproportionately borne
environmental harms . One criticism of
the law was that the final agreement was weaker than supporters wanted with
regard to environmental justice requirements and spending.
In his speech at the bill signing event, the governor
described four principles that guided his approach to the climate crisis. He said the legislation needed to set
ambitious goals, then develop a realistic plan of action, encourage the
participation of businesses that will benefit from the movement away from
fossil fuel power, and train the necessary workforce to make the plan a
He commented, that his “Green New Deal” is the “Real Deal.”
But what was missing from the governor’s plan was how to
measure its performance. After all, if
the goals are great, but the implementation falls behind, it increases the
difficulties in achieving those goals.
Saying that the state will not rely on fossil fuels for its electricity
by the year 2040 is laudable, but if meaningful annual steps are not taken each
year, that goal will be increasingly out-of-reach. This concern will be brought in to sharp
focus if and when the economy slows down and lawmakers feel pressure to
shortchange climate efforts.
And failing to achieve laudable goals has happened
before. In his 2009 State of the State
address, then-Governor Paterson, called for an aggressive clean energy plan
that set a ’45 by 15′ goal in which 45% of New York state’s electricity needs
would be met through improved energy efficiency and a greater use of clean
renewable energy by 2015.
Did New York achieve that goal? Doesn’t look like it.
Does that mean that the state shouldn’t advance aggressive
environmental goals to combat global warming?
Of course not, but an independent and transparent way to monitor
progress toward those goals is needed.
The governor should mandate robust annual reporting that includes
detailed data on key climate metrics and verifies that the state is moving to reduce its carbon footprint (e.g., changes to its building construction
code to maximize energy efficiencies) in order to meet its climate change
monitoring will not only ensure that the state is making progress toward its
climate change goals, but also bolster public support for successful programs. New Yorkers will be asked to participate in a
paradigm shift as part of the state’s “Green New Deal.” We should get annual report cards to see how
well we’re doing.
Posted by NYPIRG on July 8, 2019 at 8:05 am
often the debate over the looming environmental catastrophe called “climate
change” is couched in the future tense.
For example, the world’s experts have said that unless the earth’s
temperature increase is kept to no more than 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit by the
year 2030, the changes may be irreversible.
Recent New York legislation has pledged to eliminate the use of fossil
fuels to power electricity by the year 2040 and pledged to nearly eliminate
greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.
course, those future goals are important.
Yet, too little is discussed about the impact that global warming is having
sheets are melting, the oceans are more acidic, sea levels are rising, and
storms are more powerful. And those are
happening right now. In addition, the
ongoing and growing climate catastrophe impacts our daily lives in ways that
are not as obvious.
example, the increasing threat posed by algal blooms.
to the State Department of Environmental Conservation, while most algal blooms
are harmless, some species can pose a public health threat. In those cases, algae can produce toxins that
can be harmful to people and animals. These blooms usually occur in nutrient-rich
waters, meaning waters that receive large amounts of runoffs from residential
and agricultural sources. When combined
with hot weather, dangerous blooms can occur.
incidents of algal blooms have risen with the increasing temperature of the planet. Algal blooms can be toxic and when present
waterbodies cannot be used for recreation or even drinking. The threat has gotten worse each year.
algal blooms aren’t your typical green surface ooze that you may see on the top
of lake waters. While ugly to look at when
at the surface, a bloom can also be dangerous, so much so that the state has a
blanket policy to stay out of the water should there be evidence of one.
every algal bloom isn’t toxic – some algal species can produce both toxic and
nontoxic blooms – toxic blooms can cause problems for swimmers and other
recreational users in the form of rashes or allergic reactions. People who swim in a bloom may experience
different side effects including nausea, vomiting, headaches, respiratory
problems, skin rash and other reactions. There have also been reports nationwide of
dogs and livestock dying shortly after swimming or wading in a bloom.
more ominously, these algal blooms impact the oceans too. Last week, all the of the beaches along the
Gulf Coast in the state of Mississippi were closed due to algal blooms there.
blooms have a blue-green slimy substance.
They often crop up in late summer and early fall, although scores have
been reported already in New York’s surface waters. Algal blooms need nutrients to bloom, so
often they’ll be observed after heavy storms when residential and agricultural
nutrients they primarily rely on are phosphorus and nitrogen and the algal
blooms have increased due to a rise in nutrient runoff from sources such as soil
erosion from fertilized agricultural areas and lawns, erosion from river banks,
river beds, land clearing (deforestation), and sewage effluent. All of these are the major sources of
phosphorus and nitrogen entering water ways. These nutrients coupled with warm, calm water
is the recipe for an algal bloom.
out the lakes in which algal blooms are a concern, you can go to the DEC website,
which has a harmful algal bloom notifications webpage that it updates weekly. (Go to www.dec.ny.gov to see information on algal
that tend be more protected are those in which development is strictly
regulated and waterbodies closely monitored.
Of course, the long term solution is to wean the planet off its
addiction to fossil fuels and develop alternative forms of energy.
catastrophe is not something that we are waiting for, it’s here now and it’s
going to get a lot worse. As we cope, aggressive
measures need to be taken to protect vital water supplies; measures that
protect wetlands, limit development, manage farm wastes, and monitor algal
course, the world needs to kick the fossil fuel habit altogether and instead invest
its resources in the development of renewable power – solar, wind, geothermal –
and better energy efficiencies.
to do so will only accelerate to the point of no return the catastrophe global
Posted by NYPIRG on July 1, 2019 at 7:37 am
Last week, New York may have taken a step toward
significantly changing the way elections are financed. Currently, candidates for state office in New
York – like much of the rest of the nation – rely on private contributions to
fuel their campaigns. Not surprisingly,
many of those who give those contributions are expecting that their donations
will help their interests – be they personal or occupational – after the candidate
wins elective office.
New York law makes it easy to pull in donations from those
with deep pockets; the state has the highest campaign contribution limits (of
any state that has limits) in the nation.
Under state law, one can make a legal campaign contribution of over
$115,000 to a political party and can donate nearly $70,000 to candidates for
Who writes those checks?
The wealthy and those who have business before the government.
For those seeking – or holding – elective office, hitting up
those who are most interested in contributing makes good economic – and
campaign – sense. Under state law,
making one phone call to a possible $10,000 contributor is a more efficient
approach than making 100 calls to potential $100 contributors.
While it is clearly more efficient, it raises the risk of
corruption. A big campaign donor with an
economic interest before the state is expecting an elected official to be
responsive, or that donor may contribute to a challenger.
And New Yorkers have seen the corruption that has resulted
from a campaign financing system that relies on a relatively small number of
What can be done to reduce that risk? Under various U.S. Supreme Court decisions,
there isn’t too much that can be done to reduce the influence of the wealthy
and powerful, or to reduce the risk of the corruption that stems from some of
There are two approaches, however, that can reduce those
risks and meet constitutional muster.
First, the state can dramatically restrict the ability to make campaign
contributions from those seeking government contracts or from professional lobbyists
seeking government action. Roughly half the
nation has some form of “pay-to-play” limitations; New York should too.
Second, the state should do all it can to remake its
campaign finance system from one that relies on a small number of large donors
– and the resulting higher risks of corruption – to one that relies on a large
number of small donors. New York should
drastically reduce the size of its legal campaign contributions and establish a
voluntary system of public financing. A
public financing system typically allows for a public match for small
contributions. In New York City, for example, every $1 raised
in small contributions is matched with an $8 donation in public resources. New York City’s system was approved
overwhelmingly by voters as part of a city government overhaul after a series
of scandals and it’s been steadily improved over more than 25 years.
Which brings us to last week. As part of the budget agreement last March,
the governor and state lawmakers agreed to establish a commission that would be
charged with setting up a voluntary system of public financing, thus setting up
an alternative to the private contribution system.
The budget was approved on March 31st and the
commission was charged with establishing the public financing system by
December 1st of this year, giving the commission eight months to do
In all-too-frequent Albany fashion, the governor and the
legislative leaders failed to choose the commission members until last week,
frittering away more than three months of the eight months available to the
The nine members now have to hit the ground running in order
to set up the public financing system.
As mentioned earlier, they don’t have far to look for a model of how it
is to be done (see New York City’s program, which is three decades old).
But it must do its work in an open and transparent way, not
simply follow the dictates of Albany’s top political leaders.
Nevertheless, it is a start.
And once their work is concluded, the commission members may have offered
candidates a clear alternative to the state’s “pay-to-play” campaign financing
system. An alternative that relies on
clean public resources and one that relies on the support of a large number of
small contributors. A system that
reduces the risk of corruption and is far more likely to engage voters of
average economic means. Last week was an
important step. Now the commission must
quickly get to work to come up with a proposal and engage the public. For New York’s ailing democracy, there’s not
a moment more to waste.
The U.S. Supreme Court wrapped up its session and
examined one of the most problematic issues facing American democracy: how best to draw political boundaries to ensure
fairness and equality. The question
facing the justices was what role should federal courts play in correcting
overtly partisan gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is a long-time practice in the United
States in which political parties rig the boundaries of elected officials to
maximize their own partisan advantages.
The term originates from redistricting decisions made in Massachusetts
during the early 1800s. In 1812,
Massachusetts adopted new constitutionally-mandated electoral district
boundaries. The Republican-controlled legislature had created district
boundaries designed to enhance their party’s control over state and national
offices, leading to some oddly shaped legislative districts. Then-Governor Elbridge Gerry signed the
legislation. The shape of one of the state senate districts in Essex County was
compared to a salamander by a local Federalist newspaper in a political
cartoon, calling it a “Gerry-mander”.
Ever since, the creation of such districts has been called “gerrymandering.”
Reformers have decried this practice for decades. In effect, control by state legislatures and
governors of the redistricting process allowed elected officials to choose
their voters, instead of the other way around.
As a result, electoral challenges became much more difficult, voters
were denied real competition for office, and the nation became more polarized.
In the past, the Supreme Court has weighed in on
intolerable redistricting practices. The
Court had ruled against gerrymandering that allowed racial discrimination. The Court had ruled that district must be
roughly the same population size in order to ensure “one person, one vote.”
Yet, last week the Court decided that it will not rule on
redistricting that is obviously and overtly partisan. The decision focused on two cases, one in North
Carolina and the other in Maryland.
In both cases, the dominate political party dramatically
changed district lines to their own political advantage. In particular, last week’s 5-4 ruling means
that North Carolina’s current Republican-drawn map delineating its 13
Congressional districts — a map that critics have said is among the country’s
most egregious examples of hyper-partisanship — will stand. The decision will
likely embolden lawmakers around the country to craft seats for their
respective parties with the aid of increasingly sophisticated computer mapping
Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, argued
that the drafters of the Constitution understood that politics would play a
role in drawing election districts when they gave the task to state
legislatures. Judges, the chief justice said, are not entitled to second-guess
Chief Justice Roberts did not say the current system of
drawing districts is desirable as a matter of policy. “Excessive partisanship
in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” he wrote. But the federal courts simply cannot
As a result of their decision, dominant political parties
can eviscerate electoral competition in states.
This is not, however, the first time that the Court has acted to protect
the power of a dominant class.
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the
Court held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the
government from restricting independent expenditures for political
communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions,
and other associations.
The ruling effectively freed corporations to spend money
on electioneering communications and to directly advocate for the election or
defeat of candidates. In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice John Paul
Stevens argued that the Court’s ruling represented “a rejection of the
common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent
corporations from undermining self-government.”
In both cases, the Court ruled in favor of those who
dominate elections in America – the two political parties and the wealthy and
organized that provide the bulk of campaign spending. In both cases, the public is denied meaningful
electoral debates and the opportunities to hear different ideas. Both cases weaken representative
There is a lesson to be learned: don’t expect the Supreme
Court to save the day. Ultimately it is
up to us, the voters, to get engaged and fight for the changes that strengthen