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Plastic Pollution Is Both a Trash Problem and a Global Warming One

Posted by NYPIRG on July 29, 2019 at 11:47 am
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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 gas emissions. 

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 warming.

These are existential fights; ones we have to win.

New York Takes the Lead in Tackling the Climate Change Menace

Posted by NYPIRG on July 22, 2019 at 10:57 am
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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:

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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 reality.

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 goals.

Independent 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.

Climate Catastrophe Shows Itself in Different Ways

Posted by NYPIRG on July 15, 2019 at 9:15 am
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Too 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.

Of course, those future goals are important.  Yet, too little is discussed about the impact that global warming is having right now. 

Ice 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.

For example, the increasing threat posed by algal blooms.

According 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.

The 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. 

Harmful 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.

While 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.

And 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.

These 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 runoffs occur.

The 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.

To check 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 blooms.)

Areas 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.

Climate 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 blooms.

Of 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.

Failing to do so will only accelerate to the point of no return the catastrophe global warming.

New York May Have Just Taken a Step Toward Reform

Posted by NYPIRG on July 8, 2019 at 8:05 am
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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 governor.

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 big contributors.

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 those relationships.

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 its work.

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 commission. 

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 Supreme Court Deals Another Blow to Representative Democracy

Posted by NYPIRG on July 1, 2019 at 7:37 am
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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 tools.

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 lawmakers’ judgments.

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 intervene.

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 democracy. 

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 our democracy.