Archive for May 2021

This Week Marks a Critical Anniversary in New York – Its Decision to Allow Young Adults the Right to Vote

Posted by NYPIRG on May 31, 2021 at 11:11 am

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark reform in American democracy.  In 1971, the nation approved the 26th Amendment – a change that allowed 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds the right to vote.  The change went into effect after 3/4 of the states approved the measure.  The amendment was first approved by the Congress in March 1971 and New York State approved the change on June 2, 1971 – 50 years ago this week.

The change came after decades of debate.  The idea to lower the voting age started after President Franklin Roosevelt lowered the draft age to 18 as part of the World War II effort.  The slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was first used in 1941 and the proposal was supported by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt but failed to pass the Congress. 

States began to take up the measure: In 1943 and 1955 respectively, the Georgia and Kentucky legislatures passed measures to lower the voting age to 18.  President Eisenhower, in his 1954 State of the Union address, became the first president to publicly support prohibiting age-based denials of suffrage for those 18 and older.  But again, no action. 

During the 1960s both Congress and the state legislatures came under increasing pressure to lower the minimum voting age from 21 to 18.  The intensity level to support lowering the voting age grew as young adults clamored to obtain their full rights as adults.  

College students’ activism came after their involvement in the campus Free Speech movement, as Freedom Riders and advocates for Civil Rights, and in reaction to the Vietnam War.  It was the War that tipped the balance, a war in which many young men who were ineligible to vote were conscripted to fight yet lacked any means to influence the people sending them off to risk their lives.

Passage by Congress of an expansion of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, lowered the voting age to be 18 in all federal, state, and local elections.  Subsequently, Oregon and Texas challenged the law in court, and the case came before the Supreme Court in 1970.  By this time, four states had a minimum voting age below 21: Georgia, Kentucky, Alaska and Hawaii.

In its 1970 decision, the Supreme Court struck down the provisions that established 18 as the voting age in state and local elections.  However, the Court upheld the provision establishing the voting age as 18 in federal elections.

The decision resulted in states being able to maintain 21 as the voting age in state and local elections, but being required to establish separate voter rolls so that voters between 18 and 21 years old could vote in federal elections.

It was that split decision that triggered the constitutional amendment. 

In March of 1971, the Congress approved a constitutional amendment to guarantee the minimum voting age could not be higher than 18 anywhere in the nation.  Having been passed, the proposed 26th Amendment was sent to the state legislatures for their consideration.  Ratification was completed on July 1, 1971, after the amendment had been ratified by the required thirty-eight states.  New York’s legislature approved the amendment 50 years ago this week, on June 2, 1971.  Having been ratified by three-fourths of the states, the 26th Amendment became part of the Constitution.

Although the 26th Amendment passed faster than any other constitutional amendment, other barriers to young adults’ voting continued.  New York’s state and federal courts overruled local elections officials’ actions that prohibited college students from voting from their campus addresses.  But barriers continue to this day.

The most notable is to place polling sites off campus to make it harder for college students to vote.  For example, in this past Presidential election, just 14 of the 238 colleges and universities had early voting polling places.  There are over 1.2 million college students in New York (although not all are registered or are New York residents).  Fourteen early voting polling sites is far too few.

Legislation currently under consideration in the state Legislature would require that all colleges and universities have at least one polling place if they have at least 300 college students registered to vote living on-campus. 

Young adults are the least likely to vote.  Part of solving that problem is education, in order to ensure that college students and other young adults better understand the system.  Another solution is to make it easier for them to vote when they are registered.  Requiring polling places on campuses is one way to make voting easier.  A fitting way to commemorate New York’s 50th anniversary of ratifying the youth vote is to make it easier for college students to vote on their campuses.

It’s Time to Wind Down the Fossil Fuel Industry

Posted by NYPIRG on May 24, 2021 at 8:19 am

It is well established that the oil companies knew for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would result in a hotter planet.  They knew it and yet did all they could to keep the public disinformed.  Like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel companies spent big time on public relations efforts, political consultants, hot-wired lobbyists, campaign contributions and funded fake groups to advocate against the science that they knew to be true.

And they succeeded.  Despite the mounting evidence that the burning of oil, coal and gas was accelerating the world’s pace toward a climate catastrophe, nothing of consequence was achieved.  The industry’s political muscle, its front groups and fake experts were in 2016 joined by a compliant White House and Congress that reversed what modest steps had been taken.

But facts are facts and the scientific evidence keeps piling up.  It is now widely viewed that unless the world takes immediate and aggressive steps to slash greenhouse gas emissions, the growing climate changes that we are all experiencing may reach a point of no return – and result in mass extinctions and the end of civilization as we know it.

Last week, the International Energy Agency added its views.  In its net zero roadmap report, the IEA found that to keep the world from catastrophic overheating, a new clean energy revolution must take place.  The IEA concluded that the world’s consumption of oil must drop by one-quarter by the end of this decade.  And then be down to one quarter of the total consumed today by the year 2050.

The IEA concluded that starting now, the world cannot allow new fossil fuel projects: no more new oil fields, no new gas extraction, no new coal mines.

Public investors funding new fossil fuel projects should back out now.  Consumers will have to change too – the IEA found that half of greenhouse gas emissions will require “consumer choices,” like buying electric cars and driving slower (the IEA called for a ban on the sale of gas-powered cars by the year 2035); installing electricity-powered heat pumps and solar panels; traveling more on trains and less on planes; changing heating temperatures.  Governments and companies will have to dramatically increase funding for solar, wind, and geothermal projects; the IEA stated that the pace of the installation of solar panels and wind turbines will have to quadruple by the year 2030.  Aggressive energy efficiency measures will have to be implemented.

According to the IEA, “Global electricity networks that took over 130 years to build need to more than double in total length by 2040 and increase by another 25% by 2050.”

The IEA concluded that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius remains technically and economically feasible, but there is little margin for error or delay. “Making net-zero emissions a reality,” the report concluded, “hinges on a singular, unwavering focus from all governments – working together with one another, and with businesses, investors and citizens.”

In a nation that cannot agree on the value of vaccines in a pandemic, meeting the IEA’s recommendations is a tall order.  Even today – despite the overwhelming scientific consensus – the oil industry and its media and political toadies are attacking the Biden Administration’s efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels.

Like it was for the tobacco industry, the oil, coal, and gas companies are using their deep pockets to fight science to the bitter end.  Unlike tobacco, however, the world needs energy to eat, travel and flourish.  Thus, the world must quickly move into a new non-fossil-fuel-powered future, and the oil, coal, and gas companies need to develop plans to “wind down” their activities as their products are too dangerous to keep using.

The IEA identified the immediate steps – ban the expansion of the plans to drill for more oil and gas, invest in renewables, and move efficiency measures up to scale.  In addition, the world needs to make plans to gradually shutter the oil, coal, and gas companies – at least as far as their reliance on the exploitation of fossil fuels as their core business.  In addition, that “wind down” measures should include requiring the industries to pay their fair share of the necessary investments and clean up needed to close down that industry.

As the IEA plainly stated, success “hinges on a singular, unwavering focus.”  All levels of government must start actions now, before it is too late.

Should New Yorkers Have the Right to Repair Their Own Devices?

Posted by NYPIRG on May 17, 2021 at 9:03 am

We’ve all had some version of this happen: Your cellphone refuses to boot up.  You take it to your favorite repair shop, and they tell you that they can’t get the parts to fix it.  Your choices now are either to go to an authorized repair shop and pay a lot more to get your cellphone fixed or just bite the bullet and get a new one.

This problem is not unique to cellphones; almost every product has some digital core components these days.  Other devices can have problems, refrigerators go on the blink, washing machines go down, computers fail to perform, yet it’s nearly impossible to get a fix without going to the manufacturer.  Manufacturers have made it difficult to repair things, for instance by limiting availability of parts, by designing their products to make them difficult to fix, or by putting prohibitions on who gets to repair them.  It affects not only cars, kitchen devices and computers, but even hospital ventilators, which were critical for treating patients severely ill with COVID-19.

Why?  Electronics manufacturers increasingly design and build their products to force consumers to return to them or to authorized repair shops for service by refusing to share basic product information and access to replacement parts.  Some will void the warranty if Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts are not used or if the repair is done by an independent party—even if the repair caused no additional damage.

Generally, OEMs cite concerns over divulging proprietary information or the difficulty of formatting technical information for general usage.  Some companies go so far as to design products with sealants so internal repairs require cracking the outer casing, potentially damaging the device, and voiding the warranty in the process.  And of course, they make money by charging you for parts and repairs and getting you to upgrade instead of fixing your old device. 

In some cases, wait times for repairs as simple as a battery change are so long that customers will forgo a replacement and buy a new phone.  You will also pay more for manufacturer or authorized dealer servicing.  And remember they have an incentive to sell you something new, not fix your phone (unless it’s under warranty).

Manufacturers, on the other hand, argue that their products are repairable, and that they are protecting consumers’ safety, privacy, and security by restricting who does the repairs.  Apple, for example, has argued that they believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using genuine parts that have been properly engineered and rigorously tested.

Why does this problem exist and why are manufacturers able to limit independent repair of purchased products?  Doesn’t owning the device you paid for give you rights to fix it yourself or bring it to the repair shop of your choice?

That’s the issue the Federal Trade Commission recently examined.  In a report to Congress released last week, titled “Nixing the Fix,” the FTC detailed that manufacturers in the auto industry, and other industries, that are making repairs more difficult and expensive than necessary for independent shops.

The report found “there is scant evidence” to support manufacturer justifications for repair restrictions and stated that the FTC “stands ready to work with lawmakers, either at the state or federal level, to ensure that consumers have choices when they need to repair products that they purchase and own.”

If lawmakers in New York have their way, the FTC may soon be engaged in a legislative fight over enacting a “Right To Repair” law.  Senate Consumer Chair Kevin Thomas and Capital District Assemblywoman Pat Fahy have introduced legislation to force manufacturers to make their parts, tools, and technical information available to consumers and repair shops to keep devices from ending up in the scrap heap.  The New York legislation would allow independent repair shops to get diagnostic equipment and parts from OEMs so they can fix your digital equipment locally, quickly, and typically for significantly less money. 

Advocates argue that product makers’ rules restricting repairs interfere with the rights of consumers and businesses to use devices that they own and encourage a throwaway culture by making repairs too difficult.  If enacted, the legislation would grant consumers the right to repair their own electronic equipment—like smartphones, computers, and even farm equipment.

These advocates also argue that the underlying rationale for limiting consumers’ ability to fix their own products is that it’s part of a culture of planned obsolescence—the idea that products are designed to be short-lived to encourage people to buy more stuff.  In other words, if you buy something and it stops working, you toss it in the garbage and go out and buy something new.

It would be a lot cheaper and generate a lot less e-waste if people could repair their own devices, but that would cut into the profits of the big manufacturers.

The back-and-forth is what triggered the FTC investigation and its report.  With the FTC’s conclusions coming down on the side of right-to-repair supporters, there is new life in the New York legislation.

Slowing the March to Climate Catastrophe

Posted by NYPIRG on May 10, 2021 at 9:18 am

It is hard not to despair about the looming climate catastrophe caused by global warming.  The world keeps moving past warnings and climate milestones and the nation’s political processes seem incapable of taking the necessary aggressive actions.

The political, public relations, and economic might of the oil, coal, and gas industries has for decades undermined environmental laws and bamboozled the public about the dangers of a rapidly warming planet – dangers that they knew were real since the 1970s.  Today their influence may be diminished, but they are still incredibly powerful.

No one can re-write that history, so here we are.  The world must either shift to a non-fossil fuel-powered economy or the world as we know it will cease to exist. 

Last week, an important climate program of the United Nations issued a report on the threat posed by a greenhouse gas that gets scant attention in the public debate over climate change: methane.

Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas.  It is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil – particularly through the mining and transportation of fracked gas.  Methane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices, land use and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills.

While climate change debates tend to focus on carbon dioxide, methane emissions have a more devastating impact on global warming.  That’s because the greenhouse gas is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet.  Methane absorbs more energy than carbon dioxide, thus keeping more heat trapped in the atmosphere – and its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing faster than at any time since record keeping began in the 1980s.  Methane is 80 times more powerful in trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and has caused about 30% of global heating to date.

While methane forms a thicker “blanket” that heats the planet faster than carbon dioxide, the gas has a shorter “lifespan” in the atmosphere.  Methane today lasts about a decade, on average, while carbon dioxide lasts for centuries. 

Methane also is a key component of surface ozone – the air pollution that results from the combination of smog and heat – and thus also contributes to lung disease and other pulmonary problems.

Reducing methane is considered critical to keeping global warming from becoming a runaway climate catastrophe and saving lives in the short term by reducing surface ozone.

The United Nations report (Global Methane Assessment) issued last week examined that problem and the steps needed to slashing methane emissions.  The report found that methane emissions could be almost halved by 2030 using existing technology and at reasonable cost.  A significant proportion of the actions would be profitable, such as capturing methane gas leaks at fossil fuel sites.  Methane cuts also immediately reduce air pollution and would prevent many premature deaths and lost crops.

According to the report, using technology available today, the world could cut methane emissions from fossil fuels, agriculture and rotting waste by 45% within a decade and thus significantly impact on the amount of heat generated by greenhouse gases.  Moreover, reductions today will have immediate benefits – ozone levels will decrease and the heat from methane will be reduced relatively quickly.

The U.N. report lists a few recommendations, in addition to technical solutions, that can be used to guide policymakers.  Among the most interesting:

  • Oil, gas, and coal: the world must move away from fossil fuels and rely more on alternative energy sources.  It makes little sense, for example, to spend money on new infrastructure for the transportation of oil and gas when the world must ween off its reliance on those sources of power – sources which contribute mightily to the emission of methane gas.
  • Waste: through the improved treatment and disposal of solid waste, emissions can be reduced and as much as 60 per cent of the necessary measures have either no or low costs.
  • Agriculture also has some straightforward solutions.  Eating a healthy diet that, for many people, means cutting down on red meat consumption would reduce the number of livestock being produced for slaughter.  

While the topic may be depressing, the U.N. report shows that relatively low-cost actions taken in the near term can both save lives and take a bite out of the overall necessary reductions to keep the ongoing climate changes that we are all experiencing from spinning out-of-control and putting the health of the planet at risk.

New York Loses Clout in Washington, Upstate Loses Clout in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on May 3, 2021 at 8:57 am

Under the U.S. Constitution, every 10 years since 1790 the nation conducts a census to determine the number of its inhabitants and then adjusts political boundaries according to demographic changes over the decade.  The state Legislature decides how to draw the maps for Congressional and state legislative districts, with the governor approving or vetoing the lines.

The first step in that process happens when the U.S. Census Bureau announces how many seats each state gets in Congress.  This process is called reapportionment and it determines how the 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives are given to each of the 50 states.  Each state gets a minimum of one seat then the remaining 385 seats are doled out based on population.

Last week, the U.S. Census reported its analysis of the population information it collected last year.  New York State lost a Congressional district, following nearly a century-long trend.  In 1933, New York was represented by 45 members of the House; in 2022 it will be down to 26. 

While it wasn’t news that the state was losing a seat – most expected that to be the case – what was surprising was just how close that loss was.

According to the Census Bureau, had New York counted just 89 more residents it would have kept its Congressional seat.  That’s right:  Had New York counted 89 additional inhabitants it would have made the difference.  New York’s loss was the state of Minnesota’s gain. 

New York did not lose population, it’s just that its anemic population growth was slower than the national increase.  Thus, New York lost a seat and some Congressional power.

The preliminary information provided by the Census was just the number of Congressional seats, with more detailed information to be released in late summer that will let lawmakers know how to change the political boundaries of the 26 Congressional districts, as well as those for the state Senate and state Assembly.

While it is impossible to know exactly what the Census will report, demographic estimates in recent years have shown a decline in population for the upstate areas west of the Hudson Valley and increases in population in New York City and the Hudson Valley all the way to Saratoga.

If those estimates hold true, it is likely that the loss of a Congressional seat will be felt upstate and that downstate will pick up more representation in the state Legislature.

What were the factors in New York’s Congressional loss?  There are three major theories as to what hurt New York’s census numbers:

First theory: the pandemic.  The census is conducted in spring and summer and the state was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Thousands of New Yorkers lost their lives and many moved to new locations and may not have been counted.  Of course, the rest of the nation was impacted too, but COVID hammered New York first and may have made the 89-person difference.

Second theory: immigration.  New York’s population growth has long been fueled by the arrival of new immigrants.  The Trump Administration’s crackdown on the number of immigrants may have reduced the number of state inhabitants and thus cost New York its Congressional seat.

And third theory: the state’s support for the census.  The Cuomo Administration had pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars to support a massive effort to educate New Yorkers on the importance of getting counted in the census.  They did, but very late in the game. 

By the time the governor announced New York’s efforts, in late November of 2019, the state had only six months until the census was to begin.  Ironically, Minnesota had started its effort in 2015.  It got New York’s Congressional seat.  Would the state’s spending a little more money a little earlier have resulted in 89 more New Yorkers getting counted?  We’ll never know.

Whatever the reasons New York lost out, the state has lost a Congressional seat.  How mapmakers choose to draw the lines cannot be determined until the final census data is released later this year.  All indications are that New York’s upstate region is likely to see some reduction in its representation in Congress and diminished political power in Albany, as well.