Archive for January 2023

We Must Do More to Avert Climate Catastrophe

Posted by NYPIRG on January 30, 2023 at 9:44 am

The United Nations stated that the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030 or civilization will be devastated. 2030 is only 7 years away.  The UN declaration is in line with New York’s goals and thus the state’s climate goals set the floor – not the ceiling – for action.   Missing those goals ignores climate science and puts New York on a trajectory that could lead to unnecessary deaths, human suffering, and staggering costs from flooding, storms, and heatwaves.

New York law requires that the state meet the goals set by the world’s experts.  The blueprint to meet these goals was laid out in last month’s Climate Action Council report. 

It’s not surprising that the report is now targeted by the fossil fuel industry and its allies – who have so far blocked meaningful climate action.  For decades, the oil industry knew of the dangers of burning fossil fuels – oil, coal, and gas – yet deliberately lied to the public.  They were so successful that now the world is facing an existential threat.

New York’s plan is now under attack by the same industry.  Their most recent effort to undermine the state’s climate plan is to divert our attention to the bogus charge that the government is going to take away gas stoves! 

Of course, no one will lose their gas stoves.  The state’s climate plan says that new buildings constructed later this decade will have to be powered by electricity, not fossil fuels, including gas.  It also states that New York will prohibit the sale of new, gas-powered appliances during the next decade, like it will do for the sale of new cars.  All of this makes sense, since New York, the nation, and the world, must kick our fossil fuel energy addiction.  And it makes sense since the top two sources of greenhouse gas emissions are buildings and transportation.

The plan also covers not-so-obvious issues, like the way the state should handle solid wastes – garbage.  According to the plan, solid waste generates about 12% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, including gases emitted by landfills, through the burning of waste, and from wastewater treatment.  Most of these emissions represent the long-term decay of organic materials buried in landfills, which will continue to emit methane at a significant rate for more than 30 years.  This is serious because methane is 84 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The state’s climate plan recommends that in order “To reduce emissions to achieve the required 2030 GHG emission reductions, significant increased diversion from landfills as well as emissions monitoring and leak reduction will be needed.  A circular economy approach to materials management is understood and employed.” 

The plan calls for the enactment of legislation to curb the generation of waste by reducing and recycling the waste generated by New Yorkers.  Specifically, the plan calls for expanding the state’s bottle deposit law to additional beverage containers. 

That call has broad-based public support.  In a poll released last week, 71 percent of New Yorkers support expanding the state’s bottle deposit program to include all types of beverage containers, with just 23 percent opposed.  The release of the poll amplified a call from 150 community, civic, and environmental organizations to Governor Hochul to modernize the state’s bottle deposit law as part of her upcoming Executive Budget.

The poll, conducted by Siena Research Institute, found that New Yorkers support the program as a whole.  A majority of respondents stated that the Bottle Bill had reduced litter in the state.  Additionally, the poll found that the majority of New Yorkers support raising the bottle deposit placed on beverage containers from a nickel to a dime.  The nickel deposit has been in place for 40 years.

The state’s Bottle Law has been the most successful litter reduction and recycling program in New York history.  When the law kicked in 40 years ago in 1983, beverage containers were found everywhere, now the overwhelming majority of such containers are redeemed under the program.  But many beverages – most notably non-carbonated sports drinks – didn’t exist four decades ago and are not covered by the law today.  And the nickel deposit was put in place 40 years ago – that 1983 nickel when adjusted for inflation is worth 15 cents today.

There is a lot to be done to overhaul our economy and lifestyle in order to avert the looming catastrophic consequences of global warming.  Ignoring efforts by the fossil fuel industry and their allies to undermine changes, and insisting on science-based solutions, are the only ways society can forestall the effects of a rapidly heating planet.

In 20 years when we are talking to a new generation about what we did to attack the problem of climate change, what will we say?  That we protected gas stoves or took aggressive, science-based steps to slash greenhouse gas emissions?  How we act today will determine the answer to that question.

Debunking Anti-Climate Change Propaganda

Posted by NYPIRG on January 23, 2023 at 8:56 am

According to the Oxford dictionary, the word propaganda means: “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”  The use of propaganda was on display last week at a state Senate hearing on New York’s climate plan.

The state’s Climate Plan was developed over the past two years under a 2019 law that mandates the state meet certain climate goals, eventually leading to virtually no greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.  That overall goal is consistent with one set by the world’s experts, who have warned that unless the world kicks the fossil fuel habit by then runaway global warming will devastate the planet. 

New York’s 2019 law ceded to a Climate Action Council the power to develop the blueprint that the state should follow in order to meet its aggressive, science-based climate goals. 

There were legitimate issues being raised by lawmakers and groups concerned about the ability of the state to implement the blueprint.  But there was also the drumbeat of propaganda, one that bears the fingerprints of the behind-the-scenes work of the fossil fuel industry: “They are coming for your gas stoves!”

The Climate Plan says that in order to meet the requirements of New York’s climate law, the state must stop adding new fossil fuel infrastructure.  Why build new oil and gas pipelines that take decades to pay off if the state has to stop burning those fuels?  Thus, the Climate Plan recommends requiring that new building construction rely on electricity for heating and cooking, not fossil fuels.  In addition, the Climate Plan says that in the future, appliances that run on gas should not be sold. 

The reality is that if you have, say, a gas stove now and you rely on an existing gas pipeline to power it, nothing changes – certainly not right away.  After all, how often do you buy a new stove?  No one is proposing that New Yorkers have to drag their gas stoves out to the garbage.

So who’s behind the effort to rile people up?  A recent New York Times investigation reports that the fossil fuel industry is bankrolling a nationwide effort to pull the plug on the growing effort to reduce carbon emissions and switch to electricity to power society.  The article specifically referenced the campaign in New York State.  According to the Times, the propane gas lobby “committed nearly $900,000 to a New York propane industry group to address the ‘massive challenge from well-funded efforts to electrify the entire state.’”

Their handiwork was apparent during the Senate hearing.  Opponents of the Climate Plan argued that while they supported the climate law, they were concerned that the Plan reduced the use of fossil fuels.  An obvious inconsistency.

The drumbeat of “they’re coming for your gas stoves” was heard again and again and fit in a social media campaign that followed. 

There’s no sugar-coating it: Even under the best of circumstances, the climate costs will be staggering, the planet will continue to heat up, and there will be terrible suffering among all living things. 

And the worst part is that, had the world acted sooner, we could have avoided the tremendous loss of treasure and curbed human suffering.  But we didn’t.  The delay is due to the oil companies and their allies who skillfully lied to the public and successfully deceived us about the real threats.  They attacked policies that could have averted the situation we’re in today – and will be in tomorrow and for years to come.  And they’re still doing it!

The costs to NY will be unprecedented – protecting roadways, mass transit systems, and shorelines from rising sea levels and more intense storms will cost New York tens of billions of dollars.

Who will pick up this huge tab?  Right now, you and I.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Instead, take a portion of Big Oil’s profits and direct it to the massive infrastructure projects that the state must undertake.  And do it in a way that ensures that those assessments are not passed on to the public.

Now is the time to act.  Not some other year.  Now.  Now is the time to make the oil companies, who are at the root of this problem, accountable.

The Climate Hits Keep on Coming

Posted by NYPIRG on January 16, 2023 at 10:25 am

After a brutal snowstorm in Western New York, the state of California has been inundated with record rainfall.  Of course, big rainstorms and deadly snowstorms are not new, but the frequency and intensity are what climate scientists have been predicting. 

Add these storms to the growing evidence of what climate scientists have been warning:  A rapidly heating planet will destabilize the world’s weather leading to more intense and more frequent storms.  Coupled with warming oceans and rising sea levels, civilization as we know it will have to adapt, and adapt fast, in order to deal with the problems resulting from climate change.

The world needs to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions – from the burning of oil, coal, and gas – and it will need to develop new forms of energy to power our civilization.  But the costs to the world’s infrastructure in order to adapt roads, bridges, and coastal cities, to the threats posed by intensifying storms and rising sea levels will be staggering. 

Here in New York, one think tank estimated that the climate costs to New York will top $55 billion this decade.  A recent report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that it will take $52 billion to protect New York Harbor alone.

Even if the world succeeds in reducing greenhouse gases to zero by the middle of this Century, global warming will continue, so the costs of resiliency will continue to mount.

There is an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Had the world reversed its headlong rush to the climate breaking point that we’re all at right now decades earlier, the costs would be far smaller.  But we didn’t, why?

A new report added new light to the answer to that question. 

A new study published last week in the journal Science found that in the 1970s the oil giant Exxon’s scientists made remarkably accurate projections of just how much burning fossil fuels would warm the planet. In fact, Exxon scientists warned the company’s executives of “potentially catastrophic” human-caused climate change.

Their projections were as accurate, or more so, as those of independent academic and government models.

Yet for years, Exxon undermined climate science, including their own findings, and campaigned against efforts to curb the burning of fossil fuels. Exxon – and other companies – funded public relations campaigns, hired well-connected lobbyists, and wrote campaign checks to allied lawmakers, all in a successful effort to block change.

So, that’s what happened.  Instead of taking the morally responsible path of alerting the world to the threat, Exxon and other companies kept their findings hidden and did all they could to stop necessary actions.  As a result, the last eight hot years have been the warmest on record.  That added heat has led to famines, stoked violent conflict, eroded glaciers, triggered massive floods and wildfires.  People are starving and dying, millions are on the move away from the heat and toward more temperate areas.

And it will get worse.

As mentioned earlier, there are immediate costs to adapt to the wilder weather and rising sea levels.  Those costs will be enormous but must be paid.  A failure to do so will lead to economic disasters as roadways get washed away and mass transit systems are flooded.

Who picks up the tab?

So far, we are.  Unless Governor Hochul and state lawmakers take action, these inevitable costs will be paid by New York taxpayers.  You’ve already put down a down payment with the passage last year of the Environmental Bond Act, which will provide $4.2 billion to address costs, some of which are related to the climate crisis.  But that’s just a “drop in the ocean” of current and looming costs.

There is one industry that should bear those costs and has the resources to do so – the oil industry.  It was the oil industry that conducted the science that identified the problem, it was they who blocked meaningful action, and it is they who are now reaping record profits.

Big Oil is responsible for the mess we’re in.  It is up to Governor Hochul and state lawmakers to teach the industry the lesson we’ve all learned – you made the mess, now you clean it up.

The Governor’s State of the State

Posted by NYPIRG on January 9, 2023 at 8:34 am

Each governor annually issues a “State of the State.”  This is required by the state Constitution, “The governor shall communicate by message to the legislature at every session the condition of the state, and recommend such matters to it as he or she shall judge expedient.”  From that one sentence, New York’s State of the State addresses have evolved into a long speech – usually around one hour – in which governors use the bully pulpit to largely congratulate themselves and lawmakers on the great achievements that been made.

More like the Presidential “State of the Union” address, modern era governors use the opportunity to capture the spotlight, promote their own agenda and to dominate media coverage, effectively to try to set the agenda for the upcoming session.

Expect no less from the current Governor Kathy Hochul.

For decades, the governor’s State of the State was delivered in the ornate state Assembly chambers.  That house seats the chamber’s 150 members, as compared to the smaller state Senate chamber, and so can hold more people in the audience.  That traditional practice has continued under Governor Hochul, who moved the address back to the Assembly chamber after a decade-long hiatus in which former Governor Cuomo used the more functional state Convention Center for his addresses, breaking with the tradition.

State of the State addresses are usually long on rhetoric and short on substance.  Details are left to the budget presentation released later in the month.

There can be no doubt that the governor wants to set the policy table with her own initiatives.  It is expected that she will urge action to expand affordable housing and to propose changes to the state’s public safety laws.  It is unlikely that she will dwell on the serious challenges facing the state.

The policy “elephant in the room” is the precarious nature of the state’s finances.  Going into the pandemic, New York’s finances were eroding, and eroding rapidly.  The state was sliding toward a crisis when the pandemic hit.  Had financial assistance not come from the federal government, New York would have been facing a very serious financial shortfall. 

The unprecedented federal assistance not only helped the state to weather the ongoing COVID pandemic, but to also shore up its finances.  That assistance is drying up and budget shortfalls loom.

Add to that the gigantic – and growing – deficits of the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), municipal governments, and colleges, and the state of the state looks grim.  Add to those problems the significant financial costs to address damages caused by rising sea levels and fiercer storms caused by global warming and the state financial outlook is dire.

Where will the money come from? 

Historically, the governor and lawmakers cut budget deals that “kick the can” down the road on the more difficult problems, add revenues from more or less regressive taxes and fees, and then hope for the best.  But the cratering finances of the MTA and the mushrooming costs resulting from the climate crisis will not allow fiscal sleight-of-hand to succeed.

A true report on the “condition of the state” could not possibly ignore the gathering financial storms.  But to recognize them would be delivering bad news, an option usually to be avoided in State of the State addresses.

Yet, the governor can’t look away from it.  The incredible damage and deaths from the recent snowstorm in Buffalo, the drowning deaths of New York City residents in basement apartments from Hurricane Ida, the flooding of subways tunnels, are all just an indication of worse events to come.

Saving lives and protecting infrastructure hinge on decisions made today, not sometime in the worsening future.  Climate change is not an environmental problem alone, it is a societal one, a threat that impacts the lives and the economic future of everyone.

It’s clear that a massive investment to “weatherize” the state’s infrastructure is necessary and will in fact happen, sooner or in a more expensive later.  But who should pay?

Let’s hope that Governor Hochul’s State of the State address tackles this critical issue.  A massive jobs program to protect and revitalize the state is critical to saving lives and treasure.  And making sure that the oil companies – those most responsible for the threats – are the ones picking up the tab.

New Yorkers will soon see whether this governor uses the bully pulpit to take on the incredible challenge.  Or will Albany kick the can? 

2023 and a New Legislative Session, What to Expect

Posted by NYPIRG on January 2, 2023 at 9:31 am

Governor Hochul has been sworn in to her first full term as governor and state lawmakers return this week to Albany.  While the swearing in of Governor Hochul marks the first time a woman has been elected as the state’s chief executive, in many ways January 2023 is not markedly different than 2022.

A year ago Hochul was governor and the Democrats had supermajorities in both houses.  The Attorney General was, and is, Letitia James, and Tom DiNapoli is the state Comptroller – a position that he has held for 15 years.  The ongoing COVID pandemic is expected to be, well, ongoing.

Yet, there will be differences.  Last year, Democrats were rallying around Hochul after she became governor upon the resignation of Andrew Cuomo in August 2021.  Governor Hochul hit the ground running for her election.  Now she’s been elected to a full four-year term.  Democrats, being Democrats, are already showing signs of rebellion within their ranks.  Governor Hochul’s nominee for Chief Judge of the state’s highest court has run into opposition from the progressive wing of the Party and there is significant – and growing – opposition among state Senate Democrats, the people who will have to ultimately vote on the nomination.

The state’s COVID pandemic emergency powers that gave the governor enormous authority over state lawmaking expired this past Fall when the governor said she believed that coronavirus cases were under control.  While it’s arguable that COVID is under control, the return of the governor’s powers to pre-pandemic status is a change.

As things settle down to a new “normal” New Yorkers can look ahead to a new legislative session that will take on issues large and small.  If history is any guide, there will be something like 17,000 bills introduced during the new two-year legislative session.  Of those, upwards of 1,000 will be approved by lawmakers in each of the two years.  Although Governor Hochul has been more aggressive in her use of her veto pen as she’s settled in as governor, the overwhelming majority of these bills will become law.

As the session gears up, what can New Yorkers expect to be the biggest debates?  Of course, no one can predict all that will happen – for example, who could have predicted the pandemic in 2020 and then the resignation of Governor Cuomo in 2021?  There are, however, key issues that are likely to dominate 2023.

First, the budget.  In every session, the budget dominates.  Last year the state appropriated over $220 billion for New York programs.  The real budget debate is usually conducted in secret with only a perfunctory public process, with the governor holding the upper hand and driving the debate.  As a result, the governor’s signature initiatives are contained in her budget plan, which is due to be presented by February 1st

In 2023, the first year of a four-year term, the governor will want to tackle the toughest fiscal challenges, not let them fester until she (or legislators) faces the voters.  This session creates a dilemma:  The state’s finances are likely in the best shape this year, with the situation deteriorating in the years ahead – as the pandemic financial aid from the federal government dries up.  Look for the governor to propose a tight budget.  Legislators will feel pressure from local governments and constituent groups to spend.  How lawmakers react to the governor’s proposal will drive not only the budget process, but the relationship between the executive and legislative branches as well.

As mentioned, there is a growing rebellion from the left wing of the Democratic Party to the governor’s pick to head the state highest court – the Court of Appeals.  That fight will be first out of the gate and likely be viewed as a test of the governor’s power as well as her ability to have a collegial relationship with the Democratic lawmakers that control both legislative chambers.

The governor has cited the issue of housing and the homeless as a top priority.  There can be no doubt that lack of affordable housing makes worse the number of homeless residents and also contributes to the high cost of living in New York.  Local officials including the influential New York City mayor have also said affordable housing is a priority.  However, there’s no consensus plan despite widespread agreement on the need to address the problem.

Building affordable housing is a difficult issue: there can be considerable local opposition, New York (particularly in New York City) has a complicated system of housing regulations.  Real estate developers are also looking for state benefits in order to make it more profitable to build.  Expect a fight over whether to renew or replace tax incentives that encourage private developers to build market rate projects as well as affordable housing.  A tax abatement program was allowed to expire in June of 2022.  The governor has pledged to bring back real estate incentives and we’ll likely see that as part of her budget. 

Dealing with the climate catastrophe is another top item.  In December, the state’s Climate Action Council released a roadmap plan for how the state can meet its ambitious, science-based climate goals.  Many of the recommendations can be implemented through regulations, but others will require legislation.  The governor will need to provide new revenues to help make the state more resilient as well as fund the move to a greener energy system. 

The governor also should tackle the problems of the state’s higher education system, much of which is teetering on the financial brink. 

There will be more difficult issues that do not rely on the budget but may get addressed in that debate.  Issues such as combating crime – an issue on which the governor was relentlessly attacked by her Republican opponent in the recent election.  Measures to improve the state’s democracy – like implementing the new voluntary system of public financing and enforcement – will also impact on Albany’s debates.

These are just some of the obvious, big-ticket issues that will be in play.  The 2023 session is set to begin and with it are the hopes that New Yorkers will see a productive and responsive session.