New York Can Help to Make the World a “Greener” Place

Posted by NYPIRG on April 22, 2024 at 7:24 am

April 22nd is “Earth Day,” the global celebration of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.  History shows that Earth Day was not intended to be about personal actions – planting a tree or recycling one’s garbage, although both are good ideas.  Instead, the original Earth Day was a reaction to the enormous environmental damage done by the essentially unregulated discharging of pollution into the nation’s airways and waterways. 

At that time, Americans were combusting vast amounts of leaded gasoline in inefficient automobiles that belched out toxic pollution.  Industries pumped out smoke and sludge and considered those wastes the price of progress.  Chemical waste and garbage were dumped into waterways on a scale never before seen; air pollution was at staggering levels.  Toxic herbicides and pesticides were lightly regulated, if at all.  Much of the American public was largely oblivious to the fact that a polluted environment posed a substantial health risk.

Earth Day 1970 was a watershed moment that galvanized public awareness of the growing threat of pollution and its impact on the nation’s environment and public health.  That Earth Day and the nationwide rallies and actions, resulted in monumental improvements, including the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and passage of laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. 

Today, we are all facing threats that equal – if not exceed – those of the 1960s.  Like that time, Americans need to get involved without becoming cynical or depressed about the possibilities for improving the world.  Closer to home, actions in New York can set the tone for the nation – and the world. 

New York State’s population, while only the fourth largest in the nation, has an outsized impact since it is the 10th largest economy in the world.  What New York does not only impacts its own residents, but it can also influence the nation, and the world.  States are the nation’s laboratories for democracy and New York has been a leader in influential policymaking.

Yet, the final state budget agreement that was put in place this past weekend ignored the single most important environmental issue facing the state, the nation, and the world: the climate crisis. 

Global energy-related CO2 emissions hit a record high last year, according to the International Energy Agency, and 2023 was the hottest year on record.  The world’s climate experts urge that the world needs to virtually eliminate its reliance on fossil fuels by the middle of this Century or face environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.

Here in New York, action has been taken to set strong climate goals.  In 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) was signed into law.  The Climate Act is among the most ambitious climate laws in the nation and requires New York to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels.  Those goals are in line with the best climate science that is available. 

New Yorkers will foot the bill for tens of billions of dollars in expenses to deal with rising sea levels, more extreme storms, and increasing heat.  Long Island faces up to $100 billion in climate costs, more than half of New York local government spending outside of NYC was, or will be, related to climate change, it will cost New York City $100 billion to upgrade its sewers for more intense storms, and those costs are on top of the $52 billion needed to protect New York Harbor from rising sea levels.  Those costs – like the temperature of the planet – are expected to keep increasing.

Those staggering costs inspired legislation in both houses of the state Legislature to make fossil fuel polluters pay up for New York’s climate damages: the Climate Change Superfund Act.  In the budget fight, both the Senate and Assembly offered support for the measure, but Governor Hochul dug in and killed the effort to make the climate polluters pay.  Now New York taxpayers will bear the brunt of all climate costs.   

A second measure, the NY Home Energy Affordable Transition (HEAT) Act, would remove the legal requirement that all ratepayers subsidize the costs of hooking up customers to gas lines.  That subsidy costs New Yorkers $200 million annually.  Requiring this subsidy flies in the face of what the experts say must be done – do not expand fossil fuel use.   In this case, it was the state Assembly that killed the measure.

Of course, all is not lost.  Lawmakers return in early May to take up non-budget legislation.  The session will wrap up in early June.  Expect that both of these measures will rise again during the end-of-session debate.  After all, failure to act will only cost ratepayers and taxpayers more, while benefiting the fossil fuel lobby.

Protecting the fossil fuel lobby after all the damage it has done – and continues to do – can’t be the message out of New York.  Here’s hoping that next Earth Day will be one that looks back at climate achievements, not the embarrassing spectacle of New York’s political establishment acting as a toady to the fossil fuel lobby.  Fingers crossed and Happy Earth Day!