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Making Climate Change Rhetoric the Reality

Posted by NYPIRG on April 29, 2019 at 10:11 am
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Governor Cuomo made a startling prediction last week.  In an interview on WAMC, the governor said he did not “see anything specific for the rest of the session” related to legislation to fight climate change.

Why the governor would say that can only be answered by one person.  It may well be that he feels like enough has been done by the state on climate, which it hasn’t.  Or that there was no need for specific legislation since the Administration is advancing policies on various fronts that would achieve a similar goal.  Or perhaps it’s something else.

This is a striking reversal for the governor.  Just a few months earlier, the governor – as part of his proposed budget – called for the creation of a “Green New Deal” that would have mandated that New York’s electricity be powered by 100 percent carbon-free sources by the year 2040.  Under the governor’s proposal – issued with great fanfare – the state would mandate a significant increase in the amount of electricity powered by renewable sources: moving from the current goal of 50 percent to 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

But when the budget deal-making dust had settled, the governor’s Green New Deal was left out.  So, now that the ink is dry on the budget is the governor throwing in the towel?

Thankfully, the Legislature seems committed to taking comprehensive action. For several years, the New York State Assembly has passed a bill known as the Climate and Community Protection Act, which would put into law a goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. With the new majority in the State Senate, this legislation has potential to pass.

While we wait to see if New York will act, in the face of the Trump administration’s hostility to acting on the climate crisis the rest of the nation is moving ahead.

Last month, New Mexico targeted to have its electricity production 100 percent non-fossil fuel by 2045.  The Maryland legislature recently passed a bill targeting 50 percent renewable power by 2030 and looking into the viability of 100 percent by 2040.  The state of Washington is acting.  Illinois might pass a 100 percent target soon.

The state of California and Hawaii already have acted, adding to the more than 100 U.S. cities that have acted.

Not all of these plans are perfect, but they show a real commitment to moving from the rhetoric of promising action to combat the looming climate catastrophe to actual, legally-binding, actions that do so.

Compared to the inaction – or the awful actions – of the national government, promises are better.  But unless the world acts, the devastation resulting from global warming will ruin the lives of billions.

If New York State acted alone to aggressively move away from reliance on fossil fuels, it would be impactful.  If New York State were an independent nation, it would rank as the 12th or 13th largest economy in the world.

But combined with the actions already taken – or soon to be taken – by states (including California) across the nation, action by New York would send a powerful signal: that the nation is moving away from fossil fuel power despite the inactions of the Trump Administration.

New York State’s action would be consequential.

According to the world’s climate science experts, actions are needed.  In the Fall of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – an organization that includes the world’s climate experts – sounded the alarm bell that governments around the world must take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid disastrous levels of global warming.  There needs to be a worldwide mobilization to reverse greenhouse gas emissions in order avoid this global catastrophe. 

That is why the governor’s comments last week were so puzzling.  The Cuomo Administration has taken bold actions in the past, most notably when it decided to follow the recommendations of the world’s climate experts and keep the fossil fuel available through hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) in the ground.  That was an important decision, and the Administration has taken additional steps to expand state supports for solar and wind power.

Instead, we’re left with the governor’s perplexing prediction.  If the governor doesn’t lead, the Legislature must.  There is no time to waste.

Earth Day, 2019

Posted by NYPIRG on April 22, 2019 at 8:47 am
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This week we celebrate Earth Day. Earth Day is an annual event that started in 1970 and is an important opportunity for us to review our stewardship of the planet’s natural resources.

There is no other way to describe it, we are failing.

Just reviewing the record on climate change underscores that failure. The planet continues to heat up and that warming trend is accelerating. The amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere is causing environmental crises happening today and that are only going to get worse.

The results are devastating: the oceans are becoming more acidic; sea levels are rising and threatening coastal regions; deserts expand and with them famines; food shortages and extreme heat waves trigger violence; populations are displaced; and species across the planet are becoming extinct.

How should we respond? Scientists’ recommendations are quite clear – reduce reliance on existing fossil fuel powered energy sources and keep oil, coal and gas reserves in the ground.

Yet, the opposite polices are being followed. The Trump Administration ignores science and appoints political allies to dismantle environmental programs.

Why do elected leaders act in such a reckless and irrational way? Because there is a political constituency that has been created by the oil, gas and coal industries to block science-based solutions.

Those industries wield tremendous clout and can use their political muscle to protect their corporate interests – even if that results in tremendous harm to the public interest and threatens the lives of millions – perhaps billions – of people worldwide.

But the industry is not all powerful. In the early years of the Cuomo Administration, oil giant Exxon-Mobil put its considerable political clout behind an effort to get New York to allow fracking; a controversial type of drilling that allowed for the extraction of natural gas. At that time, it had the support of the governor. It was on a roll.

Yet today a ban is in place. The reason for the change? An unprecedented statewide citizen mobilization in opposition to the plan. New Yorkers from Buffalo to Long Island decided that allowing the oil and gas industries the rights to large scale mining of natural gas reserves was simply too much of a public health and environmental threat.

That shift in public opinion is spreading nationwide as the impacts of global warming are becoming more apparent.

Earlier this year, polling was released showing a sizable shift in the view of Americans about the growing dangers caused by a planet that is heating up. According to a poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, nearly three quarters of Americans polled said that global warming was happening, a jump of 10 percentage points from 2015 and three points since March 2018.

The rise in the number of Americans who say global warming is personally important to them was even sharper, jumping nine percentage points since March 2018 to 72 percent, another record over the past decade.

Like so many public health and environmental fights, ultimately the outcome will hinge more on public action than scientific analyses. Just as was the case when public health experts identified smoking as the primary cause of lung cancer, decades of corporate deception and the cowardice of politicians delayed action to curb tobacco use. But once public opinion swung dramatically in favor of action, public policies changed.

The optimistic view today is that something similar is happening. Despite the public relations, lobbying and campaign contribution efforts of the oil, coal and gas companies, elected officials are finding it harder and harder to take their orders from the fossil fuel lobby.

Whether the appropriate actions will be taken, and taken quickly enough, only time will tell. But given how little time there is left, action is needed now. The nation must act quickly to embrace energy efficiency programs and to heavily invest in solar, wind and geothermal forms of power. Each year of inaction further damages the environment and puts more lives at risk.

Lobbying Spending in New York Hits a Record

Posted by NYPIRG on April 15, 2019 at 9:15 am
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After the frenzied fight over New York’s $175 billion budget, it’s not surprising to learn that special interests spent astronomically to influence policy in New York. Last week, the public got to see just how much gets spent to influence government in New York.

In its annual report, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) revealed that a record-breaking $262 million was spent on lobbying in New York last year, an eight percent increase from the year before. The number of lobbyists registered in New York also jumped by nearly 1,000 from the year before. The number of registered lobbyists now exceeds 7,700.

The industries that ranked in the top ten included perennial top spenders – lawyers, unions and health care interests. The healthcare industry was the most active, representing 19% of the registered lobbyists in the state. The real estate and construction industries combined to account for just under 16% of registered lobbyists, according to the report.

But it was ride-hailing giant Uber that roared to the top, spending nearly $6 million.

When New York first started requiring lobbyists to report their spending in 1978, a paltry $6 million was spent. If lobbying spending had merely increased at the rate of inflation, the number would have risen to $22 million in 2018, or roughly one-tenth of what it is today.

During that time – due largely to lobbying corruption scandals – New York’s law became more comprehensive and thus more spending is required to be reported than back in the day. However, the gigantic increase in spending is overwhelmingly the result of interest groups’ efforts to influence policymaking.

And it must be working, otherwise why would they keep spending more and more?

Spending on lobbyists and related public relations campaigns are just one side of the influence-peddling coin; the other side includes campaign contributions from those same interests.

Over the past 30 years, campaign spending on legislative races has also increased dramatically. And those with business before the government are most likely to give.

As one state-created Commission observed, “When running for public office requires enormous expenditures of privately raised funds, challenges to incumbents are all but limited to the most wealthy and well-connected. Moreover, huge campaign costs pressure candidates to maintain political views that do not offend big money.”

After funding the races of successful candidates for office, these special interests then hire well-heeled lobbyists and underwrite public relations campaigns to cash in – usually at the expense of the public’s best interests.

Albany’s political culture has merged both lobbying and campaign financing. So far during the legislative session, Governor Cuomo and legislators have held over 125 campaign fundraisers – the vast majority of them occurring just steps from the Capitol in Albany. Those fundraisers are designed to hit up lobbyists and their clients for campaign contributions. What could be more brazen: lobbyists meeting lawmakers in their offices asking for favors during the day and then handing over campaign contributions to those same lawmakers at nighttime fundraising events?

So what should be done? It’s very difficult to restrict political speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it impossible to limit lobby spending and extraordinarily difficult to limit campaign spending.

Policies are allowed, however, that work to separate the two to protect the integrity of government decision making.

Half the country, for example, places restrictions on the campaign fundraising role of lobbyists. Most do it by limiting campaign fundraising during the legislative session and some take it one step further by limiting contributions from lobbyists, the special-interest clients who pay them, and any connected political action committees. Similar legislation is being discussed in New York.

Let’s hope that Albany limits lobbyists’ campaign donations. The effectiveness of lobbyists should be measured by the depth of their knowledge, not the thickness of their wallets.

President Trump Fiddles While the Earth Burns

Posted by NYPIRG on April 8, 2019 at 8:14 am
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In the 1970s, scientists at major oil companies identified a growing threat – that the burning of oil, coal and gas was contributing to a rapid warming of the planet and that left unaddressed, the existence of civilization was at risk.

Instead of warning the world of this threat, the oil industry chose instead to shutter its global warming research and use its wealth to tell the public that in fact the opposite was true. They were so successful that even today well-meaning Americans think that the science of global warming is still under debate. The industry’s efforts were so successful that recently a well-respected journalist told me that he didn’t “believe” that global warming is largely the result of human activities.

It’s not a belief. It’s a fact.

The Trump Administration is so much more interested in “weaponizing” governmental decision-making in its ongoing battle with its political opponents that it has done all it can to destroy the nation’s efforts to tackle the terrifying threat of global warming.

In August of 2017, the Trump Administration closed the research work of the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment. This group had been charged with providing the national government with scientific advice on how to respond to the increasing possibility of climate catastrophe resulting from global warming.

Like the oil companies of the 1970s, the Trump Administration was more interested in tending to the needs of oil, coal and gas companies than it was to learning from the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming and assessing what the nation needs to do to mitigate this looming disaster.

The story could have ended there, but New York Governor Cuomo, Columbia University and the American Meteorological Society reconvened the panel, now known as the Science for Climate Action Network. Last week the panel issued a report arguing that Americans are now put at risk as the result of a warming planet and the failure of the nation to act.

The panel stated that the world is experiencing the impacts of climate changes and that it’s only going to get worse. The panel cited the work of the fourth National Climate Assessment released in November of last year. The Assessment, the work of 13 U.S. government agencies, argued that individuals will be harmed by the effects of global warming. President Trump said that he didn’t “believe” the report.

According to the panel, unless the nation organizes itself to act, it is estimated that the U.S. economy will lose $500 billion a year from crop damage, lost labor, and extreme weather damages. The assessment found that rainfall levels and flooding have increased in much of the country and that there is an estimated sixfold annual increase in the area of the U.S. West expected to be consumed by wildfires.

But these warnings have too infrequently resulted in policy changes by cities and states across the U.S., due to a lack of knowledge, political will, or funding. The U.S. has no national sea level rise plan, for example, and the Trump Administration has scrapped rules around building infrastructure in areas deemed particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Even in New York which took the laudable step of convening the Advisory Committee, the rhetoric has not yet matched the needed reality of action. The Cuomo Administration talks about its own efforts to combat climate change, specifically its commitment to ensure that 100% of the electricity used in the state will be powered by non-fossil fuel sources. Despite that public pledge, as of today, the stated goal has not been put into law or enforceable regulation.

According to lore, the Roman Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned.” While historians do not believe that to be true, the meaning today is clear – it describes someone who has been neglecting his duties. When historians look back on the decisions made by the United States over the past few decades—and most importantly the neglect of the Trump Administration—the phrase will be both apt and accurate.

Of course, as Americans who are the most responsible for global warming, we cannot ignore our moral responsibility to act. If Washington won’t lead, citizens must. States like New York must step forward. If current elected officials won’t act, we should elect those who will.

New York Bans Plastic Bags

Posted by NYPIRG on April 1, 2019 at 9:15 am
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A lot happened in this year’s new state budget agreement – from increased spending to the establishment of a commission to develop a voluntary system of public financing for elections. Many of these decisions were consequential, but one will be noticed by all New Yorkers – a ban on the use of plastic shopping bags. The ban goes into effect in one year.

Thin plastic shopping bags have been targeted because their lightweight nature makes them easily airborne. They can be found hanging from tree branches and clogging city drains. They are eaten by wildlife, including cattle and other large animals, and when shredded by birds and other small creatures.

In marine environments, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. Fish eat them. A number of whales have also died as a result of eating plastic bags. That includes a whale found recently in the Philippines with more than 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Then there’s the latest horrifying news that micro-plastics are now being found in our tap water, and even our bodies.

It’s been estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans annually and the average American throws out 185 pounds of plastic every year. It’ll only get worse unless states and countries act.

And the world has begun to act. So far, at least 127 nations have imposed bans or taxes on plastic bags, according to a United Nations tally through July 2018. Europe began phasing out plastic bags 15 years ago. In March, the European Parliament took steps to ban 10 items most commonly found on European beaches, including bags, by 2021.

The United States, while late to the attack on plastic bags, have seen action at the local level. The most successful model for banning plastic bags comes from California, where they also included a fee on paper bags. Like New York, California has a large, diverse population with large urban areas, extensive rural communities, large suburban regions and a substantial coastline.

After California acted, not only were that state’s consumers able to handle the change in their shopping experience, but there was a significant reduction in the number of plastic bags found on California beaches. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Plastic bags (both the banned and the legal variety) accounted for 3.1% of the litter collected from the state’s beaches during the 2017 Coastal Cleanup Day, down from to 7.4% in 2010.”

If California can do it, why not New York?

New Yorkers use 23 billion plastic bags annually. A significant number of these bags make their way into the environment, threatening wildlife and waterways. New York City alone uses more than 10 billion single-use plastic bags a year. The New York City Department of Sanitation currently estimates that it collects an average of 1,700 tons of plastic bags per week, costing $12.5 million per year in collection and disposal expenses.

Tucked into this year’s state budget, Governor Cuomo and lawmakers agreed to a new law that bans the use of many plastic shopping bags. New York’s ban would grant exceptions to food takeout bags, bags used to wrap meat or deli products, garment bags, and bags sold in bulk, including garbage pail liner bags.

Banning plastic bags was the right move to make – the Governor and the Legislature deserve praise for doing it.

The new law goes into effect in one year yet does not contain a key element found in California’s law – a fee on paper bags. Paper bags are also bad for the environment because of the water, energy, and carbon emissions required to make and transport them.

Instead of a statewide fee on non-plastic shopping bags, the new state law allows, but does not require, cities and counties the opportunity to charge a 5-cent fee on paper bags. This provision will undoubtedly result in a patchwork system across the state. And in those localities that do not charge the fee, an increased use in paper bags will cause solid waste headaches.

Cities and counties in New York should opt-in to the 5-cent fee on paper. The public should call on their local elected officials and encourage them to move to add a paper bag fee as soon as possible. A bonus? The fee goes to support New York’s program that funds various environmental efforts, including recycling, and supports the distribution of reusable shopping bags across the state.

April is the month in which the nation celebrates Earth Day, a day to evaluate how we are doing in terms of preserving the environment. Of course, there is a lot of work still to do. But when it comes to plastic bags, New York has taken an important step in curbing the use of plastics that litters our streets and waterbodies.