Crunch Time on Climate Action in Albany

The future of climate action in New York State is at a critical inflection point. The new budget has been approved and the remaining weeks of the legislative session are now focused on policy proposals. At the same time, the draft Scoping Plan issued by the Climate Action Council at the end of 2021 has been undergoing scrutiny at public hearings around the state and only a handful more of these hearings remain.

When the New York Legislature convened in January, environmentalists and climate activists were hopeful that dramatic headway could be made on such issues as reducing the consumption of natural gas, building electrification, cryptocurrency mining, fossil fuel divestment, and investments in renewable energy development.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry and its supporters have stepped up their opposition to these measures in recent weeks, spending millions of dollars on ad campaigns and lobbying, money that could be put towards a clean energy future.

The pushback has revealed the obstacles to phasing out fossil fuels even in a relatively progressive state such as New York. A recent Washington Post article highlighted the challenges faced by those who take the ambitious goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act seriously, focusing on the fight over banning natural gas use in new construction.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) included a ban on gas use in new construction by 2027 in her executive budget for the next fiscal year. But, by the time the negotiations came to a close, the proposal was absent from the final budget deal. The ostensible reason for its exclusion, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, was that policy measures don’t belong in the proposed budget.

Climate advocates are now pressing state lawmakers to pass the measure as a stand-alone bill before the legislative session ends on June 2. The Renewable Heat Now coalition, in particular, is pushing for passage of the All-Electric Building Act as part of a package of proposals to reduce demand for fossil fuels and compel utilities to plan for a transition to renewable heat.

An organization called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, essentially a front group for fossil fuel and utility companies and corporate lobbying interests, is mounting a well-oiled campaign to defeat the measure. It contends that banning gas use in new buildings would harm consumers. Among those behind the organization are National Grid, the American Petroleum Institute, the pipeline company Enbridge, and the Business Council of New York State. A recent investigative report concludes that “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy smacks as a classic industry-funded astroturf effort.”

The lines couldn’t be drawn more distinctly: on one side, the backward-looking oil and gas companies, utilities, and other corporate defenders of the fossil-fuel status quo, and on the other, citizens, activists, and other members of the public who want a decent, bright future where runaway climate change has been averted, mass species extinction avoided, and clean air and water acknowledged as fundamental human rights.

The next few weeks will tell us unambiguously where Gov. Hochul and the state legislature stand. In the meantime, we must make our voices heard in Albany as loudly and clearly as possible.

Cryptocurrency Mining and Climate Change

When political leaders demonstrate the courage of their convictions, it’s immediately evident. Perhaps it’s because the authenticity shines through the usual political fog so brightly. All pretense drops, the language becomes direct and straightforward, and the clear meaning of their words rings out.

The most striking example recently of such leadership, one that has been both inspiring and breathtaking, is that of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He has not shied away from acknowledging the immense military odds stacked against Ukraine or downplayed the difficulty ordinary Ukrainians face. He has invoked a deep sense of common purpose and brought his country together.

Kathy Hochul sworn in as the 57th governor of New York. Photo by NY Senate licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In a different way and at a very different level, NY Gov. Kathy Hochul has a similar opportunity to demonstrate the courage of her convictions. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, laid out aggressive benchmarks for New York to reduce its carbon emissions. Gov. Hochul has emphatically expressed her support for the CLCPA, proclaiming in her recent State of the State address that climate change is “a threat to our way of life, here and now.” She boldly called for a ban on the use of natural gas in new construction after 2027, the rapid development of offshore wind, and the phasing out of peaker plants—only used when excess energy is needed by the grid—as well as older fossil-fuel power plants.

Another closely related issue offers Hochul a similar chance to display bold leadership: imposing a statewide moratorium on proof-of-work bitcoin mining, a practice that poses a profound threat to the climate. Assemblymember Anna Kelles has introduced a bill that would place a three-year moratorium on proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining. The bill is currently making its way through the legislative process and has gained the support of 41 co-sponsors and 15 key committee chairs in the Assembly.

So far the governor has said very little about bitcoin mining, its environmental impact, or whether she supports a moratorium. It’s time she stepped forward.

Why is this action so critical?

Proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining consumes a tremendous amount of energy to operate the multiple, high-powered computers that validate the exchange of bitcoins as well as the cooling technology needed to keep the machines from overheating. In fact, a Cambridge University study concluded that bitcoin mining uses more electricity annually than the entire country of Argentina.

What is especially galling is that proof-of-work is only one way to mine cryptocurrency. “Proof-of-stake, another popular method, uses far less energy,” points out Yvonne Taylor, co-founder and vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian. But, she notes, proof-of-work’s energy use in the U.S. has grown 320% in just the past five years. New York, moreover, hosts nearly 20% of that.

Thanks to the work of Taylor and other environmentalists, attention in New York has focused on Greenidge Generation, a recently revived operation located on Seneca Lake. Formerly a coal-fired power station, it turned to natural gas when it reopened its doors. Originally intended to be a peaker plant, no one knew it would become a private bitcoin mining operation that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Greenidge’s Title V air permit is currently up for renewal, as discussed in our last issue. The decision on the renewal was due Jan. 31 but has been postponed to March 31 so that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) could “complete its ongoing review” of about 4,000 public comments on the case. As Peter Mantius reports, however, the delay provides Greenidge with the ability to expand its operations.

Under the CLCPA, the state is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030. The importance of doing so was underscored by today’s release of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that the pace of global warming threatens to overcome our ability to adapt to it. Greenidge is just one of many fossil-fuel power plants retired in upstate New York that could potentially be reopened for proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining; the possibility of Cayuga Power Plant going down this road punctuates the point.

If the bitcoin mining industry is allowed to continue growing without any oversight or regulation, the ability to achieve the CLCPA goals will be put in serious jeopardy. For the governor to be true to her word that climate change is a threat to our way of life, it’s clear what her next move must be: declare a moratorium on bitcoin mining.

Next Steps for the NYS Draft Climate Plan

The Climate Action Council, headed up by Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) President and CEO Doreen M. Harris, has just issued its draft scoping plan. Now it’s our job to review it carefully and respond. Beginning on Jan. 1, the public will have 120 days to offer comments and make sure their voices are heard.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, calls for New York to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030, establish a zero-emission electricity sector by 2040, and create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The CLCPA established the Climate Action Council, a 22-member committee charged with determining how to meet these statutory goals. The Council also consulted with a wide range of advisory panels and working groups over the past two years to address issues in areas such as transportation, solid waste, energy generation, workforce development, and climate justice.

A December 30 wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in suburban Denver, the latest dramatic sign of climate change. Photo by Tristantech licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The release of the draft scoping plan is the crucial first step in reaching the ambitious but necessary climate goals laid out in the CLCPA. There is certainly plenty of material for New Yorkers to wade through. The body of the report itself is 330 pages, followed by 520 pages of appendices. The Climate Action Council’s seven advisory panels – Transportation, Agriculture and Forestry, Land Use and Local Government, Power Generation, Energy Efficiency and Housing, Energy Intensive and Trade Exposed Industries, and Waste – submitted recommendations for the Climate Action Council to consider in the draft scoping plan, all of which can be found in the appendices.

In addition, the Climate Justice Working Group and Just Transition Working Group played key roles in the development of the draft scoping plan. The Disadvantaged Communities Barriers and Opportunities Report examines why some communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change and air pollution and have unequal access to clean energy, and recommends ways to rectify these problems using a climate justice lens. The Just Transition Working Group Jobs Study explores the consequences of climate change mitigation for the job market as well as actions required to provide adequate training, education, and workforce development.

The release of the draft scoping plan takes place against an increasingly dire climate crisis. The latest manifestation of this crisis is the Colorado wildfire that raced through suburbs between Denver and Boulder on Dec. 30, destroying at least 500 homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Needless to say, December wildfires are not a common occurrence in Colorado, but a severe drought combined with high winds to fuel the most destructive blaze in the state’s history. Elsewhere, a new report has found unsettling evidence that the so-called “Doomsday Glacier” in Antarctica could collapse in as little as five years, raising the world’s sea level by several feet. The Thwaites glacier already loses 50 billion tons of ice each year and makes up about four percent of the planet’s annual sea rise.

The need to take dramatic and immediate climate action, then, is obvious. Although one of the most sweeping plans issued by any state or country, the NYS draft report leaves many specifics to be worked out. The broad outlines of any effective climate plan must include, as this one does, calls for the electrification of buildings, a shift to electric vehicles, the expansion of renewables such as solar and wind power, the development of feasible energy storage strategies, the decommissioning of natural gas, and the implementation of a carbon tax. But still unclear are the details and timing involved with setting these steps in motion, and how to do so in a way that takes into account historic inequities and brings about a just transition.

The draft scoping plan is now in the hands of Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature. It remains to be seen to what extent public input will influence the final shape of the plan, but it’s critical that New Yorkers weigh in. The final report will be issued on Jan. 1, 2023 and the DEC will then announce legally binding regulations by Jan. 1, 2024 to ensure that the state achieves the CLCPA’s required targets.

Information about how to participate in the public hearings on the draft scoping plan will be disclosed in early 2022, according to the press release issued by the Climate Action Council. There will be at least six hearings held across the state. In addition, comments can be submitted via the online public comment form, by email at scopingplan@nyserda.ny.gov, and by U.S. mail to Attention: Draft Scoping Plan Comments, NYSERDA, 17 Columbia Circle, Albany, NY 12203-6399. Stay tuned!

Buckling Roads Ahead

A historic heat wave has the Pacific Northwest caught in its grip. One of the few places that many believed would largely escape the worst of climate change has seen temperatures reach triple digits this past weekend. Portland, Oregon, hit 112 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, breaking the all-time high of 108 degrees Fahrenheit, which had been set just the day before. Seattle, for the first time since records started being kept in 1897, experienced two consecutive triple-digit days. Despite the Northwest’s reputation for moderate weather, it’s so hot that roads are buckling, even the interstate highways.

One of the roads in Washington State buckling in the recent historic heat wave. Twitter: @wspd7pio.

Other areas of the West face even worse conditions. “The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” points out Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

According to a hair-raising report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a draft of which was obtained recently by Agence France-Presse (AFP), the outlook is unrelievedly grim if we don’t change direction immediately. Pulling no punches, the report bluntly declares that “the worst is yet to come.”

Entire societies and ecosystems will begin to come apart under the stress. “Species extinction, more widespread disease, unlivable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas – these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30,” according to the AFP account.

The 4000-page IPCC draft report, not scheduled for release until February 2022, constitutes the most comprehensive assessment so far of how climate change is disrupting our world. As have numerous other studies, the IPCC analysis makes clear that those least responsible for climate destabilization are suffering disproportionately. In particular, indigenous communities struggle to preserve their cultural practices, traditions, and livelihoods in the face of rapid global warming that they did little to set off.

Perhaps the most urgent point made in the IPCC report is that current levels of adaptation are not nearly sufficient to meet the moment. Even under an optimistic scenario of two degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century, the projections are startling. Billions of people will endure coastal destruction, drought, famine, wildfire, and extreme poverty.

The IPCC emphasizes that the foreboding picture it paints doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to do everything we can to keep the situation from completely unraveling. It notes that there are still significant steps we can take to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change. But, as the AFP dispatch puts it, “simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it.”

“We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” insists the IPCC report. “We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”

The question, of course, is whether we can pull off this kind of sweeping makeover. What will it take to convince people and their governments that this is the only viable way forward? The answer remains to be seen but, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the question hangs over us, warning of a dire end if we fail to pay attention.

Pointing to past major climate shocks, the IPCC report observes that they upended the environment and wiped out the vast majority of species. “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems,” it cautions. “Humans cannot.”

P.S. It hit 116 Degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, OR yesterday. Three days, three records in a row. Oh, and it was another triple-digit day in Seattle. So that’s the first time that we know of that Seattle had three triple-digit days in a row.

A Tale of Competing Tipping Points

We occupy a peculiar moment in history. On the one hand, the climate teeters on the edge of catastrophic destabilization. It’s become clear that we’re not on track to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the point at which scientists consider runaway climate change to become highly likely, and even 2 degrees might be slipping out of our reach.

Other worrisome trends abound. There is increasing evidence that the West Antarctic ice sheets are heading towards irreversible melting. The Gulf Stream is slowing down noticeably, in part due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, a development that will have a profound impact on the weather systems and sea levels on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result of hotter and drier weather and deforestation in the Amazon, one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks is disappearing as the rain forest transitions into a savannah.

President Biden kicks off the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22, 2021. White House photo by Adam Schultz/Public Domain.

These are only three of the seven climate tipping points that scientists have identified as posing the greatest threats. They constitute key elements of an earth system in which reinforcing loops, known as positive feedbacks, could send the world into an entirely different state. Seemingly small planetary changes, we’re beginning to grasp, can rapidly snowball into very big ones.

These climate tipping points have occurred before. There is compelling evidence of such abrupt shifts in the paleoclimate record. For example, sudden warming episodes during the last glacial period caused temperature changes of several degrees Celsius over short time spans in large parts of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Faced with the gravity of the current climate situation, it’s difficult not to be overcome by a growing sense of despair and even resignation. All around us signs of a dangerous, unfamiliar world are emerging: megadroughts, wildfires, rising sea levels, extreme weather events unprecedented in their scale and frequency. As Alex Steffens observes, “To look at this moment clearly is to see that the planetary crisis isn’t an issue, it’s an era.” It’s no longer a question, in other words, of saving the earth for our grandchildren; the alarming, alien world set in motion by global warming has already showed up on our doorstep.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? Both climate denialism and climate doomism are morally unacceptable options. There is another pathway. Juxtaposed against the array of runaway climate tipping points is what Gabbi Mocatta and Rebecca Harris call “a tipping point for climate action.” It’s the extraordinary tension between the tipping points for climate destabilization and collective action that makes the present moment so fraught. The probability of catastrophe versus the possibility of hope: which will win out in the end? Will the tipping point for broad-based climate action take place before the climate tipping points? The stakes have never been higher.

The case for hope rests, oddly enough, on the fact that we know more about the science of climate change than ever before. As Mocatta and Harris put it, “Although much of [this science] is devastating, it’s also resoundingly clear.” The incontrovertible nature of the climate data means that policy makers have a stronger obligation than ever before to act on its findings. The reentry of the U.S. into the Paris Agreement and the announcement at the recent White House virtual summit that the nation is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%-52% below its 2005 emissions levels by 2030 are just two indications that policy makers understand the need to respond to the latest research.

At the same time, public support for action has grown dramatically. The largest global opinion survey on climate change ever conducted, The People’s Climate Vote, found that even in the midst of the 2020 pandemic 64% of people considered climate change to be “a global emergency.” Of the people who viewed climate change in this light, 59% said that “the world should do everything necessary and urgently in response.”

The sense of peril reflected in this survey is perhaps the best news of all. It suggests that we may be ready to abandon the “business as usual” approach and move beyond the gradualism that has characterized much of climate policy action up to now. It raises the possibility that we can finally engage in the debate that truly matters: how do we transform our way of life for the benefit of all to meet the existential challenge before us? “Urgency and agency,” as Michael Mann reminds us, “make a winning combination in our fight against climate change.”

Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement

Adoption of the Paris agreement on December 12, 2015. Photo by UNclimatechange licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

The U.S. on February 19 officially rejoined the Paris climate agreement, reversing former President Trump’s decision in 2017 to withdraw from the international accord at the end of 2020. President Biden signaled this change in direction on his first day in office when he signed an executive order putting the U.S. back on the path to once again become a member of the agreement, which is a multilateral effort to curb the effects of climate change. Nearly 200 member countries have agreed to the treaty.

The climate agreement was adopted at COP 21 in Paris on December 12, 2015 and entered into force on November 4, 2016 with a goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. In fact, warming beyond 1.5 degrees, scientists have warned, could trigger runaway climate change.

Under the terms of the accord, each nation set its own greenhouse gas emissions targets with a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Countries agreed to establish finance programs and share resources with those countries that needed support. At the signing in 2016, the U.S. announced its target was to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Critics of the agreement have pointed to the lack of mandated standards and the relatively modest goals set by most nations as insufficient to head off the worst of the climate crisis. Needless to say, the exit of the U.S. from the accord — the only country to renounce the treaty after adopting it — increased the probability that climate-driven catastrophes would accelerate across the globe. Now that the U.S. is rejoining the accord, it is expected to establish a new target for 2030. Calls are mounting for at least a 50 percent reduction in emissions by then.

The widespread blackouts in California and Texas serve as a stark reminder of what we could be facing as the climate crisis worsens. Although different in scale and severity, the power outages in these two states underscore the extent to which we are unprepared for extreme weather events and the coming climate chaos. “We’re already seeing the effects of climate change,” observes Sascha von Meier, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “There will be more of this and it will get worse.”

What happened in California and Texas was not just an environmental disaster; it was a breakdown in security and stability, the capacity to carry on with our day-to-day lives. As Sir David Attenborough recently told a UN meeting, the climate crisis presents the “biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.” The reason why is not hard to understand: we have left the relatively benign climatic period that led to the flourishing of human civilization.

“If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains,” said Attenborough. “And if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilization will quickly break down.”

Another way to think about what’s at stake is to put the climate emergency in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Mark Carney, former head of the Bank of England and now UN envoy for climate action and finance, the world is heading for mortality rates equivalent to “a coronavirus crisis every year from the middle of this century, and every year, not just a one-off event” unless climate change is addressed immediately. As he puts it, “you cannot self-isolate from climate” and there is no waiting for climate change to pass; it will only “just get worse.”

So, yes, we’re back in the Paris Agreement and that’s a good thing, but it’s far from sufficient. There is much work to be done. That work involves the implementation of new government regulations and innovative technology such as heat pumps and electric vehicles. But the even harder work involves meeting the challenges of equity, justice, and accessibility, making sure that every person can lead a decent, healthy, and secure life. To do so, we must recognize at a fundamental level that the threats we face should unite us, not divide us; it is the key to our very survival as a species.

No Time Left to Choose How We Go Forward

A recent survey conducted by Washington University in St. Louis found that a majority of voters — 95% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans — acknowledge the existence of evidence for climate change. Not surprisingly, however, Democrats and Republicans differ in how seriously they view the issue and what they believe is causing global warming.

More than 90% of those who support Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden consider climate change as a crisis or major problem and they view human activity as the primary cause. A little less than half of President Donald Trump’s supporters see climate change as a crisis or major problem. Even among Trump supporters who believe climate change is real, only half think human activity is mostly to blame for it. Roughly 20% of Trump supporters deny the existence of climate change and insist that environmentalists are deliberately misleading the public.

The crucial point, of course, is that the science is clear and non-negotiable: there is little to no cushion remaining. This is it. We’ve moved too slowly on climate action, we’ve done far too little for too long, and we need to make an immediate and sharp transition. As Bill McKibben put it in his latest column for the New Yorker, “We think we always have time and space to change, but in this case we do not.” The next four years are critical, and November 3rd is our last best opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate chaos.

Evidence that the climate crisis has arrived is not hard to find. Among other extreme weather events in the last few days, Hurricane Zeta became the fifth named storm to hit Louisiana, the most ever in the state’s history. We actually ran through the English alphabet this season and are now deep into the Greek alphabet. There’s another tropical system forming in the Caribbean Sea this weekend and it has an excellent shot next week at becoming the 28th named storm this year, an unprecedented event. Never before has there been a tropical storm or hurricane named Eta, the next letter in the Greek alphabet after zeta, but we may see one next week.

It just so happens that the lower case form of eta (η) is the symbol in economics for elasticity, a way to measure the responsiveness of one variable to changes in another variable. In economics, a product is said to be elastic when a change in price has a significant effect on demand. Elasticity in climate politics has a similar dynamic: a change in administrations and their policies will have an outsized impact on the stability of our climate.

It seems all too appropriate that a storm named Eta could appear in the same week as the U.S. election, given the high stakes in play. It will be a vivid illustration of the sensitivity of one variable to another and what happens when that sensitivity manifests itself in the political arena. In the end, though, we must keep in mind that the outcome is not a matter of fate or destiny, it is a question of choice — how will we decide to go forward?

An Inflection Point in the Climate Fight?

The weather in Tompkins County has been beautiful this June. Spring got off to a slow start in April, with one rainy, gray day following another and temperatures at night dipping into the 30s even at the end of May. But then June arrived and with it so did the warmer and sunnier days. Gardens are exploding with new growth, the fields and roadside ditches are full of wild flowers and the landscape is green and lush.

 

We have every reason to be grateful. But in much of the world the climate emergency continues unabated. Just a few of the noteworthy items in the news recently:
  • Record-shattering heat assailed Europe this past week, with temperatures hitting well above 100 degrees F in France, Germany, Poland, and Spain. In fact, Europe’s five hottest summers in the past 500 years have all occurred in the last 15 years.
  • The wave of scorching weather has been even worse in India, where hundreds of villages have been abandoned because of acute water shortages and crop failures. The temperature in the city of Churu, hit 123 degrees, “making it the hottest place on the planet,” according to the Guardian. Several of India’s biggest cities are on the verge of running out of water.
  • In the Canadian Arctic permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than scientists predicted. “What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
  • A new United Nations report warned of “climate apartheid,” asserting that human rights, democracy, and the rule of law were all increasingly at risk. The report observed that developing countries will bear 75% of climate crisis costs, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In the face of this mounting evidence of runaway climate change, the U.S. refused to join nineteen other nations this week at the G20 Summit in Japan in a reaffirmation of their commitment to implementing the Paris Treaty. The U.S. objected on the grounds that doing so would hurt American workers and taxpayers.
As the 2018 achievements of Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) coalition members show, our community has pursued a wide range of activities to tackle the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The unanimous approval by the City Common Council of Mayor Svante Myrick’s Green New Deal for Ithaca is another dramatic indication of the local commitment to battle the climate crisis, marking a potential inflection point. But clearly there is much work to be done and, as the onrush of global developments starkly reminds us, there is little time to waste. If we are to bend the curve of history in the right direction and avoid catastrophe, we must redouble our efforts and push onward, refusing to rest on our laurels.

NYC’s Climate Mobilization Act

As the City of Ithaca considers possible next steps on climate action, it would do well to look downstate for inspiration. On April 18 the New York City Council passed a sweeping “Climate Mobilization Act” to fight climate change, a package of seven bills that supporters said would help build a “Green New Deal for New York City.” The legislation passed by a 45-2 vote.

Midtown Manhattan. Photo by Andreas Komodromos licensed under CC BY-2.0.
The centerpiece of the package requires buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut climate emissions 40% by 2030 and more than 80% by 2050, which officials said is “the most ambitious energy efficiency legislation in the country.” In addition, the legislation:
  • Requires green roofs, solar panels, and/or small wind turbines on certain buildings
  • Establishes a renewable energy and energy efficiency loan program
  • Streamlines the application and siting process for wind turbine installation across the city
  • Orders the city to carry out a study on the feasibility of closing its 24 oil- and gas-fired power plants and replacing them with energy storage and renewable power

“This legislation will radically change the energy footprint of the built environment and will pay off in the long run with energy costs expected to rise and new business opportunities that will be generated by this forward thinking and radical policy,” said Timur Dogan, an architect and building scientist at Cornell University.

As the New York Times observed in its coverage of the story, “Buildings are among the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions because they use lots of energy for heating, cooling and lighting, and they tend to be inefficient, leaking heat in the winter and cool air in the summer through old windows or inadequate insulation.” An inventory published in 2017 of greenhouse gas emissions in New York City found that buildings accounted for two-thirds of the city’s overall emissions.

It is for this very reason that TCCPI moved in 2016 to establish the Ithaca 2030 District as its new flagship program, joining a network of 22 cities in North America seeking to improve the energy and water performance of their downtown commercial buildings. Currently, the network has 493 million square feet committed. New York City is in the process of also establishing a 2030 District in Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, and it should soon be up and running.

The Ithaca Green Building Policy marks a significant step towards encouraging new development projects to become more environmentally sensitive. As the policy enters the process of codification, however, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority of commercial construction in the city is made up of already existing buildings. How does Ithaca intend to address this issue? The Climate Mobilization Act just passed by the New York City Council points the way.

COP24, Wishful Thinking, and the U.S.

When the UN climate talks at COP24 opened in Katowice, Poland earlier this month, there was good reason to be concerned about the outcome. After much infighting, however, delegates at the last minute settled on most of the rules for putting the 2015 Paris agreement into practice. The new pact outlined how countries will provide information about their climate actions, including mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as steps to provide financial support for climate action in developing countries.

“The guidelines will promote trust among nations that all countries are playing their part in addressing the challenge of climate change,” declared the official UN statement issued at the conclusion of the gathering. One could be forgiven, however, for believing this press release reflected wishful thinking more than actual reality.

COP 24 opening plenary. Photo by UNclimatechange licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The agreement, for example, called on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020. But the key question of how countries will bolster their targets on cutting emissions was largely overlooked.

Current targets, agreed to in the wake of the Paris climate talks in 2015, put the world on course for 3C of warming from pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would be disastrous, resulting in droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and a sharp reduction in agricultural productivity.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of COP24 was the obstructionist role played by the US. While the country provided important leadership in securing the Paris climate agreement, it proved to be far less constructive in Katowice. Throughout the negotiations the US delegation sought to water down language. Siding with the oil and gas nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, it blocked the conference from “welcoming” the IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C.

Just as infuriating, the US held an event at the conference promoting the continued use of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. In contrast, the European Union and several other developed countries joined with dozens of developing nations in declaring they would focus on preventing a 1.5C rise in their carbon-cutting efforts.

At this point in the climate crisis, it should be clear that there are only two ways to move forward. One is to implement clean energy technology on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program and stop the burning of fossil fuels. The other is to accept that billions of people will suffer and die because we refuse to take this course.

Which path will our community adopt? This is the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn, whether it is expanding the North Campus at Cornell, developing the Green Street Garage Project, repowering Cayuga Power Plant, or implementing a new Green Building Policy for the City and Town of Ithaca. We can criticize the lack of commitment and refusal of the US to address the pressing issues of climate change at global summits, but can we let ourselves off the hook? Clearly, we need to set a new course and act with a greater sense of urgency. As Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, told the COP24 delegates, “we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”