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New Yorkers Must Demand State Lawmakers Act to Avoid Climate Disaster

By Mark Dunlea, Green Education and Legal Fund

I found the recent opinion piece by Dr. Ingraffea et al – “New York’s climate opportunity: The state has a chance to seize the initiative in curbing greenhouse gases” – both disappointing and confusing.

The authors make many valid points. The state needs to improve its tracking of greenhouse gas emissions, starting with methane leakages. They point out that climate action is also a job producer. And New York has been moving at a glacial pace to develop wind and solar, which accounts for a meager 4% of the state’s electricity (which itself accounts for less than a quarter of the state’s carbon footprint). The state needs to strengthen “beneficial electrification of transportation, heating, and industry — while synchronously planning for a grid to support it.”

As one of the authors of the NYS OFF Act to go to 100% renewable energy by 2030 along with an immediate halt for new fossil fuel projects, I remain disappointed by the authors’ continuing opposition to the need for and feasibility of pursuing a faster climate timeline than the state’s existing 10-year old goal of trying to achieve only an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. I was also surprised by the lack of a call to halt fossil fuel projects.

The world’s understanding of the accelerating threat posed by climate change has increased significantly in the last decade. The developing world which is most threatened by global warming rebelled in Paris three years ago against the industrial world’s promotion for similarly slow action (e.g., we need to keep warming to 1.5 degrees C not 2 degrees). Late last year, the IPCC – which consistently understates the severity and speed of climate change – warned the world that we have 11 years left for an unprecedented global mobilization to end fossil fuel use.

Other scientists like James Hanson have long contended that the goal should be closer to 1 degrees C, that we need to keep the carbon levels in the atmosphere below 350 ppm rather than the 450 outlined in the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) promoted by the NYS Assembly. Scientists are now raising the possibility of human extinction and/or the end of civilization as we know it.

The OFF Act seeks to implement the “Jacobson study” done by Stanford and Cornell professors during the anti-fracking fight to show that by 2030 we could meet all our energy needs by wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and other renewables without the need for natural gas or other fossil fuels. Two of the op-ed writers (Ingraffea, Barth) were co-authors of that report.

Since the initial study, Prof. Mark Jacobson of Stanford and others with The Solutions Project had focused more on a goal of 100% by 2050. Before we wrote the OFF Act, we asked Jacobson to clarify his position. He said that he had always been clear that 2030 was technologically feasible but that he added 20 years to deal with the political posturing and economic challenges. We said that we don’t need to give politicians 20 years of wiggle room, they will seek to drag it out anyway.

The Jacobson report was not a detailed blueprint on how to achieve 100% clean renewable energy and there are certainly many barriers and problems that would have to be addressed, several of which are raised in the op ed. Three years ago we got the Assembly to include in its budget resolution funding for a study by Prof. Howarth of Cornell (another co-author of the Jacobson study) on how fast would it be possible to get to 100% renewable energy. While the Senate balked, we did get the Governor in his January 2017 State of the State to say that NYSERDA would produce such a feasibility analysis by the beginning of 2018. We are still waiting – and pushing for the draft to be released. We want a debate grounded in science.

Advocates for a much faster timeline than those pushed by Cuomo (CLA), CCPA or the op ed are fully aware of the myriad problems that would have to be solved. We know that we will not meet such deadlines – and save life on the planet – absent a full-scale mobilization of research and resources to make it happen, to make possible things that are not presently achievable. Like we did when we put a man on the moon. We realize that it will be the last 5 to 10% of the conversion that will be the most expensive and technologically challenging. This is why the OFF Act uses the goal of net zero emissions by 2030, 100% renewable energy, and incorporates regenerative agriculture.

The OFF Act also includes specific recommendations on buildings (e.g., all new buildings new zero emissions by 2022, similar to California) and transportation (e.g., all vehicles to be zero emissions by 2025, like Norway). It embraces energy efficiency, the most cost-effective climate action strategy. It requires local climate action plans as well as the state, and mandates that government agencies comply with them. We need to give citizens the right to sue to enforce the climate laws. We need short-term goals in no more than 2-year intervals with annual reviews and updates.

In the last Congressional session, every NYS House Democrat except Tonko sponsored the federal OFF Act with its 2035 timeline for 100% renewables for electricity and transportation. Jacobson wrote an op ed with Food and Water Watch’s Executive Director supporting that timeline. 13 members of the NYS Congressional delegation, including Senator Gillibrand, endorse the Green New Deal with its 2030 timeline. How can NYS elected officials and advocates push for a much slower timeline at the state level? (Across the planet the Extinction Rebellion is calling for a 2025 timeline.)

We need to start with how fast do we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions to give human life the best chance of surviving – and hopefully thriving. We then work backwards from there. We will not survive an approach based on what is “realistic” in light of our present political and economic dynamics. It is the “market” after all which created the crisis.

The part of the op ed I find most confusing is the authors’ linking their support for the slower emissions reduction timeline advocated by the Governor with a call for 100% carbon neutrality by 2050. The issue of carbon offsets, carbon neutrality, and net zero emissions has become one of the central debates in Albany over the climate deal – yet everyone seems to frame the debate in their own terms, talking past one another at least in public. This op ed continues that. The examples cited by the authors are not reflective of the core issues being debated in Albany over the use of carbon offsets.

GELF is all in for regenerative agriculture and healthy soil practices to restore carbon to the soil. The Drawdown Project, which outlines 100 ways to reduce carbon emissions, including a plant-based diet, proposes for example reducing methane emissions by going back to the ancient silvopasture practice that integrates trees and pasture into a single system for raising livestock.

When Cuomo talks about carbon neutrality, he starts with nuclear power, which accounts for 31% of the state’s electricity. I have opposed this expensive and dangerous technology since I co-founded NYPIRG in the early 70’s. The OFF Act calls for a phase-out of nukes by 2025. One can have a long debate about the role of nukes in mitigating climate change, but it should focus more on the issue of continuing to run existing plants rather than building new ones which would be too late to have much impact if any on preventing runaway global warming. Building new nuclear plants, mining and processing fuel, and storing radioactive wastes for tens of thousands of years is also hardly carbon-free.

Cuomo is also talking about the problematic expansion of biomass, including the burning of wood (and possibly garbage) and the “Hail Mary” / corporate welfare boondoggle of carbon sequestration and capture, which is nowhere close to working after tens of billions of dollars have been spent on research. The authors do raise the valid issue of how to ensure that carbon put into the ground stays there (a huge problem with sequestration efforts).

Environmental justice advocates are rightly opposed to carbon offsets that would enable fossil fuel polluters to continue to pollute low-income communities in exchange for “offsets” elsewhere. The “planting of trees in Brazil” has not helped much as a recent story, "An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth: Why Carbon Credits For Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing" in ProPublica detailed.

Unlike the op ed, I think perhaps the most commendable part of the CCPA is its focus on environmental justice, including its call for 40% of (certain) climate funds to go to disadvantaged communities most impacted by climate change. While the final deal will be for significantly less, environmental and community justice is critical to effective climate action.

The CCPA also seeks to enact standards to ensure that the climate transition provides living wage jobs and strong labor standards. The OFF Act has the strongest Just Transition provisions, ensuring displaced workers during the transition with a guaranteed job and wages, and assisting local governments presently dependent on tax payments for fossil fuel and nuclear plants.

In order to win public support for the revolutionary overhaul of our energy and industrial systems needed to avoid climate catastrophe, the public needs to believe that they will be better off from the transition. We saw that with the recent Yellow Vest protests in France and the Australian elections.

We have also seen across the planet that increasing the use of renewables does not automatically lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (including methane from natural gas). That is why we need clear mandates to slash emissions, starting with halting the construction of new fossil fuel projects. This includes prohibiting the conversion of oil furnaces to gas; instead, we need to require clean renewable heat like air heat pumps and geothermal.

It is true that the federal government has the lead jurisdiction over the approval of most large fossil fuel projects, with the state role usually limited to permits under the Clean Water Act. But more states, including neighboring New Jersey and Vermont, are asserting their right to halt such projects in light of the climate emergency and the threat to public health and safety. New York should be leading the charge on this, fighting back against the Trump administration.

There are far more details that need to be examined as the Governor and state lawmakers draft their climate deal behind closed doors. It is likely that the climate deal will end up as part of the end-of-session “Big Ugly,” where controversial issues are horse-traded into one final grand deal.

Unfortunately, the deal is unlikely to include the simple but powerful step of requiring the state pension fund to divest its ten-billion-dollars plus investments in Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, despite the financial risks.

We need to demand the fastest climate action possible. It is far better to try to go too fast than to go to slow. We need to give our children and grandchildren a chance of a future. #climatechante #ClimateAction #GreenNewDeal #OffFossilFuels #DemandMore #NewYork

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