The early attention suggests a new urgency around climate resiliency eight years after Superstorm Sandy’s toll.
The last time New York had an open race for mayor, in 2013, Superstorm Sandy was a very recent memory, but climate change barely registered as a topic. Income inequality, stop-and-frisk, hospital closings and even horse carriages received ample time in the candidate debates. Climate change was but an afterthought.
Not this year. Over the past month, even as a pandemic raged and an economic catastrophe simmered, three major mayoral candidates—former federal housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and Comptroller Scott Stringer—have issued detailed policy proposals for how they would address the climate threat.
Other candidates have also highlighted the climate issue, even if they offered less detail. Former mayoral counsel Maya Wiley featured climate issues prominently in her recent plan for using city capital funding to create jobs. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams offered several environmental ideas as part of his new list of 100 policies for the city.
For the most part, these climate plans are included in the first substantive policy proposals from each campaign.
A sense of urgency
Still others in the crowded race have given passing but prominent mention of the climate issue. Veteran nonprofit leader Dianne Morales signed a “Green New Deal pledge” in late November. Retired Gen. Loree Sutton, formerly the head of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services, pledges to “act to contain, mitigate and prevent the increasingly disruptive threats caused by climate disruption” in a seven-point statement of governing principles. Zach Iscol, a social entrepreneur, also broaches the topic on his issues page: “The city’s leadership must prioritize projects that can reduce emissions and create good green jobs,” it reads.
The high profile for climate policy reflects its urgency. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg began to focus on climate change in the 2007 PlaNYC report, impacts from climbing temperatures and rising seas seemed decades away. The threat appears to be far closer now: According to the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States suffered $95 billion in damage during 2020 from 22 climate- and weather-related disasters.
“It’s eight years after Superstorm Sandy and so many of our communities are still rebuilding. I think the urgency has never been greater,” says Lindsay Meiman, a spokesperson for 350.org, whose political arm, 350 Action, gave a forceful endorsement of Stringer’s plan earlier this week. The attention to climate issues so far in the 2021 campaign “is really showing that there is an understanding that climate action is economic transformation. A Green New Deal will also create tens of thousands of good, family-sustaining jobs,” she says.
“It’s really showing that any serious contenders for mayor of the city of New York need to contend with the issue of climate change.”
Last week a coalition of progressive groups challenged all citywide and Council candidates to sign the Green New Deal pledge, which focuses on reducing building emissions (and generating jobs in doing so), dealing with the physical and financial infrastructure of the fossil-fuel industry, and improving transportation options.
The climate plans released so far by mayoral candidates indicate that the next mayor’s green agenda could be much broader than that. They also illustrate that while there are common threads among the approaches pitched by the campaigns, key differences in ambition and emphasis exist.
Among the five candidates who have addressed the issue in some depth, there are common themes. Many candidates express support for the idea of creating a “renewable Rikers,” and everyone talks about creating green jobs (although Donovan offers the most detailed set of ideas on how to do so). Attention to stormwater, the threat of extreme heat and the imperative of environmental justice is shared. There’s broad support for resuming and expanding the city’s collection of organic material and for addressing resiliency in public housing, as well as for improving funding for parks—although there are different suggestions for how to do so, with Stringer calling for 100 new playgrounds and Donovan calling for broader sharing of private donations raised for parks.
Donovan and Stringer both talk about the need to retire polluting “peaker plants.” Donovan calls for permanent Open Streets, while Adams and Stringer each specifically advocate for reclaiming some of the land from the highway system. And both Garcia and Stringer say they are interested in district-scale clean energy plans that could get batches of buildings off fossil fuels.
There are differences in depth. Donovan issued a lengthy policy paper, while Stringer and Garcia published lengthy lists of commitments. Adams devotes the last section of this “100 ideas” booklet to transportation and the environment, offering blurbs covering a handful of ideas; the theme of his climate policy is that the city needs to lead by example. Wiley’s $10 billion jobs plan commits $3 billion to “building a climate resilient NYC,” and elements of the $2 billion earmarked for NYCHA capital improvements also deal with resiliency.
A few points of contention appear. Donovan devotes a lot of attention to planning mechanisms and scoring projects with an eye on environmental justice. But Garcia (along with some in the advocacy community) argues, “In some neighborhoods (Edgemere, Lower Manhattan) we don’t necessarily need more ‘planning’—we just need to fully fund and execute resiliency strategies we already have in place.”
The three major plans—Donovan, Garcia and Stringer’s—all address implementation of Local Law 97, which requires major reductions in greenhouse emissions by buildings, beginning in 2024. The law is one of several major environmental achievements passed during the de Blasio administration. Garcia says she wants to create a carbon-trading system to help property owners comply with the law and avoid fines. Donovan’s plan is to implement a mechanism the city has already identified to help owners pay for upgrades, where they essentially borrow against future heating costs to pay for retrofits. He also says he wants the city to, “plan to enact a zero-carbon building code for new buildings by 2030 and eliminate fossil fuels from new building construction and operation even sooner.”
Stringer also wants to “ban natural gas and oil use in new construction or major renovations to allow for the scaling back of fossil fuels,” but he also calls for an end to the use of heating oil #4, one of the most polluting oils, by 2025.
Stringer calls for public power
Some of the differences between the plans are in emphasis. Garcia, who ran the sanitation system for most of the de Blasio era, talks a lot about how to better handle the city’s waste. Stringer, as befits a city comptroller, says a good deal about the financial side of the climate issue, vowing to “take on corporate financiers of climate destruction by working with pension trustees” and “launch the nation’s largest green and blue bonds program to fund green and resilient capital investments.” Donovan’s plan is unique in its call for crafting a K-12 curriculum around sustainability, one that would also involve CUNY and community partners.
Stringer’s plan is more ambitious in different respects. He calls for the creation of a public utility using only renewable energy. Addressing one of the more delicate aspects of resiliency planning, he vows to “create a long-term floodplain restoration program that moves willing homeowners out of harm’s way and helps create naturally resilient shorelines that can protect our neighborhoods.”
The focus on climate issues early in the campaign dovetails with the City Council’s move to set up a comprehensive planning system. While resiliency is not the only goal for comprehensive planning, a top critique of de Blasio’s approach to climate has been the lack of a comprehensive approach.
Now the question is whether the candidates’ early focus on climate will generate broad voter interest and substantive debate on the campaign trail amid all the other issues—policing, COVID, the budget—clamoring for attention in 2021.
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