Another year of climate change inaction by NYS lawmakers

As Pope Francis challenges the world’s leaders to take bold action on climate change, New York State lawmakers are leaving Albany for the year without having taken any meaningful action on climate change.

Scientists say we have at best 15 years to take real action to avoid the worst of climate change. Another year has been lost in New York.

Slightly more action has been taken by Governor Cuomo. He is looking into how to restructure the grid to better manage electricity, including generation from small-scale sources. After years of protest he agreed to stop high volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. However, his recent proposal for $150 million annually in subsidies for large scale renewables is about the same as the commitment over the last decade – when the state fell far short of its goals to add renewables. Cuomo has pushed hundreds of millions in subsidies for coal plants while allowing new fossil fuel infrastructure to proliferate statewide. In fact, the state’s draft energy plan encourages increased use of natural gas, which is primarily methane, a more potent heat trapping gas than is carbon dioxide. The state lacks a realistic plan for 100% clean energy with timelines and benchmarks. And it needs to do a lot more to develop off shore wind farms, especially to meet the clean energy needs of downstate.

At the federal level, the President has bypassed Congressional gridlock to push states to take modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – while continuing to promote the burning and extraction of fossil fuels. Congress and the states, including NY, are resisting even this limited effort.

The US continues to be the leader in undercutting needed global action on climate change while our carbon footprint per capita dwarfs the rest of the world. The recent announcement that the G7 countries had agreed to phase out fossil fuels by 2100 is largely business as usual, meaning the planet will burn.

The president’s recent announcement that he had secured $4 billion in private funding for renewable energy amounts to 1% of the capital needed annually to transition the US to 100% clean energy by 2050. Even that goal is probably too modest to avoid catastrophic climate change. A peer reviewed study has shown that it is technically feasible for NYS to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030 using technology that is commercially available today. They add on another 20 years to account for the political and economic challenges. Global warming won’t be so forgiving.

Some hope that the market itself will “solve the problem” as the price of renewables, especially solar, has dropped below the cost of burning fossil fuel. Certainly the transition would be expedited if the “market” is adjusted to reflect the costs of burning fossil fuels ($30 billion plus annually in NY) through a robust and escalating carbon tax. But the market alone will never be enough to ensure that 80% of the existing fossil fuel resources are never burned and released into the atmosphere; the oil, gas and coal companies will not sacrifice their profits and investments.

Renewables are now so profitable and cost-effective that even conservatives embrace them as part of the energy mix. After all, renewable energy businesses create jobs and make campaign contributions. The frequent news releases in support of a new renewable energy project contribute to the false impression that a major transition is underway.  The transition is not moving fast enough.  Actions have been too little, too late. We need a mobilization comparable to what the US did after Pearl Harbor. It needs to be all hands on deck.

Moving to clean energy isn’t only good for the environment, it is the path to full employment and a healthier life. The initial report to transition to 100% clean energy in NYS predicted the equivalent of more than 280,000 40-year jobs just for the construction of energy facilities (more would be created through conservation, conversion to electric vehicles, etc.) It would lower electric bills by more than half compared to continued reliance on burning fossil fuels. And eliminating air pollution from such burning could save more than 3,000 lives in NY annually.

There are a number of laws in NYS that have been introduced to help deal with climate change – from having the state transition to 100% clean energy by 2030(A7497 / S5527) to divesting the state pension plans from fossil fuels. Hundreds of grassroots groups are working to reform the state energy policies to promote renewables and conservation, to stop any more dollars going to fossil fuels and related infrastructure, to have local residents buy clean energy. There are also various government groups at all levels across the state that are working to reduce the local carbon footprint.

One hope is that the worldwide popularity of Pope Francis will make his call this week for climate change action a game changer. Pope Francis is calling for changes in lifestyles and energy consumption to avert the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem.” The failure to act would have “grave consequences for all of us”. Francis also called for a new global political authority tasked with “tackling … the reduction of pollution and the development of poor countries and regions”

The solutions exist. There are a large number of citizens who have educated themselves about what is possible and who are willing to contribute their time to try to make it happen. What is needed is the political will and leadership to make the successful transition and a commitment to energy democracy and equity, where the needs of the many are given priority over the short term profits of a few.

And advocates and officials must be willing to say that we have made only a first step, but much more is needed, and it is needed now.