Will Andrew Cuomo be our first climate change President?

While the Governor must stand for re-election next year, many believes his eyes are on the White House 2 years later.

Despite criticism from the left, Cuomo can point to his successes on same-sex marriage, gun control and fracking to help him in the democratic primary. And while it was a challenge a few years ago to get him to say that extreme weather was caused by burning fossil fuels, he now boasts that New York is a national leader on climate change.

But the sobering reality is that 15 years after Governor Pataki announced bold goals to increase renewable energy – and 7 years into the Cuomo era – New York gets a mere 3% of its electricity from wind, solar and geothermal energy. Setting goals is one thing, achieving them is something else. California in contrast recently announced that it expects to get 50% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020 – ten years faster than they planned.

Cuomo’s climate agenda has focused primarily on electricity – which accounts for less than 25% of the state’s carbon footprints. Progress has been even slower on transportation and the heating / cooling of buildings, with each accounting for about 1/3 of the state’s carbon footprints. Energy efficiency has been neglected.

2018 provides Cuomo with an ideal opportunity to step up on climate change. The long-awaited state blueprint for offshore wind (OSW) is about to be released, as well as a Cuomo-initiated study on how fast New York can transition to 100% clean energy.

The recent series of devastating level 5 hurricanes ending with Puerto Rico being knocked flat its back for the foreseeable future was a wakeup call for many. Americans want more climate action.

The Democratic National Party last year listened to Bernie Sanders and Bill McKibben and adopted a platform plank calling for a WWII level mobilization to solve climate change. Yet Cuomo still treats climate change as another box to check off on his to do list rather than the central focus of his administration. His goals have been modest, pushing the envelope but falling far short of what is needed. He and Richard Kaufmann, his energy czar, have focused on how to “reorganize the market” to promote renewables while controlling costs and protecting grid reliability.

Cuomo has been penny wise and pound foolish. This has especially been true in offshore wind. The State needs 40% of its power from OSW, with the area off of Long Island being the Saudi Arabia of wind. NY needs to make the investment in OSW that Europe has, where the last project came in at only 5 cents per KwH, less than a third of the cost of the first small project Cuomo approved for LIPA. We saw a similar problem when Cuomo recently changed the net metering rules for community solar farms.

We need to half any more fossil fuels while investing in clean renewable energy. Instead Cuomo has embraced natural gas as a “cheap bridge fuel” despite the fact that methane is 80 times more potent short term as a greenhouse gas compared to carbon. The Governor wants to spend a $100 million to build two new plants to power the Empire State Plaza with fracked gas from Pennsylvania. He instead should make the Capitol a model for a clean energy future, pursuing renewable alternatives such as geothermal as other states including Oklahoma have done.

State and local leadership is critical with Trump and the national Republican leadership denying climate change, helping the fossil fuel industry to extract as much profits as possible before everything collapses. As Pope Frances has pointed out, solving climate change means also solving economic and environmental injustice, since the causes are the same.

Climate scientists increasingly see a bleak future for humanity as the rate of climate changes continues to accelerate faster than predicted. Some have even raised the possibility of human extinction – a fate that clearly awaits many if not most other species. The most likely scenario is the wealthy barricading themselves inside of climate-controlled structures while the rest of us compete for access to land, water and food as extreme weather intensifies. Our grandchildren will curse us.

This does not have to be our future. The technology already exists to rapidly transition to 100% clean energy, providing a healthier environment, cheaper electricity and millions of living wage jobs. What we lack is the political will – the democracy – to put the well-being of the many ahead of the wealth and campaign contributions of the fossil fuel industry.

Cuomo should adopt a climate action plan to quickly transition to 100% clean energy, with clear timelines, activities, funding and benchmarks. The US conference of Mayors recently endorsed 100% clean energy by 2035. Dozens of state legislators led by Assemblymember Colton and Senator Holyman have legislation for 100% clean energy by 2030.

The Governor should promote energy democracy, with community control / ownership of the energy system, ensuring that low and moderate income New Yorkers can participate in our energy future. We need a Just Transition to ensure that workers and vulnerable communities are assisted.

That state should also enact a state carbon tax to make corporate polluters pay for the tens of billions of dollars of damage they inflict annually and to accelerate the transition to clean renewable energy. And it is long past time for the State comptroller to pull the state pension funds out of the fossil fuel industry which threatens our future.

Being a leader means convincing others to make difficult choices. We saw how effective Cuomo can be when he pushed marriage equality. We need him to lead the way on climate action.

Mark Dunlea is chairperson of GELF.