8 Years After Sandy, New York City Lags On Climate. Will The 2021 Election Change That?

Alexander C. Kaufman
·Senior Reporter, HuffPost
·9-min read

In 2007, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a blueprint to transform New York into “the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city,” a lofty vision for change in an increasingly hot and urbanized world.

Five years later, Superstorm Sandy hit, killing 44 across the five boroughs, wiping out entire pockets of the city’s working-class waterfront and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power for weeks. But that first taste of a chaotic climate future prompted the city’s leaders to retreat to a mishmash of policies to adapt to the worst effects of global warming ― rather than working to avoid them.

Now a historic election offers a chance to propel the nation’s largest and most economically influential city back to the vanguard of climate action.

While the looming presidential race has captivated attention, New York City’s most important municipal election in nearly a decade is just getting underway. Next year, voters will choose a new mayor, comptroller and a majority of the City Council, after already replacing several longtime incumbents in Congress and the state Legislature with Green New Deal backers in the last two years.

Candidates are already signaling that climate change will be a major theme, even as the city deals with an ongoing pandemic and budget shortfall. The effects could be far-reaching as other cities look to New York as a model for how municipalities with limited control of their economic destinies rebuild in the wake of the coronavirus.

Mounting climate disasters, including another record year of billion-dollar wildfires and storms, have amplified an increasingly organized movement calling for dramatic policy efforts to address climate change. Calls for a Green New Deal, a progressive framework for a green industrial plan to phase out fossil fuels and transition workers to new jobs, reshaped the Democratic presidential primary this year, and helped win more than half a dozen seats in New York’s Legislature for left-wing progressives this summer.

A thunderstorm passes over the skyline of lower Manhattan. (Photo: Gary Hershorn via Getty Images)
A thunderstorm passes over the skyline of lower Manhattan. (Photo: Gary Hershorn via Getty Images)

“The idea of pairing massive amounts of good jobs with reducing air pollution and fixing society’s inequalities, encapsulated in the Green New Deal vision, is so compelling to blue-state primary voters,” said Pete Sikora, a climate policy expert and senior adviser to the grassroots group New York Communities for Change. “In New York City, the bluest of the blue, I would be stunned if large numbers of candidates at all levels don’t run hard on a Green New Deal.”

An Emerging Theme

The most comprehensive climate proposal so far is from Brad Lander, the progressive city councilman from Brooklyn running for comptroller. In a detailed plan shared with HuffPost, the candidate for New York City’s chief financial post laid out steps to divest the city’s pension funds of fossil fuels, expand public financing for clean infrastructure and create a new auditing department to hold city agencies and companies accountable to climate goals.

But Scott Stringer, the sitting comptroller and early front-runner for mayor, is aligning himself with the various grassroots fights that climate activists are waging across the city, publicly opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure and protesting plans to upgrade old power plants with natural gas turbines.

His opponents seem likely to make climate an issue. Maya Wiley, the former mayoral counsel and MSNBC host who announced her candidacy two weeks ago, would place “making New York more resilient in the face of climate change” among “her top priorities as mayor,” a spokesperson said. Shaun Donovan, the Obama administration’s former Housing and Urban Development secretary, is expected to announce his own climate platform as part of a bid for sometime after the anniversary of Sandy.

Roughly 60% of the 51-seat City Council is term-limited, and new candidates include Tiffany Caban, the leftist firebrand from Queens now running in a district that includes many of the city’s power plants. The next City Council speaker will likely emerge from a crop of incumbents that includes Brooklyn councilman Justin Brannan, who chairs the committee on waterfront resiliency, and Carlina Rivera, the Manhattan legislator behind a new proposal to spur a wave of green jobs in the city.

Greening The COVID-19 Recovery

COVID-19 dealt a heavy blow to New York City’s economy, causing restaurants, shops and museums ― including some iconic institutions ― to close. The unemployment rate in September was 14.1%, more than double the 6.5% rate outside the five boroughs. The city government now finds itself staring down a deficit projected to grow to nearly $5 billion in the next fiscal year.

The solution, counterintuitively, could be to throw money at the problem. A 40-page proposal unveiled Tuesday calls for spending $16 billion over three years to expand bike lanes, retrofit city buildings and public housing with solar panels and energy efficiency upgrades, and boost green manufacturing on the city’s industrial waterfront. An estimate made using the Political Economy Research Institute’s methodology pegged the number of jobs that would be created as part of the plan at more than 101,000.

About half the plan could be paid for through state and federal funds, its authors said, but it would still require about $8.4 billion of the city’s $92.5 billion budget. But it has strong backing from environmental groups, labor unions and about one-fifth of the City Council.

Homes sit under construction one year after being destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, New York City. (Photo: Andrew Burton via Getty Images)
Homes sit under construction one year after being destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, New York City. (Photo: Andrew Burton via Getty Images)

“We have a long way to go, and this report is a road map to help us get there,” Rivera said during a press conference announcing the proposal. “We also need the state to step up and pass revenue-generating bills, like a wealth tax, pied-a-terre tax, increased gas tax, stock transfer tax. There are options.”

Limitations On The City’s Power

While the plan highlights the limits of the city’s financing powers, it does aggregate much of what the municipality has the power to do on its own.

NYC is heavily dependent on oil and gas for its electricity and heating, and is expected to become more so next year when its last remaining nuclear plant north of the Bronx shuts down. Despite a subway system unrivaled by any other American municipality, cars dominate the city and massive aging highways built in the middle of the last century divide and pollute dense residential neighborhoods. The city can wield some control over the electrical generation in its limits and take significant steps to increase lanes for bikes and buses. Yet power plants and thoroughfares fall largely outside City Hall’s jurisdiction, requiring action by state regulators.

However, the city does control its own building codes. And the more than 1 million towers, brownstones and houses that form the city’s sawtooth skyline happen to produce the vast majority of its carbon dioxide emissions.

Last summer, lawmakers took the biggest step since 2007 toward cutting emissions, passing a law that required the city’s largest buildings, structures over 25,000 square feet, to install enough new windows, heating systems and insulation to cut emissions 40% by 2030. The legislation also tweaked building codes to encourage property owners to install solar panels and small wind turbines and cover rooftops with plants, and made new loans available for renewable energy purchases.

We’re drawn to the idea that austerity thinking is smart thinking, and that’s just not the case. You’ve got to look at the whole picture. New York City Comptroller candidate Brad Lander

There’s an opportunity, particularly for the comptroller and mayor, to expand on those incentives. New rules could require developers to forgo oil burners and gas appliances in favor of all-electric and geothermal systems. Swapping electric alternatives for heating and cooking would save the average NYC home $6,800 and 46 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over a 15-year period, according to an analysis the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute published this month.

Lander has proposed creating new “climate loans” to help fund solar panels and wind turbines on private property. Drawing on researcher Saul Griffith’s work on financing the transition to clean energy, Lander said the city could, in theory, invest in a vast network of rooftop renewables and batteries that would ultimately amount to a municipal electric utility, drawing in additional revenue for the city.

A Powerful Pulpit

Changes in the city could resonate far beyond the shores of the Hudson and East rivers. Stringer began the process of divesting the city’s roughly $5 billion in pension funds from fossil fuels, and the move prompted other large cities to follow suit.

He also used the city’s strength as a major shareholder to pressure JPMorgan Chase to demote former Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond ― the executive who helped build the propaganda apparatus that poisoned public discourse on climate science for decades ― from his lead director role on its board in May.

Lander said he wants to use the comptroller’s office to press New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for more leeway to make sustainable investments and direct more financing back to New Yorkers as the pandemic-induced recession worsens, pushing back against Albany’s belt-tightening instincts.

“We’re drawn to the idea that austerity thinking is smart thinking, and that’s just not the case,” Lander said. “You’ve got to look at the whole picture.”

That view of the bigger picture could help New York reset its climate politics. After Sandy, New York traded a “decarbonization-focused tentative cosmopolitanism” for an inward-looking defensive “fortress of solitude” approach, as sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen described it in a study published last month in the journal Environmental Politics. In what may be a side effect of that retreat, more than half of the country’s 100 most populous cities have yet to even set targets to cut emissions ― and of the ones that have, two-thirds are lagging far behind their goals, according to a Brookings Institution study released Thursday.

For Eddie Bautista, the Brooklyn-based community organizer who leads the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the victories that climate hard-liners won in the election this year are signs of good things to come in 2021.

“The last six months have shone a light,” he said. “We now have the political muscle at the same historic moment that the political machines are dead or dying out. When I look at where we are positioned as a movement, I am optimistic.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.