The folks who brought you the massive People’s Climate March in September are now turbocharging New York City’s efforts to combat climate change.
Activists and some of their allies in city government laid out an ambitious climate agenda Monday night in an unassuming locale: the basement of the downtown Manhattan office of municipal employees union District Council 37. With brownish-orange linoleum floors and a gray dropped ceiling, set in a stocky brown brick building, it does not seem like the kind of place from which would spring the most ambitious, innovative solutions to the world’s largest, most complex problem. But it’s more fitting than it appears.
The union’s headquarters is located right where the Hudson River overflowed during Superstorm Sandy, and was subsequently closed for 10 months because of storm damage. And DC 37’s members, who range from crossing guards to nurses’ aides in public hospitals, are on the frontlines responding to the disasters like Sandy that will become more common due to climate change. They also, being more than 100,000 strong, are a major force in New York politics. And now they’re a key member of the People’s Climate Movement NY, a local group that grew out of the organizing efforts for the march.
In the six months since the march brought an estimated 400,000 people into New York’s streets, the New York City Council has already made some progress. “[Politicians] are a lot more responsive since the climate march,” says Mark Dunlea, a spokesperson for the People’s Climate Movement NY. The council passed a law setting a target of an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2050 and a law requiring employers to offer their employees the option of using pre-tax dollars for public transit. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed both. (On the state level, activists also scored a victory when Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in New York state in December.)
Although de Blasio gets all the national press for his progressive agenda, the New York City Council is just as important when it comes to writing local laws. Luckily for the activists, the council is just as liberal as the mayor: 48 of its 51 members are Democrats. Although many of those members have historically not focused on climate, the grassroots climate movement is finding that they are responsive to constituent pressure.
“We’re happy the mayor and city council are on the right side of these issues,” said Leslie Cagan, an organizer with the People’s Climate Movement, on Monday. “Not every city has that kind of leadership. But we know there are other forces with a different vision, so we can imagine the kinds of pressure our policymakers are under. So we need to encourage them to go deeper, broader, and stronger.”
Activists are now pressing the city council to pass key bills, as well as resolutions calling on state leaders to take action. The People’s Climate Movement NY is focused on three main bills, each of which has already been passed by the relevant committee. Here’s what each would do:
- Create bus rapid transit lanes in the outer boroughs. Despite New York’s image as a hyper-dense city richly served by mass transit, many of the farther reaches of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, along with the entire borough of Staten Island, do not have subway access. And even where there are subway lines, they’re already crammed with commuters at rush hour. Meanwhile, the buses that serve outlying parts of the city are notoriously slow. These two factors incentivize many outer-borough residents to drive, especially to work. Bus rapid transit, which dedicates lanes to express buses and moves passengers onto buses more efficiently, could revolutionize commuting from these neighborhoods, getting many more people onto mass transit.
- Require operators of large buildings to receive energy-efficiency training. Thanks to New York’s impressively low dependence on cars, it has the lowest transportation emissions per capita of any American city. But thanks to its weather, it has higher emissions from heating and cooling buildings than West Coast cities. While residential and commercial buildings are responsible for 39 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. as a whole, they account for nearly 75 percent of emissions in New York City. So this bill would require building superintendents and managers to take a class on cutting energy waste where they would learn, for example, how to check for windows leaking air. If they actually implemented what they learned, supporters say it would reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 3 percent. But while taking the class would be mandatory, applying its lessons would not, and some building owners would likely be reluctant. Making an efficiency upgrade can cost more upfront than it saves in the short term. There is also a split incentive between building owners who have to pay for upgrades and renters who see the savings on their utility bills. “We support this bill,” said John Forster, a city planner who leads one of DC 37’s locals, “but we need to ultimately make [energy efficiency] mandatory.” Climate activists are hoping to amend the bill to make it stronger, or follow its passage with another, more forceful, bill.
- Update New York City’s Clean Air Act for the first time since 1975. This bill would crack down on emissions from currently unregulated sources, like mobile electricity and heat generators, which you see on construction sites all around the city. It would also tighten emissions requirements on city-owned vehicles, and give the city government more leeway to update rules to reflect technological advances.
De Blasio spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick told Grist that the mayor supports all three of the bills. Some activists have heard otherwise, saying that de Blasio has privately expressed concerns about the clean air bill to the city council and that is why it has not passed already. But People’s Climate Movement activists are generally confident that these three bills will be passed into law.
City Council member Donovan Richards, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection and an emerging climate leader on the council, has also introduced other climate bills. They would:
- Require the city to put motion sensors in city-owned buildings. This would reduce electricity waste by automatically turning out lights whenever a room is empty. (Think about how often you’ve walked into an office bathroom and found the light on but no one there.)
- Install electric-vehicle charging stations on city property. One of the big impediments to owning an electric vehicle is fear of having nowhere to charge it. Local governments can help fix that. “One of the things we’re looking to do is expand infrastructure on electrical vehicles, especially on city parking lots,” said Richards on Monday. “Right now, if city workers want to drive electric vehicles, and park on a city lot, there is nowhere to plug it in.” That’s a start, although the city could go further by requiring gas stations and private parking garages to offer electric charging stations as well.
Additional bills recently introduced include one that would require businesses to shut off some lights at night and another that aims to catch more cars and trucks idling on city streets and increase the fines for idling.
One of the main challenges for a city trying to reduce its emissions is that it does not control many key levers of power. So activists are also pushing the council to pass symbolic resolutions calling on the New York state government to take certain actions, such as:
- Veto the Port Ambrose proposal to put a liquefied natural gas import terminal off the coast of Long Island. Just 30 miles from New York Harbor, this project has drawn the ire of local activists from all over New York state and New Jersey. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will each have an opportunity to reject the project unilaterally.
- Impose a statewide carbon tax. The benefits of a well-designed regional carbon tax like British Columbia’s are known to Grist readers, but it isn’t going to happen under current conditions in New York, because a breakaway group of self-interested Democrats have helped the Republicans retain control of the state Senate.
- Start up congestion pricing in New York City. The city’s traffic is legendary, and congestion pricing — charging each driver a fee to enter most of Manhattan during business hours — would reduce it and raise revenue that could be used for mass transit. But putting tolls on bridge and street crossings requires state government approval. Suburban legislators blocked it when Mayor Mike Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing in 2007. There are signs, though, that if some of the revenue went to improving broken-down roads and bridges, the local drivers’ lobby might support it.
The People’s Climate Movement NY is also pushing for a resolution calling for divesting the city’s employee pension funds from fossil fuels. Here, the intended targets are the mayor, comptroller, and borough presidents, who control the city’s pension investment board.
There is little reason to think that city council resolutions alone would cause any of these things to happen. But building political will is a slow, multi-faceted process. In some cases, like the fight against Port Ambrose, demonstrating that the elected representatives of the affected communities are united in their opposition could influence Cuomo.
Climate activists might end up being more disappointed in the results of actual lawmaking. No savvy activist expects a non-binding city council resolution to deliver a statewide carbon tax. But they probably do expect a city law to have its intended effect. That cannot always be assured. Consider, for example, the proposed higher fines for idling. Plenty of laws intended to curb dangerous driver behavior, such as speeding and blocking the crosswalk, are generally not enforced by the NYPD. “Implementation is just as important as passing laws, if not even more so,” says Dunlea. That will require continued vigilance and lobbying from activists.
But first, city councilors must be motivated to pass the laws, so activists are gearing up to put on the heat. Monday’s event at the DC 37 building included detailed instructions on how to lobby your councilmember. “Their staff should know you by your first name,” said Samara Swanston, legal counsel to the city council’s Environmental Protection Committee. Her boss, councilmember Richards, thinks engaged activists can expect a good response. “I anticipate over the next year you’ll see a lot of movement,” he told the crowd.
Correction: This article originally stated that two bills from City Council member Donovan Richards have not yet be introduced. In fact they have been introduced.