When former President Donald Trump announced that the United States would exit the Paris climate agreement in 2017, hundreds of mayors across the country pledged to keep pursuing the goals of the accord. Among them was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who signed a law in 2019 that committed the city to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.
Much of the work of implementing the law will fall to New York’s next mayor. And in a city with more than 3.7 million registered Democrats and only about 500,000 registered Republicans, whoever wins Tuesday’s Democratic primary will almost certainly win the general election in November.
Neither climate change nor environmental justice is likely to be a deciding factor, despite the increased national attention to the issues with a Biden administration. The current frontrunner, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former police captain, has centered his platform around crime and public safety. The top-polling progressive candidate, Maya Wiley, a civil rights lawyer who served as counsel to de Blasio, has focused her campaign more broadly on inequality and racism. Meanwhile, Scott Stringer, a candidate trailing in the polls after sexual misconduct accusations, has the most thorough and prominent climate plan, but scant chance of winning.
The winner will play an outsized role in determining whether or not the city stays on track with its climate plans. “The next decade is going to be very important,” says Amy Bailey, a sustainability expert who engages with cities, states and companies at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Virginia-based think tank.
New York is not the only city that has made ambitious climate change commitments in the last few years and now faces the more difficult task of following through. But whether and how New York achieves its goals will be important nationally and internationally. Because of the city’s sheer size, its policies and actions “stand as kind of an important marker for how other U.S. cities might go,” Bailey said.
A major prerequisite to achieving New York City’s now legally mandated “80 by 50” goal is tackling energy use in buildings, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Local environmental justice groups are pushing the city to install solar panels on public schools in communities of color, like the South Bronx and Sunset Park, which experience disproportionate air pollution. Some of this pollution comes from the city’s aging peaker plants, a type of power plant that generally runs on natural gas or oil and comes online during especially high electricity demand.
Switching schools to solar power and prioritizing neighborhoods with peaker plants is a relatively cheap way to reduce energy demand and address unevenly distributed air pollution at the same time, said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.
The city government has already allocated $3.8 billion for renewables and energy efficiency measures in public buildings in its next 10-year capital budget, said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, a local organization focused on labor, justice and climate. Because of uncertainty over how much the next mayor will prioritize climate and environmental justice, she and other advocates want de Blasio to start the work before he leaves office. Installing solar panels on schools and other public buildings is a way to create much-needed jobs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, Silva-Farrell said.
She has also called for solar installations to be paired with HVAC systems to better protect students returning to in-person schooling from air pollution and infection. Climate can be the “connective tissue to address many of the issues that we face in our city,” Silva-Farrell said. So far, she doesn’t see the mayoral candidates fully grasping that interconnection.
But given the urgency of climate change, and New York City’s existing laws, she said she is encouraged that some candidates are talking about delivering what’s already promised—rather than trying to do everything from scratch. “We don’t have time for that,” she said.
The same sentiment applies to long-simmering environmental problems in public housing run by the New York City Housing Authority. Mayoral candidates Kathryn Garcia, a long-time city official who served as de Blasio’s sanitation commissioner, and Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and 2020 presidential candidate, have both promised a “Green New Deal for NYCHA.” They’ve pledged to decarbonize the agency’s apartment buildings, while eliminating the perennial problem of mold, which climate change is exacerbating through storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“They’re all saying the right things,” said Christopher Casey, the director of voter engagement for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. But, he said, he sees the candidates’ direct engagement with the environmental justice community as a better barometer of how they might perform as mayor. Casey has spent much of the year encouraging northern Manhattan residents who live in public housing to vote, and hearing their concerns.
“One thing that we’re hearing a lot about is just the ongoing issues that NYCHA residents have faced for generations,” he said. In one day of canvassing earlier in the year, he recalled, out of 15 random people he talked to, six had “terrible mold issues” in their apartments.
WE ACT has invited candidates to speak to voters at a series of events, and has hosted candidate forums with Wiley, Garcia and Shaun Donovan, who served as secretary of housing and urban development in the Obama administration. On Monday, after sending questionnaires to the candidates, the organization’s political arm, WE ACT 4 Change, endorsed Wiley for mayor.
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Neither ALIGN nor the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance will endorse candidates. But Bautista said he would divide the candidates’ stands on climate and environment into “two tiers.” In the first tier, he said, he would put candidates with more in-depth policies that also center on environmental and racial justice, including Wiley, Stringer, Donovan, Garcia and Dianne Morales, a former school teacher and progressive neighborhood non-profit director.
“My sense is all of those candidates have had some direct experience with climate change,” he added, noting that of those five candidates, all but Morales had to grapple with Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath as government officials.
Bautista said he would place Adams, Yang and Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, in a second tier of candidates with underwhelming environmental proposals and less experience. None has elevated climate as a top issue. While Yang’s policies have become more detailed over the course of his campaign, many of Adams’ environmental policies remain somewhat superficial.
Most of the candidates in both tiers promise to strengthen the city’s resilience to storms and floods, especially in the outer boroughs. De Blasio has been accused of largely neglecting those boroughs and focusing instead on lower Manhattan. But with the moderate Adams polling first, and several candidates prioritizing other issues, it remains to be seen how well the next mayor can improve on de Blasio’s plans.
Here’s what the leading candidates propose to do:
Adams wants to turn New York City into the “wind power hub of the Eastern seaboard,” according to his campaign materials. He plans to expedite permits and funding for large industrial sites already planned at South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and proposed on Staten Island that could host the design, manufacturing and shipping of components for the offshore wind projects. Like many of the candidates, Adams promises to create a green jobs program that would recruit and train New Yorkers from communities of color and low-income communities to fill these new wind industry jobs.
Adams also plans to champion recycling in NYCHA housing and ensure that 100 percent of New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk from a park. His campaign responded to an initial request for comment, but as of this story’s publication had not provided answers to questions submitted by Inside Climate News.
Garcia started a citywide composting program when she served as sanitation commissioner. She says her priorities include installing green roofs on schools, as well as decarbonizing and repairing NYCHA buildings. (Garcia also briefly served as interim chair of NYCHA.) Public housing residents “have seen plan after plan after plan,” said Annika Reno, a spokeswoman for Garcia’s campaign. “Waiting around any longer amounts to demolition by neglect.”
Garcia also wants to install green roofs on all school buildings, and convert road space currently used by cars into public space for pedestrians and cyclists. “Kathryn’s very much going to be the bus mayor,” added Reno. “She wants to expand bus service, speed up our buses, and then also connect and expand and add at least 250 new miles of protected bike lanes around the city.”
The New York League of Conservation Voters has endorsed Garcia, citing her work as sanitation commissioner to more sustainably handle the city’s waste.
Stringer, currently the New York City comptroller, has—along with Garcia—the strongest environmental track record among the candidates. He divested the city’s $4 billion in pension funds from fossil fuels, proposed converting part of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway into a park, and advocated replacing peaker plants in Astoria and Gowanus with clean energy rather than new fossil-fuel plants.
Stringer has been accused of sexual misconduct by two women: Teresa Logan, who in the 1990s worked at a restaurant and bar co-founded by Stringer, and Jean Kim, who was a volunteer in his 2001 campaign for public advocate. Stringer has denied Kim’s allegations, and said he does not remember Logan.
In his campaign, Stringer has emphasized banning new fossil fuel infrastructure, and closing down existing facilities. “As mayor, I will actually end the era of fossil fuel infrastructure,” he told Inside Climate News. “That means retiring old peaker plants, blocking new pipelines, and creating a public utility to power the city with 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, producing reliable power and good jobs in the process.” Stringer also said he’ll fight for federal funding to finish rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy and to protect the city’s coastline from future storms.
Wiley, who was chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board after serving as de Blasio’s counsel, has become the progressive frontrunner in the campaign. She’s been endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez as well as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York’s top House Democrat, and the Working Families Party. Her climate platform is perhaps the most similar to President Biden’s, with her “New Deal New York” economic recovery plan featuring significant investment in clean energy and green jobs.
Wiley has said she will make environmental justice a central part of her plans as mayor, which include spending $3 billion on climate projects like renewable energy infrastructure and coastal resiliency and $2 billion on repairing and retrofitting NYCHA developments. She wants more city buildings to serve as cooling centers during heatwaves, and she said she plans to build a network of mutual aid organizations that can respond to climate-related disasters. Wiley’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Yang has called for the city to get 80 percent of its electricity from clean sources by 2030. To support that goal, he would expedite permitting for projects like the Champlain Hudson Power Express, which would bring hydropower from Quebec to New York City, through new, buried transmission lines. He would also build community solar installations over old landfills and industrial waste sites, and allow city residents to purchase power from community solar projects outside the city as well.
Most recently, Yang released a plan to cover 2.5 miles of the Cross Bronx Expressway with green spaces. Yang’s campaign also did not respond to requests for comment.
Climate an Afterthought in the Debates
The candidates with the strongest environmental policies have not had much opportunity to tell voters about their plans. Climate change finally appeared as a lightning round question in the final debate on Wednesday, after the candidates received zero questions about the topic in previous debates. Advocates have been left disappointed. “Aside from website platforms,” said Bautista, “this election season has overlooked climate and the environment.”