A Change of Atmosphere | Environment | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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A Change of Atmosphere 

Last Updated: 09/01/2021 12:04 pm
click to enlarge PHOTO BY DON POLLARD, ILLUSTRATION BY KERRY TINGER
  • Photo by Don Pollard, Illustration by Kerry Tinger

Andrew Cuomo ruled New York with an iron fist for a decade. His resignation, in a time of overlapping, worsening disasters, has caused a mighty turmoil in the anthill of state government, as career civil servants whose jobs once depended on avoiding the governor’s wrath now scramble to distance themselves from his legacy.

Crafting policy to deal with climate change is one of the most complicated problems facing New York State, and Cuomo is leaving the stage at a critical time for the issue, with a state plan his agency appointees have helped draft still half-formed. But in the eyes of activists who have been pushing for effective climate policy, Cuomo’s imminent departure isn’t a crisis: in fact, it’s an opportunity.

While Cuomo has talked about climate change as an emergency and held up the state’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) as a national model, his actions haven’t matched his rhetoric. In the most recent budget session, Cuomo tried to create a loophole in New York City’s tough new local building efficiency law to make it friendlier to real estate developers. That effort didn’t succeed, but another recent action—Cuomo’s appointment of two political allies to the Public Service Commission over the objections of environmentalists—is likely to steer the course of state climate action for years to come.

The CLCPA commits New York State to some ambitious climate goals: full decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2040, net zero emissions across the state economy by 2050, and the investment of between 35 and 40 percent of state climate funding in disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of both climate impacts and fossil fuel-driven air pollution. But in order to make those goals a reality, the state needs two things: dedicated climate funding, and a road map for taking transformative action.

Advocates say Cuomo has been actively unhelpful on both fronts, and are hoping that his successor will leave state agencies and climate-focused legislators more room to maneuver. 

“If Cuomo is removed, it’ll be an enormous boost to the potential of transformative climate action, because he stands squarely in the way of it,” says Pete Sikora of New York Communities for Change, who was happy to blast the governor on the record before he announced his resignation. “The governor is both a harasser and an abuser, and acts on behalf of the polluter lobby and polluters to weaken environmental protections and stop climate action.”

Under His Eye

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, a conservative Democrat from Buffalo who served one partial term in the House of Representatives from 2011 to 2013, isn’t known for being a staunch advocate for good climate policy—or, to most of New York State, for much at all, besides being Cuomo’s second-in-command. While in Congress, Hochul stood with fossil fuel industry supporters on a number of key votes, including a 2012 bill to fast-track the construction of the Keystone pipeline and open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

But the cautious optimism of climate policy advocates about a suddenly Cuomo-less New York has little to do with Hochul’s politics, and everything to do with the fact that she’s not Andrew Cuomo, a notorious micromanager with a reputation for wielding terror as a tool of government

“He has been so controlling of the various agencies and departments. With him gone, it will be interesting to see how that changes things,” says former state senator Jen Metzger, who now advises on policy for the nonprofit New Yorkers for Clean Power. “Kathy Hochul is more of a collaborative person. Virtually anyone is more of a collaborative person than the governor.”

Sikora puts it more bluntly. “I liken him to the Eye of Sauron,” he says. “You’re in an agency, you’re a good little hobbit. And then the Eye of Sauron comes and looks at you, and it is horrifying and scary. And then hopefully it looks away.”

While the shape of New York’s climate law comes from the state legislature—which still has a vital role to play in passing legislation to fund and implement the CLCPA—much of the muscle and expertise that will drive the work of decarbonization and climate resilience is in-house in the administrative branch. State government bodies like the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Public Service Commission, New York State Energy Research and Development, and the Department of Transportation are already making decisions that steer the fate of future greenhouse gas emissions in New York, and will soon be explicitly charged with taking action on meeting state climate goals.

The most obviously climate-focused body in the Cuomo administration is the state Climate Action Council (CAC), a 22-member committee composed of state agency heads, representatives of industry, scientists, and policy advocates. With help from an array of expert advisory panels, the CAC is working through the enormous task of coming up with a statewide scoping plan that will guide New York’s progress toward the climate targets made law by the CLCPA. A draft of the scoping plan is expected soon, and the final document is due by early 2022.

Not having Cuomo looming over the process will potentially be “liberating” for CAC appointees, Sikora says. “I think it will be actually extremely helpful to the basic functions of state government.”

The deepening scandal around Cuomo’s treatment of his female subordinates seems to have put some rebellious fettle into DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, who co-chairs the CAC with NYSERDA head Doreen Harris. “All of this behavior is outrageous and unacceptable and unbecoming of a public official—or any person. I’m in awe of the strength of these women,” Seggos tweeted on Tuesday, August 3, shortly after the Attorney General’s bombshell report dropped. “Enough.”

What Changes? Officially, Not Much

Whoever occupies the Executive Mansion at 138 Eagle Street, the law is the law. New York State is still legally committed to pursue the goals of the CLCPA, the Climate Action Council will keep doing its job on the scoping plan, and state legislators will still have their work cut out for them on climate. 

NY Renews, a coalition of more than 200 environmental, justice, and community organizations that has been pushing for state climate legislation, said in a statement issued August 3 that regardless of the outcome of any impeachment proceedings, the state government must continue to follow the path it has been on since the CLCPA’s passage.

“Under the law, the Climate Action Council must deliver a draft scoping plan by the end of the year, and this plan must include a rapid transition to renewable energy with 40 percent of the money spent invested in frontline, environmental justice communities,” the coalition’s steering committee wrote. “Regardless of what happens regarding the governor, the CAC must continue to work to implement the CLCPA and protect New Yorkers from pollution and climate change, and Albany must take positive action on other bold legislation.”

Another thing that won’t change with Cuomo’s departure: There will be stiff (and well-funded) opposition to any climate policy with real teeth, whether it comes from an agency decision or new legislation. “The opposition we’re facing is well endowed, and is not afraid to throw their lobbying power around,” says Liz Moran, environmental policy director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Advocates are going to have to keep fighting, no matter who is in that office.”

Speaking only for herself personally, not the entire coalition, NY Renews spokesperson Arielle Swernoff ventured some careful optimism in a Twitter conversation on August 3. “When New York has passed major climate laws, the legislature was generally in the driver’s seat, with the support of activists and the climate movement. If Cuomo is impeached, there could be more room for action,” she wrote. 

Free to Move About the Capitol

Throughout his tenure as governor, Cuomo has wielded a tremendous amount of power over the state legislature, and he hasn’t been shy about exercising it, especially in budget season. With the state’s most heavy-handed political operative out of the picture, the legislature will have more freedom to act aggressively on climate policy, if they choose to use it.

That said: it’s unclear whether lawmakers can commit to acting with the swiftness demanded by the present climate emergency. The New York State Legislature has not exactly covered itself with glory on climate issues since passing the CLCPA in 2019. This year, state lawmakers had the opportunity to put a funding mechanism in place to meet state climate goals, ban future fossil-fueled electric plant development, put a moratorium on industrial-scale bitcoin mining, and beef up energy efficiency standards for buildings. All will eventually be necessary to achieve the CLCPA’s climate goals. Legislators did none of them.

But whether or not state lawmakers have the grit to make bold new climate law, at least they will have more room to maneuver. 

“I do think this opens up a big opportunity for the legislature in the next session to take a real lead on climate,” Metzger says. “The word that constantly comes to mind is ‘liberating.’”

Introducing The River Newsroom's Climate Lab: Climate journalism with a focus on solutions and local communities.

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