Activists Push for Carbon Emissions Bill to Curb Climate Change Inequality in New York City

Environmentalists and Community Organizers Lobby City Council Members for a Green New Deal

January 3, 2019

By Diara J. Townes

Environmental and community activists are pushing for a new bill that addresses the city’s largest source of CO2 emissions: buildings.

“It’s simple,” said Rachel Rivera. “Unless the world radically slashes climate pollution, New York City will cook while slowly slipping underwater and drowning.”

The dangers associated with climate change for millions of people in the Big Apple range from extreme flooding to intense heat waves, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I can tell you the consequences first hand,” shared Rivera in a statement read by a colleague during a hearing at the Committee on Environmental Protection on December 4.

“I was in my apartment with my little daughter during Sandy. She was sleeping when I heard a loud crack from the roof. I grabbed her just before the roof collapsed on to her bed. We ran into the night with nothing.”

Rivera is a board member for New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a membership organization committed to helping low and moderate-income families by promoting economic, racial and climate justice. The East New York mother has worked with NYCC for three years, sharing her personal experiences on the real impacts of climate change for people like her in low to moderate-income New York City neighborhoods.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing city leaders to approve a proposal that seriously addresses the existential threats of climate change.  According to a report from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, nearly two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gas pollution is due to electricity and heating in buildings.

The bill, nicknamed the GreenNewDeal4NYC, aims to cut the city’s carbon pollution by 40 percent by 2030 and over 80 percent by 2050. The bill mandates the first round of energy efficiency to be met by 2022 for buildings between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet, by far the boldest move of any city in the world.

The proposal addresses the city’s impact on a warming planet by eliminating building energy waste, reducing emissions, and creating cost-effective energy infrastructure.

Additionally, the bill would keep building owners from offsetting expensive retrofits, such as repairing windows or replacing boilers, on tenants via rent hikes, a condition that protects New Yorkers who reside in the city’s 990,000 rent-regulated units.

“This bill protects our most vulnerable from paying the costs of the crisis,” said Patrick Houston, 25, of the Bronx in an email. As the climate and inequality campaign organizer for NYCC who read Rivera’s testimony on the Dec 4 hearing, Houston is dedicated to helping council members understand the benefits of passing the bill. He’s been organizing community members and addressing city council during public hearings for over a year.

More than 30 climate and equality groups have joined NYCC since the bills’ introduction by Queens City Councilman and Chair of the Environmental Protection Committee Costa Constantinides in September. This united coalition called Climate Works for Life have held rallies, lobbying events and made phones calls to residents of impacted communities in the outer boroughs and to council members advocating the benefits of the bill.

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Climate activists Dana Affleck (L) and David Mahler (R) speak with Brooklyn Council Member Mathieu Eugene outside city council offices on Broadway across from City Hall. December 11, 2018. Diara J. Townes.

“New York’s various stakeholders generally agreed this bill is a bold, necessary target to make real change,” said Council Member Constantinides. “While I’m open to how New York City hits that mandate, we cannot miss hitting this threshold of 40 percent by 2030.”

The bill, similar to freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, still faces a few political hurdles.

The Real Estate Board of New York is the largest lobbying organization for the biggest landlords in the city. In conjunction with the international environmental advocacy group Natural Resource Defense Council and the building workers union SEIU 32BJ, the three groups released a statement criticizing aspects of the legislation, stating it was unfair to apply such stringent rules to buildings that may consume and release emissions at different rates.

The statement also points out that there wasn’t a feasible way for building owners to comply with the 2022 and 2024 energy efficiency goals, indicating that the retrofits would need, at a minimum, two years to be “planned, financed, implemented and assessed.”

The NRDC’s statement took many environmental and climate activists by surprise. The organization is generally supportive of policies that promote the curbing of carbon pollution. Considering the actions of President Donald Trump that are negatively impacting the environment and rollbacks the progress of the Obama Administration, activists are worried about the impression the NRDC’s joint statement with the real estate lobby could have on the remaining 19 council members who have yet to support the proposal.

“[Their position] undermines the bill by attaching credibility to the real estate industry’s position,” shared Pete Sikora, the director of climate and inequality campaigns, in an email. “It sends a message to elected officials that if they come with a bold plan to address climate change and inequality, the NRDC, a big, deep-pocketed blue-chip environmental group, will undercut them.” 

Donna DeConstanzo, the director of the NRDC’s climate and clean energy program for the eastern region, said the real estate and labor communities “provide key perspectives” for energy efficiency methods.

“The NRDC does not oppose this bill,” stated Fabiola Nunez, the organization’s strategic communications manager when asked for comment. “ This bill is a landmark building energy efficiency framework that can put New York at the forefront of fighting the biggest environmental challenge of our time, and we are supportive of it.”

As the co-sponsor of the bill, Council Member Constantinides acknowledged the importance of hearing various opinions on the issue, given the broad and centuries’ long impact this law could have across the low-income communities, the country and the world. 

“If New Yorkers were not awoken to the realities of climate change when Sandy decimated the Rockaways, Coney Island, and Staten Island, they certainly were by the recent IPCC report and National Climate Assessment. This City Council recognizes we have to do something now, because there is no more ‘down the road.’”

The first city council meeting of 2019 is slated for Wednesday, Jan 9. It is unclear if the bill will receive a vote.

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Could Social Journalism End Climate Change?

Source: Google images

Sept 5, 2018

by Diara J. Townes

Ok, so perhaps ending climate change is a bit of a jump, but I think social journalism is a different animal that can truly take on the beast of a rapidly changing climate. To start, I am a nerd. From astronomy to zoology, from Bill Nye to Marty McFly, I’ve been a pretty big science geek for nearly my entire life.

As a child, I thought it was normal to like Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Back to the Future. I believed kids liked movies like Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included because of the science and technology. Apparently, it was the intergalactic laser fights, time-flying cars and giant dinosaurs that hooked ’em. I was so close.

As an undergrad at Hampton University, a historically black college in southeast Virginia, I spent a lot my junior and senior years and all of my summers interning at various science institutions and aquariums promoting education and communication on wildlife and marine life conservation.

Hands-on animal interactions with reptiles, insects and mammals was both educational and entertaining for aquarium visitors. It was fantastic to see kids light up at the sight of the fist-sized Algerian hedgehogs (aka little poop machines) or parents jump three-feet back when their eyes caught the spindly frames of the male Malaysian Stick Insect, all while learning about how avoiding plastic straws and eating less Atlantic Cod could help protect the ecosystems those featured creatures originated from.

A few years later (thirty came so quick, guys, I don’t know how this happened), I am finally using my degree for more than just random research binges and fact-checking my friends and family. This week marks my first time as a graduate student in the social journalism program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

Moving beyond my love of blockbuster films that depict a world swallowed by water, invaded by aliens or destroyed by giant Kaijus, I can finally say that I’ve fallen back in love with science education and communication.

I’ve maintained many of my connections with colleagues who are working on research projects within government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or are working on Ph.Ds that are funded by private and public foundations. One common thread of concern I hear is how the science they research, the results they produce, makes it into the public eye.

Science tends to exist in a bubble; the research and theories revolve in one- dimensional communities of experts, geeks and nerds, with museums, aquariums and science institutions sharing a handful of memorable results as temporary exhibits and presentations.

Great start, yes, but science is more than geologic time scales, fossils and giant particle colliders. There are people directly affected by the research surrounding the sustainability of the northeast fisheries industry, for example, that may not receive, fully appreciate or even believe those results to make informed decisions.

These are the communities I want to focus on as a social journalist. People who live in areas where science can make a difference in their lives, and people who question the validity of the science they encounter.

The issue I’m seeing from a journalistic perspective is the accuracy and access the public has to actual science. How many people, kids and adults, find reliable sources to answer their curiosities after watching or reading science fiction? How many other people believe false information from misleading sources over peer-reviewed articles? Why is that?

Knowledge is power, and I am entering a field where it’s my responsibility to speak truth to power. How can we arm citizens with facts so they can make knowledgeable, conscious decisions that would have a positive impact in their local communities (like being selective with the fish they consume to lessen the damage on fishery populations)?

I believe there is a real opportunity to take popular and even unpopular topics in science and garner real discussion between the public and scientists.

Social journalism focuses on listening in order to understand where the information gaps are, where the need is, and so forth, through the application of design thinking. If scientists and researchers in a specific residential area were able to share their data so citizens could make informed decisions about how their water is treated, for example, then I believe social journalism can and will have a monumental impact on the future of the news media industry.

So while it’s only my first week in the program, I’m optimistic about the ability to change the way science is leveraged in local communities. This will give our greater human community, in my opinion, a real chance at bringing an end to climate change.