New York State Assemblywoman Taylor Darling (D-18) grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and Hempstead on Long Island, and she said she felt the disparity living in a community that is predominantly Black. She said finding green space to play was “impossible,” and her family suffered from asthma, exposure to lead, water and air pollution.
Her new fight to secure $15 billion for climate justice in the 2022-2023 state budget is a personal one. With the approval deadline looming about two weeks away, Darling along with Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages (D-22) said they want to implement programs to “fix the wrongs” caused by environmental racism — that includes lack of green space, updating housing, improving air and water quality as well as training for jobs in the environmental sector.
“The drive on Washington Avenue from Hempstead to Garden City, you see very, very little trees while you're driving through Hempstead, heading towards Garden City,” Darling said. “But as soon as you pass that invisible fence into Garden City, it's so lush. It's so rich that the air smells and tastes different because the greenery is there.”
The proposed $15 billion would allow for investment in communities like Hempstead and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where residents have borne the brunt of the environmental burden of exposure to industrial waste and limited access to parks.
This infusion of financial support into disadvantaged areas would allocate $4.8 billion for infrastructure for the energy transition such as expanding offshore wind, grid stability and upgrading energy systems in public housing. It would also include electrifying buses, including the school fleets.
Housing is a big concern when it comes to climate change for Sonal Jessel, a policy director at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a climate advocacy group for disadvantaged communities. Buildings account for well over half of New York City’s emissions from electricity usage and direct fossil fuel consumption.
While wealthier residents can afford to electrify their homes and make them energy efficient with renewable power sources, low-to-middle-income households and renters may be left behind to suffer compounded effects of climate change that include negative impacts to air and water quality as a result of continued use of fossil fuels.
“If you’re not centering on these communities [of color] that are hit first and worst, they’re going to continue to be hit first and worst,” Jessel said. “They won’t have the protections that they need, so I think that will lead to massive displacement, massive hospitalizations, ER visits, death.”
Disadvantaged communities would receive $4.6 billion through a Household Climate Fund. This would provide direct assistance in making low-to-moderate-income homes and small businesses more energy efficient, effectively lowering energy costs that have put many in debt. In New York City, one in five households is behind on their electric and natural gas bill by 60 or more days with a combined debt of nearly $2 billion, according to the Public Utility Law Project of New York, a nonprofit that researches and educates the public about legal rights for utility consumers.
The fund would also go toward expanding public transportation.
Another $4.6 billion is proposed for climate adaptation and resiliency projects through a Community Just Transition. This assistance would come in the form of grants to community organizations to develop their own solutions such as cooperative solar, urban and rural food projects to make vulnerable communities more independent with the development of markets and agriculture.
According to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, Black Americans are at higher risk for all categories of climate change impacts than all other groups, including flooding, extreme heat and air pollution. Black New Yorkers are also twice as likely to die of heat-related conditions compared to other New Yorkers, according to city data. This proposed funding could increase green space and tree canopy to reduce flooding and extreme heat.
“We are behind in the fight and now is a time to double down on our dollars and make this investment,” Solages said. “I've experienced severe weather, floods, droughts, superstorm Sandy, Irene, Ida, the list goes on.”
Much of the $15 billion funding could increase jobs in the environmental workforce, which would be allocated for people of color through training and opportunities. An additional $1 billion is earmarked for workers employed in fossil-fuel dependent industries to transition them into green jobs – part of the commitment laid out in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019, which requires the state to fund disadvantaged communities with a minimum of 35% of the benefits from climate change spending, including workforce development. This funding would also provide financial support for workers such as expanded unemployment benefits while they transition into a new industry.
Although Gov. Kathy Hochul has pledged $4 billion through the Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Bond Act, environmental groups, as well as Darling and Solages, said it’s not enough to address the immediate and great need for disadvantaged communities. The $15 billion they are campaigning represents nearly 7% of the state’s proposed budget of just more than $216 billion.
After Gothamist published this story, Gov. Hochul’s office answered a request for comment: "Governor Hochul’s executive budget includes bold initiatives to embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our future, and we look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to finalize a budget that serves all New Yorkers.”
Hochul has submitted the executive budget to the legislature, and state lawmakers, mostly through committees, are currently deliberating over the governor’s spending and revenue estimates. The climate justice spending will be part of the reviews and hearings that take place to finalize the budget, meaning it may be amended as a result of compromises.
Although Darling and Solages said the full amount is needed, they also said they don’t expect to get anywhere near the funding required
A study by economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that New York will need about $31 billion annually in investments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.
“Obviously $15 billion is a lot to invest, especially in a state where we have multiple priorities, but climate change is real,” Solages said. “And right now we’re losing the battle of environmental racism and climate change.”
This story was updated with a comment from Gov. Hochul’s office.