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Will Cuomo's Big Talk On Climate Change Lead To Necessary Action?

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On Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo sought to join political leaders across America in laying out his audacious goals for combating climate change. “Let’s take the next step on the Green New Deal which tackles climate change and starts building the green economy for tomorrow,” Cuomo declared during his State of the State address. “Let us set the goal: 100 percent clean power by 2040. Highest in the United States of America.”

Cuomo’s nod to the existential threat posed by rapid climate change drew plaudits from environmental advocates in the state. While Cuomo has been notoriously disinterested in a number of progressive priorities over his long tenure in Albany, he has found the light, of late, on climate issues. He’s long removed from his time as the governor who was strangely reluctant to link changing weather patterns to human-caused global warming.

Missing from his address, however, was any reference to an ambitious piece of climate legislation that has passed the Assembly several times and could make it through a Democrat-controlled State Senate this year. The Climate and Community Protection Act [CCPA], co-sponsored by state Senator Todd Kaminsky and Assemblymember Steve Englebright, would require New York to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

By 2050, the bill would require the elimination of all greenhouse gas emissions, meaning: no fossil fuel burning cars or coal-burning power plants. Specific penalties are not yet baked into the legislation, but advocates see real teeth in such a law existing at all, especially since they would have legal recourse if Cuomo or a future executive ignored its mandates.

The CCPA provides a roadmap for New York to wean itself off fossil fuels, a radical proposition that is already drawing opposition in conservative quarters. It would direct any transitional energy project getting state funding to pay a prevailing wage, and would funnel 40 percent of whatever state investment goes towards climate mitigation efforts to go to low-income communities and communities most threatened by climate change. The legislation would create a working group for “disadvantaged communities” and produce a report on “barriers” and opportunities for community ownership of renewable energy technology, as well as specifically identify these communities for the mitigation of pollutants.

A chief regulator would be the Department of Environmental Conservation, which would be able to shoot down carbon-based energy projects.

“Whatever happens at the federal level, we need equivalent state action to drive down not just our greenhouse gases but co-pollutants that are not contributing to climate change but high asthma rates and environmental problems in communities of color,” said Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance and a supporter of the CCPA.

The value in any legislation is that it can codify goals that, as of now, exist at the whims of Cuomo or whoever eventually takes his place. California has enshrined a commitment into law to move to 100 percent carbon-free by 2045 and recently announced it had exceeded its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

“In California, they put their climate goals into law more than a decade ago and they’ve been updating them ever since,” said Conor Bambrick, the air and energy director at Environmental Advocates of New York. “What you’ve seen has been substantial progress in terms of investment in renewable energy and clean energy innovations.” (California is leading the country in wind and solar investment, as well as in transitioning to electric cars.)

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Governor Andrew M. Cuomo delivers 2019 State of the State Address and proposed 2019-2020 Executive Budget on Tuesday (Governor's Office)

Advocates are optimistic, with a Democratic Senate and a governor looking towards making national waves, that the CCPA will have a real chance of passage in 2019. When Republicans controlled the Senate, the legislation never made it out of committee, even with 31 co-sponsors, including several Republicans.

The new chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee is Todd Kaminsky, a Long Island Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill. A spokesperson for Kaminsky said he was unavailable to speak about the legislation due to a personal illness.

To raise the sort of revenue to transition to a full green economy while deterring the use of fossil fuel emissions, New York would have to implement a carbon tax. The tax would dissuade polluters and produce the type of investments needed to transition to a 100 percent green economy, which would be an unprecedented undertaking.

For all his talk of a new progressive future for New York, Cuomo has drawn the line repeatedly on raising taxes, and he has a sympathetic ear in the Senate’s new majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who has also ruled out increasing taxes.

Most environmental leaders have thrown themselves behind the CCPA, but some are less committed to the legislation since, until now, it never had a hope of passage. “I don’t know that I’m attached to any one piece of legislation yet,” says Julie Tighe, the president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “The Senate has never been open to talking about [the CCPA] and I think we are probably going to see some tweaks to that.” She added that “I want to make sure that any legislation that’s advanced is real and achievable and meaningful."

So far, the Senate has been willing to move aggressively on reforms to voting and civil rights laws without the same kind of deference to Cuomo lawmakers have shown in the past. Democrats set the timetable for the votes and proceeded on their own schedule.

But Cuomo has clearly articulated support for early voting and adding protections for the LGBTQ community into the State Constitution, unlike the CCPA. (Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment.)

“Cuomo failed to mention concrete legislation or transformative plans to get us from 5 percent renewables to a 100 percent renewable-powered fossil free New York,” said Cata Romo, fossil free New York campaigner with 350.org, in a statement after Cuomo’s address. “The door is wide open for Governor Cuomo to heed our calls and make New York a real climate leader.”

Despite the celebratory nature of the State Senate’s progressive charge into the new session, the lawmakers have been dealing with low-hanging fruit. Early voting is easier than challenging the entire fossil fuel industry. It’s worth noting Cuomo has applied little pressure on Tom DiNapoli, the state comptroller, to divest the state’s pension fund from fossil fuel companies.

How willing Democrats will be to send the CCPA to Cuomo’s desk will be one marker of how emboldened they really feel in this new era of lawmaking. Englebright and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have signaled their willingness to push the legislation this session, while Kaminsky has said he wants to hold hearings on it.

“The governor is the wild card at this point,” Bautista said. “We expect he will be looking at it more seriously.”

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