New York climate activists are determined to push forward after the current legislative session adjourned without a vote on a key climate bill.
New York Renews, a coalition of over 250 organizations, has been campaigning on behalf of the Climate and Community Investment Act for several months and said it will continue to push state representatives to make climate legislation a priority.
In a statement sent out via newsletter and posted online on June 11th, the day after the legislative session ended, the coalition accused legislators and the governor of “consigning frontline communities to another year of inadequate support for necessary climate justice investments” by failing to approve the bill.
“To say we’re disappointed is an understatement,” the NY Renews team wrote in their newsletter. “Climate inaction has real, human consequences, especially for frontline communities, and it is the responsibility of elected officials to protect their constituents.”
The Climate and Community Investment Act would provide a funding stream for initiatives outlined in landmark legislation passed in 2019. That bill, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, passed by a wide margin (41 aye vs. 21 nay votes in the Senate), and is one of the most ambitious climate laws in the country. It commits New York state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85% and be carbon neutral by the year 2050 and sets lofty targets for renewable energy, air quality monitoring and electric public transportation vehicles.
What the bill did not do, however, was establish a funding stream to finance the infrastructure it calls for. That is where the Climate and Community Investment Act comes in.
The bill, sponsored in the Senate by senator Kevin Parker, and in the Assembly by assemblyman Kevin Cahill, would raise dedicated funds for climate programs, investing in renewable energy infrastructure, transitioning to “zero-emission transportation,” prioritizing funding for local projects that reduce emissions and creating green jobs.
Heeding the activist slogan to “#MakePollutersPay,” the bill would also establish a fee on several greenhouse gases emitted, sold, used or bought in the state, including carbon and methane.
The money collected through this fee has been projected to reach about $15 billion per year, according to NY Renews. The funds would then be reinvested into what’s called a “just transition” that invests in green infrastructure, retraining and retirement packages for fossil fuel workers, and resources for low-income communities and those most severely affected by pollution.
The South Bronx and large parts of Queens, for example, have some of the highest rates of asthma in the country largely due to pollution from power plants and expressways in the area. Among other thins, the proposed bill would fine owners of the plants for their emissions, thus creating an incentive for companies to reduce air pollution and producing cleaner air for the communities adjacent to the plants.
Advocates for the Climate and Community Investment Act have also considered how moving to a green economy would affect workers in industries that are phased out. The coalition worked with unions to include a section in the bill establishing labor standards and retraining programs for fossil fuel industry workers and negotiated retirement packages for those old enough who opt out of retraining, said Mo-Yain Tham of Jobs to Move America, a NY Renews member.
The NY Renews Coalition was formed after the People’s Climate March in 2014 and pioneered the efforts that led to the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Advocates began pressing for the Climate and Community Investment Act soon after the passage of the 2019 legislation, but after a difficult pandemic year, funding climate legislation has not been at the top of every representative’s list of priorities.
“We have to convince legislators that the bill will pay for itself,” said Arif Ullah of Queens Climate Project, a NY Renews member. “COVID presented a very, very difficult legislative and budget year. That obviously has created legislators who are very cautious.”
In addition, as the end of the legislative session approached, fossil fuel lobbyists and The New York Business Council, a member organization that advocates for businesses across the state, argued that passing the bill could raise gas prices as much as 55 cents a gallon and would increase the price of natural gas by 26%.
“One of the main objections really was that there would be cost to the consumer.” said Paul Merkelson of Transition Town, a NY Renews member. “Of course, that assumes that the fossil fuel companies, the polluters, are just going to pass on the cost to the consumers. There’s no legislation that tells them they can’t do that.” The Climate and Community Investment Act establishes built-in subsidies for middle to low-income residents to offset potential gas price increases, however these subsidies will only be payable if the polluter tax collects enough funds in the first place.
The Business Council held a closed meeting with their members on April 22nd entitled, “Walk-Through and Discussion of the Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA)” to discuss “advocacy in opposition.” The description of this meeting listed on their website states that fees imposed by the bill “would cost NY businesses, as well as consumers and end-use customers, billions of dollars annually.” Advocates for the bill claim that this is misleading.
“It is very much a choice of passing things on to the consumer, rather than eating the cost in other ways,” said Jessica Thompson, a member of Dayenu, a Jewish-led environmental organization, and Jewish Climate Action Network NYC.
According to Stephan Edel, NY Renews Coalition Coordinator, the narrative that fossil fuel companies built that the Climate and Community Investment Act would impose a gas tax on individuals was incredibly effective and likely played a role in deterring potential co-sponsors. “But this is a bill that will benefit most New Yorkers, if not all New Yorkers, far in excess of what it costs,” he explained.
Activists had been publicizing the benefits of the bill for months through direct actions such as rallies, social media campaigns, die-ins and lobby visits.
“We are disappointed to not make it to a vote,” said Stephen Edel. He was under no impression that this fight would be brief since it took four years of campaigning before the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “It was always an uphill battle.” Now the team is preparing new campaigns, actions, and events to lean on their representatives and ensure this bill is passed.
“We are organized, we are powerful, and will not give up until we win the climate and community investments our state deserves,” NY Renews wrote in its June 11th statement. “Albany has not seen the last of us. The people of New York demand climate, jobs and justice, and we will not stop fighting until a just transition is won.”
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.