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149 Days Into His Administration, Why Is Progressive Champion Bill De Blasio Quiet On Climate Change?

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio could never have imagined how much of his first few weeks in office would be dedicated to snow — its appearance, its removal, its failure to be removed. On the campaign trail de Blasio talked about creating a city for everyone, not just the very wealthy. He was going to institute universal pre-K, put an end to stop and frisk, make affordable housing a reality for hundreds of New Yorkers. But in the end, it was snow, thanks to the relentless polar vortex, that forced its way to the top of the new mayor’s priority list.

And when the snow finally stopped, and the immediate crisis of unplowed streets in certain neighborhoods and salt shortages had passed, de Blasio got the ball rolling on his big campaign promises, but left those concerned with environmental issues and climate change speculating whether snowstorm management was the closest thing to environmental action they were going to see out of the mayor in his first year. Now, with the beginning of hurricane season just around the corner, the environmental community is wondering what happened to the momentum built by the Bloomberg administration and whether de Blasio’s focus on inequality in particular can help them engage the new mayor.

Workers clear sidewalks of snow on Fifth Avenue, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, in New York.

Workers clear sidewalks of snow on Fifth Avenue, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, in New York.

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

Environmental issues never topped de Blasio’s talking points during his campaign for mayor. There were 19 topics listed on de Blasio’s issues section on his campaign website and climate resiliency came in dead last, with sustainability faring just slightly better at number 11. And nearly five months in, his administration has kept quiet on how the mayor intends to move forward, assuming he will, on Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious long-range plans for creating a more sustainable and climate-resilient city.

On January 1st, at his swearing-in ceremony, de Blasio did make a point of praising his predecessor’s work on sustainability, despite the fact that the two men disagree on nearly everything else and have not had the warmest of relationships.

“Your passion on issues such as environmental protection and public health has built a noble legacy” de Blasio said. Just what the mayor intends to do with that legacy, however, remains to be seen.

“I sometimes wonder if sustainability and climate change issues in the city are so tightly associated with Bloomberg, that de Blasio is intentionally working to put his stamp on other issues early in his tenure,” said Dan Hendrick of the New York League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed de Blasio during his campaign.

Last month, NYLCV and dozens of other advocacy groups, council members, business leaders and health and transportation groups, used the milestone of the mayor’s 100th day in office to call for real action on climate change and sustainability in his next 100 days.

The call to action laid out three short-term milestones for the de Blasio administration, including calling on the mayor to insure that his plan to expand affordable housing in the city would include measures to make the housing environmentally sustainable and climate resilient. NYLCV and the other groups also called on de Blasio to issue a comprehensive resiliency plan for the city by June 1st, the official beginning of the hurricane season. So far, the mayor has disappointed environmental groups by focusing his attention on rebuilding flood damaged homes, while ignoring questions of long-term resiliency.

By June 30th, the coalition of groups would also like to see what financial resources the Mayor intends to set aside for the infrastructure initiatives launched by Bloomberg.

“We fully appreciate that the Mayor can’t do everything at once, but we also know that the only reason Bloomberg was able to accomplish so much was because he fought for these issues and prioritized them for both time and money,” said Hendrick. “Without that type of muscle, it remains to be seen what can get done. We hope the mayor will take ownership of these issues the same way he has taken ownership of universal pre-K and stop and frisk.”

Hendrick said that during private meetings with NYLCV, after which the organization chose to endorse him for mayor, de Blasio indicated that retrofitting existing buildings would be one of his environmental priorities. According to Hendrick, the mayor said that he saw retrofitting as a tremendous untapped opportunity to create good jobs, while helping people save money and protect the environment.

“There was some promising language about retrofitting in de Blasio’s new affordable housing plan,” said Hendrick. “But we want to hear more. Although we were encouraged to see consideration in the plan given to the location of new affordable housing — insuring it would be close to mass transit and parks.”

The mayor’s office accepted the petition, but made no formal response to the calls for action. Multiple requests for comment by ThinkProgress to de Blasio’s office were also not answered.

Bloomberg’s environmental legacy is impressive and extensive. His focus on sustainability and climate change was unwavering, despite the other pressing demands of his 12 years in office — a post 9/11 city, the chaos of the financial crisis, the failures of the Copenhagen climate talks and the demise of national cap and trade legislation and national apathy and inaction on climate issues.

Bloomberg’s most impressive achievement, at least in climate-conscientious and environmental circles, is PlaNYC, his comprehensive strategy to transform the city into a example of urban sustainability.

PlaNYC started back in 2005, in response to an alarming forecast by city demographers predicting that by 2030, the city would have to cope with an additional one million people pushing the already bustling metropolis with its aging infrastructure over the nine million population mark. Bloomberg and his staff had the foresight to recognize that environmental issues like reducing air pollution, improving energy efficiency and curbing greenhouse gas emissions were key to creating a city that could not only sustain so many people, but do so without sacrificing quality of life.

Over the six years it took to create PlaNYC, it metamorphosed from a strategic land use plan into a sweeping sustainability agenda and aggressive climate change action plan. One of the most ambitious goals in the plan was to cut New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2030. City government would lead the way, by cutting its own emissions 30 percent below 2006 levels by 2017. Other PlaNYC goals included overhauling the city’s transit system, bridges, water mains, power plants and building codes. There were over 130 different initiatives outlined in the report to help achieve these goals, including the extremely popular plan to paint roofs with reflective white paint to reduce energy use and a plan to plant one million trees throughout the city by 2030 to combat the urban heat island effect and rising air pollution.

Bloomberg even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to instate congestion pricing in Manhattan — a plan that would have charged cars a fee for entering or leaving certain clogged areas of the city during peak hours.

PlaNYC isn’t scheduled to have its big four year update until early 2015, and de Blasio has yet to appoint anyone to lead the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability — the team that created PlaNYC. There has also yet to be a meeting of the Sustainability Advisory Board, the stakeholder group that helped shape the plan.

“I wouldn’t say I’m exactly disappointed in the lack of action so far,” said Peggy Shepard, Executive Director of WE ACT in Harlem, an environmental justice group. “I didn’t expect that these issues would be made a priority, so I’m definitely not surprised.”

Ruby McLean, 89, and her son Kenneth Davis survey destroy items from their home, as they cleanup from flooding in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

Ruby McLean, 89, and her son Kenneth Davis survey destroy items from their home, as they cleanup from flooding in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

On the other hand, Shepard pointed out that many aspects of mitigating climate change and creating a more sustainable city go hand-in-hand with the centerpiece of de Blasio’s ambitions — addressing inequality.

“It wasn’t the people who had a second home in the Hamptons they could escape to that were most affected by Superstorm Sandy,” said Shepard. “It was the elderly woman who had no way of evacuating and was trapped on the 12th floor of public housing, because the power was out for two weeks, the elevator was out, and she couldn’t get down the stairs.”

Those kinds of Sandy stories are ominously reminiscent what happened during Hurricane Katrina, where the evacuation plan was dependent on people having cars, which many low-income families simply couldn’t afford.

“We know that environmental problems and climate change will disproportionately impact the city’s poorest and communities of color,” said Shepard. “Whether it’s sea level rise threatening homes or heat waves causing power bills to eat up more of a family’s income, combating climate change and tackling environmental issues belongs right in the middle of de Blasio’s fight for a more equitable New York.”

If de Blasio chooses to adopt climate change adaptation as an equity issue, Shepard has plenty of ideas for him. For instance, she wants public housing authorities to be required to keep track of where their most vulnerable residents live. She also wants to see investment in what she calls “social capital” so that when emergency services can’t reach people, there is local support infrastructure to rely on. And there’s plenty of work to be done on initiatives started by Bloomberg, as well. For example, while Bloomberg pushed buildings to stop burning the dirtiest kinds of heating oil, the measure caught on along Park Avenue much faster than in other areas.

“The dirtier heating oil is cheaper than the cleaner kind,” explained Shepard. “It’s cheaper to pay the fine and keep on polluting, so if you’re the landlord of a building which is just barely staying afloat, you’re not going to switch. And so the benefits of Bloomberg’s plan are enjoyed by people in Manhattan, not in the communities which most desperately need their air quality improved.”

The same can be said for parks in the city. The vast majority of the money spent on parks during Bloomberg’s administration were on the city’s “crown jewels” — Central Park, Prospect Park, the Highline — not the smaller neighborhood parks in less touristy areas, although they might be the only green space available to numerous families.

The team which created PlaNYC also created the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an organization modeled after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, charged with producing city-specific climate projections.

The prospects for New York City in the face of a changing and disrupted climate are sobering. According to work done by Bloomberg’s New York City Panel on Climate Change, by 2050, the city could be 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, heat wave days could surge from 18 days a year to 57, and by mid-century, sea levels could rise by 11 to 24 inches and nearly 25 percent of the city could be in a floodplain.

It’s an enormous challenge and Eric Goldstein, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in NYC, is still cautiously optimistic about de Blasio’s will to address it.

“Some feared that the departure of Mayor Bloomberg would mean an end to sustainability and climate issues in New York,” he said. “I think it’s clear that that isn’t going to be the case under de Blasio, but it will look different, and I think the emphasis will change and be anchored in the equity issue de Blasio has centered his administration on.”

Solar panels are in place on a Rockefeller Center rooftop in midtown Manhattan Tuesday, March 24, 2009 in New York

Solar panels are in place on a Rockefeller Center rooftop in midtown Manhattan Tuesday, March 24, 2009 in New York

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

One of Goldstein’s reasons for hoping for the best, despite a lack of concrete action thus far, are the people that de Blasio has picked to head the four major environmentally-focused departments in his administration. Despite his desire to distance himself from Bloomberg, de Blasio appointed Emily Lloyd to run the Department of Environmental Protection, a position she previously held for many years under Bloomberg. In her previous incarnation as DEP Commissioner, she made protecting the city’s drinking water and the watershed behind it, a priority — a key issue, Goldstein notes, as the state considers whether or not to permit fracking, and climate change makes flash flooding more likely. At the press conference announcing Lloyd’s appointment, de Blasio said, “We have the potential to be the most sustainable big city in the world. And DEP is crucial to that work and crucial to creating a greener and more resilient city.”

De Blasio also picked Kathryn Garcia for Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation.
Like Lloyd, Garcia served in Bloomberg’s DEP, and upon receiving her appointment, she pledged her commitment to continuing the Department’s sustainability work, including increasing recycling and composting. Also like, Lloyd, Garcia’s appointment was announced with hopeful words for the future of a greener NYC. Mayor de Blasio defined the central responsibilities of that department as “keeping the streets clean and safe, and building a more sustainable city.”

Other encouraging appointments include Polly Trottenbergas to head the Department of Transportation and Mitchell Silver to lead the Department of Parks and Recreation. Trottenbergas has pledged to help make the city safer for pedestrians and expand bike lanes and improve bus service. Silver was Planning Director for Raleigh, North Carolina, where he worked to expand parks, greenways and open spaces.

While all of these appointments seem promising, Goldstein is concerned that there is still no one in charge of the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, which has suffered a substantial brain drain since Bloomberg’s departure.

“There is also still no point person in city hall for environmental issues,” said Goldstein. “No one for stakeholders to take their concerns to.”

Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, says that he doesn’t get excited or disappointed easily.

“I think it remains to be seen what de Blasio will do,” he said. “When Bloomberg came into office, environmentalists wrote him off, but in the end he created a blueprint for sustainable cities that is used around the world.”

Bautista says he never dismissed Bloomberg as a hopeless case because he saw that while the mayor didn’t really have any history on environmental issues, he did have a strong record on public health issues.

“It was easy for us to help Bloomberg expand his passion for public health into a passion for environmental and climate issues,” explained Bautista, “And that gives me hope for de Blasio, despite the silence on this issues so far. I think de Blasio will come to see that in order to fight systemic inequality in the city, he has to address environmental justice issues.”

For Bautista’s group, among other things, that means working to address how the city handles its solid waste. For decades, Manhattan has trucked its solid waste out to transfer stations in the south Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. That’s meant thousands of diesel trucks coming through low income communities of color every week.

“And we wonder why kids in the south Bronx have asthma rates twelve times the national average,” said Bautista. “DeBlasio can’t ignore these things and claim to be fighting inequality.”

DeBlasio’s first real test, according to Bautista, will come this September. The U.N. Secretary General has called for a global summit of world leaders to convene in New York city this fall. The talks are intended to lay the groundwork for the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris.

“We are helping to plan the largest climate march in history,” said Bautista. “We are calling on the de Blasio administration, not only to help us make this happen logistically, but also to help us shine a light on this moment. It would also be a great opportunity for the mayor to declare an NYC week of climate action and to make a very public commitment to fighting climate change.”

Bautista said he’s still waiting on a call back from the mayor’s office.

“I’m a patient man, but the patience has it’s limits,” he said. “And at some point justice delayed becomes justice denied.”


After this post was published, a spokeswoman from Mayor de Blasio’s office reached out to ClimateProgress to highlight the creation of an Office of Recovery and Resiliency, a progress report on PlaNYC, more than $300 million in federal funding for post-Sandy resiliency efforts (announced this week and since covered here), and the adoption of a Hazard Mitigation Plan.

The spokeswoman also pointed to announcements on the starts of a food resiliency study, southern Manhattan coastal protection study, a flood risk campaign, and a Coney Island flood protection study.

Daniel Zarilli, she noted, has been serving as the director of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, though only on an acting basis.

Finally, she told ClimateProgress that Eddie Bautista met with the Mayor’s office 3-4 weeks ago.

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