Good morning and welcome to Climate Week NYC, held by advocates in conjunction with the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly as a way to focus attention on climate change. Naturally the host city for both events wants to put its best foot forward. Mayor Bill de Blasio did his piece last week with a splashy proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions from many buildings.
He’s on the right path by looking to our skyline. All cities emit greenhouses gases differently, notes Nilda Mesa, former director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, now at Columbia University. In Los Angeles, much of it comes from cars. In NYC, buildings are the culprit, accounting for about 70 percent of yearly emissions. De Blasio’s plan would require the city’s large buildings to upgrade facilities and reduce climate emissions to a certain standard by 2030, or face penalties. That would result in a 7 percent emissions decline by 2035, he estimated.
De Blasio’s press office then blasted out big praise for the initiative from actor Mark Ruffalo, commentator Van Jones and all sorts of national elected officials.
Missing, though, was any peep from the little local body that does legislation here in this town: the New York City Council. And unfortunately for de Blasio, everything he outlined requires legislation.
Where’s the beef?
Why isn’t there a bill to match the mayor’s aspirations? The mayor and liberal council tend to work together on climate issues, and seem to have been doing so here. Apparently things were going well as both sides went through the normal processes. “We’ve had some really meaningful conversations on this bill for quite some time,” says Council member Costa Constantinides, chair of the environmental protection committee.
There is “a high level of agreement,” de Blasio said Thursday.
Both sides concur about the larger issue — reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over 2005 levels by 2050 — and much of the narrower point at hand to focus on buildings. Both sides have scratched at how to do that before.
But it’s a tricky issue for a number of reasons. First, housing advocates note that the upgrades could count as the kind of “improvements” that allow landlords to raise rents even in rent-regulated apartments, something controlled by Albany and not NYC. At the same time, some environmental advocates argue that de Blasio’s proposed standards aren’t good enough: single-digit emissions cuts don’t mean much considering buildings contribute the bulk of emissions. And, predictably, the real estate lobby is already saying this will be too expensive.
De Blasio had few detailed answers when he announced the proposal last week, beyond saying that “we have to act urgently.” (No penalties would go into effect for years).
But Constantinides says the council and mayor had been at this issue for months, and will still have to work out kinks; and of course, no bill has been introduced.
“When you’re dancing with one another, it takes two to dance,” Constantinides said.
So why did de Blasio jump the gun? On Thursday, he said there were just a few things to iron out, and “we adamantly believe it was time to start moving, so we’re announcing our vision,” which doesn’t exactly explain things. After President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in June, de Blasio signed an executive order re-committing NYC to the principles of the agreement. Just a few months later, this first step towards an action came just in time for Climate Week, also days after de Blasio won a decisive primary victory and is pivoting to a general election. At the climate announcement event, he cited Trump more than 10 times.
Grab the spotlight and put on a show
Overshadowing legislators is a tried and true executive strategy. De Blasio has turned it into high art — from big things like closing Rikers Island, where de Blasio was slower than his Council partners but then cited it as an accomplishment, to little things like holding publicity-stunt temporary street renamings.
It’s all good politics for de Blasio, who is trying to claim the mantle of active progressive resistance leader in the Trump-era.
Surely those attempts at action will continue. The City Council will put a bill together, and perhaps the details can be hammered out. Other climate-related issues remain bogged down in the detail-hammering phase. Take congestion pricing, a plan to toll bridge crossings in Manhattan, reduce traffic and fund cleaner mass transportation options. Right now de Blasio’s not for that. The politics, he says, are too difficult.