ITHACA, N.Y. – Since it entered the popular lexicon last fall, the Green New Deal has sparked fresh debates about the role of government in addressing climate change, economic inequality and social justice. The Tompkins County Environmental Management Council held a panel Tuesday, March 12, to dig into Green New Deal proposals at the federal, state and local level.
Experts from multiple fields weighed in on how Tompkins residents can contribute to climate change responses, and agreed that every level of government needs to do more and needs to do it faster. They broke down areas where empowered constituents could push for change in Washington, Albany, and Tompkins County.
The Green New Deal in Washington
When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D – N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a 14-page resolution to Congress outlining measures to address climate change and social justice simultaneously, it set off shockwaves. Their Green New Deal, which puts in writing positions activists have long pushed for, offers a sweeping vision of new policies and new politics, weaving together environmental regulations with economic justice and worker protections.
Michael Hoffman, executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, described it as both far-fetched and urgently necessary at Tuesday’s panel.
“I think the concept of the Green New Deal is awesome,” Hoffman said. “I don’t care if it’s a little bit of a dream, that’s what we need to be doing. Sure beats the heck out of ‘the sky is falling.’”
Hoffman and fellow panelists agreed that an effective response to climate change will require a bold vision. The Green New Deal resolution advanced in Washington embraces that orientation, calling for a federal commitment to, among other things, achieving carbon-neutrality in 10 years; providing all Americans access to clean air and water; guaranteeing all Americans a job with “a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security”; honoring treaties with indigenous peoples; and cleaning up environmental contamination.
Guillermo Metz, energy team leader at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, summed up some folks’ reaction to the plan with a cartoon illustration: a dazzling rainbow unicorn.
But while the Green New Deal that’s being discussed at the federal level is both grand in vision and thin on policy details, Metz emphasized that it is already working to shift conversation toward addressing climate change and inequality simultaneously.
Francis Vanek, senior lecturer and research associate in Cornell’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, agreed. Vanek said he is a fan of the Green New Deal’s attempt to accelerate sustainability, and likened the urgent call for innovation to the technology development that took place during World War II.
Albany’s Green New Deal
In Metz’s assessment, the Green New Deal proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the most ambitious of any state plan if somewhat more modest than the federal resolution. Cuomo’s proposal calls for 100 percent clean power by 2040, meaning an energy grid that runs on renewable, non-greenhouse gas emitting sources like wind and solar. It also calls for “delivering climate justice” by creating jobs and protecting resources in underserved communities.
Like the federal resolution, the New York proposal addresses economic growth and labor rights alongside environmental measures. Cuomo’s Green New Deal would require renewable energy projects receiving state funds to pay a prevailing wage and would fund job training programs to build a qualified workforce.
Panelist David Kay, senior extension associate with the Community and Regional Development Institute, said tackling climate change will require concerted action on multiple fronts.
“We need to be working on every level as much as we can,” he said, exerting influence wherever possible to change policies.
It remains unclear how specific state policies will unfold as the New York Green New Deal takes shape. According to Metz, the Department of Environmental Conservation will be the hub for state action, with committees like the Climate Action Council and Climate Change Working Group researching particular issues.
A Green New Deal for Tompkins?
There is no Green New Deal on the table at the county level, but panelists and representatives from the Environmental Management Council highlighted several ways to address climate change locally.
First, while local changes alone will not mitigate the threats detailed in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, speakers pointed out that municipal governments exercise significant control over land use and building policies. Zoning laws and building codes, for instance, can regulate agricultural runoff, building efficiency standards, housing density and flood management – factors that not only impact the pace of climate change but also who will bear the brunt of the changing environment.
An audience member mentioned New York City’s plan to make buildings greener by fining landlords who fail to meet efficiency standards as an example of a municipal policy designed to reduce emissions while putting the burden on large property holders rather than renters.
Chairpersons from the EMC’s subcommittees gave brief reports on policies and tools under consideration locally, including land-use measures to slow drainage into Cayuga Lake and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide; waste reduction measures like a ban on plastic shopping bags and new fabric recycling programs; and planning strategies that are sensitive to unique natural areas.
Whether working on the local, state, national or global level to address climate change, speakers suggested building support by tapping into concrete concerns. “Many people want to confront crop failure, or flooding,” Kay said, “even if they don’t want to be the kind of person who believes in climate change.”
A national poll carried out by Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication estimates about 81 percent of Tompkins residents believe global warming is happening and 67 percent believe it is caused by human activity, compared to about 70 percent and 57 percent respectively nationwide. An overwhelming 90 percent of Tompkins residents and 85 percent of Americans, though, support research into renewable energy, according to the poll. While the Green New Deal remains a polarizing proposal, there is support for pragmatic responses to climate change locally and nationally.
Featured image: Solar panels at Ithaca College (file photo).