Blair Horner: New York Can Lead On Combatting Global Warming

Jun 22, 2015


Last week was a depressing one in Albany: the all-too-familiar gridlock resulting from partisan differences, pettiness and legislative dysfunction.  And while some of the issues that are stuck in the legislative morass are important – such as tenants’ housing costs – some would, if enacted, have a limited impact on many people.

Yet, last week one issue moved front and center – global warming.  The push that moved the issue came from an unlikely source:  the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.

The Pope publicly issued a policy paper that stated, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”  Strong stuff.

His encyclical further argued, “The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system.”

His analysis is based on facts.  2014 was the hottest year in recorded history.  The world’s experts have stated that global warming is largely due to human activity—primarily the result of reliance on fossil fuels.  They argue that the only way to respond to this crisis is to dramatically slash the use of fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas, which, when burned, emit the greenhouse gases warming the planet.    

Over the past 150 years, the industrialized world has been able to use fossil fuels to power its societies.  Those nations, now joined by China and other emerging nations, are generating too much greenhouse gas emissions for the planet to absorb, thus leading to the greenhouse effect that is heating up the planet.

While global warming is a threat to civilization, given its wealth the most affluent nations should be able to mitigate some of the worst consequences.  Yet the poorest nations, those least responsible for generating greenhouse gases, are the ones who will suffer the most.

Not only will a hotter planet result in more droughts and thus famine, global warming can devastate in other ways.

For example, a severe drought, worsened by a warming climate, drove Syrian farmers to abandon their crops and flock to cities, helping trigger a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.  The drought was the most severe on record, and its severity matched trends expected to occur with rising temperatures.  The drought increased the risk that the country would unravel, and climate change was a factor in the drought.

Another example is the impact of rising sea levels.  Experts predict that global sea levels could rise more than three feet by 2100.  Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest nations’ and much of its land is at or below sea level.  Experts predict that by 2050, rising sea levels will inundate some 17 percent of Bangladesh and displace about 18 million people.  But Bangladesh generates only a tiny fraction of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In a rational political system, our nation would act.  Congress would hold hearings, introduce legislation and advance proposals to help curb the impact our nation has on the world’s climate.

But our national political system is anything but rational.  Many of the nation’s political elite simply don’t believe in the fact that the planet is heating up, and many more ignore the evidence that humans are primarily responsible.

Given that our national government is incapable of addressing this issue, it is up to the states to develop solutions.  New York could be among the leaders in tackling the issue.

New York is not only contemplating how to respond to the climate change menace, but it is also trying to move its energy system into the digital age.  Under the current utility structure, the power sector in New York is on track to spend an estimated $30 billion to replace and modernize the state’s aging energy infrastructure over the next decade. 

In New York, the proposed solution is the state’s Reforming the Energy Vision (“REV”) plan.  REV is under active development before the state’s Public Service Commission.  REV has the potential to fundamentally reshape the production and distribution of electric power and significantly reduce the creation of heat-trapping carbon emissions through the use of energy use reductions, efficiency measures and the move to reliance on alternative energy sources, such as solar power. 

The old saying is that the states are the laboratories of democracy.  New York’s REV offers a vision for how to modernize the energy grid while mitigating the impacts from global warming.  If it succeeds, it can offer a model for the nation and perhaps the world.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.