East Coast Cap & Trade Program Raises Millions for NYS, Clean Energy

As climate talks continue in Paris, New York and eight other mid-Atlantic states earned over $115 million this week from the sale of carbon allowances- $7 million more than projected. This week’s carbon auction, the third of four such auctions this fiscal year, was organized by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a “wildly successful” nine-state carbon trading program.

New York State’s share of the proceeds from the auction was $44.3 million. The funds will go toward energy efficiency and clean energy programs.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, RGGI, is designed to both cap and reduce power sector CO2 emissions emitted by participating states. Since the program’s inception, thirty RGGI auctions have collectively delivered $895 million for clean power, energy efficiency, technology innovation and green workforce development projects across New York. Projects have been initiated in every county, say advocates.

 Paying to Emit Carbon Pollution

RGGI includes New York State, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. It is the “first mandatory, market-based CO2 emissions reduction program in the United States.”

New Jersey was a participant in RGGI but Governor Chris Christie pulled the state out of the program in 2011.

Power plants in RGGI states must pay to emit carbon pollution. They participate in “auctions” in which they purchase “carbon allowances.” The price for these allowances is guided by a cap on how much carbon all RGGI states can collectively emit.

The idea is to keep lowering the cap in order to raise the allowance price- thus incentivizing power plants to switch to less polluting sources of energy. RGGI’s price on carbon allowances (currently $7.50 per allowance) has increased 256 percent in two years.

RGGI has implemented a new carbon emissions cap of 91 million short tons for participating states. That cap is supposed to decline 2.5 percent each year from 2015 to 2020.

Does RGGI Work?

Supporters say RGGI is a national model for reducing carbon emissions and accelerating the use of renewable sources of energy.

Climate pollutant emissions from power plants across the region have dropped by more than 40 percent since RGGI was initiated in 2005, a coalition of 26 environmental and clean energy groups wrote in a February 10th letter to Governor Cuomo.

The program has raised almost $2 billion from auction proceeds across the nine participating states since 2008. RGGI has “defied critics by proving that reducing climate-altering pollution in a way that raises funds for clean energy is a true win-win,” says Albany watchdog group Environmental Advocates.

New York, as the largest state in the coalition, and the one with the most pollution emitted, received a little more than one-third of all RGGI proceeds in 2014. The funds are managed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

RGGI’s success has proved dangerous. In this year’s state budget, Governor Cuomo reportedly “raided” as much as $41 million (more than one-fourth of 2014’s proceeds) from RGGI, despite significant opposition. Twenty-three million of what was taken this year was to go directly to the state’s general fund to help offset “various energy related tax credits.”

Buildings = Carbon Pollution

A major portion of RGGI funds have been directed toward making the state’s residential building stock more energy efficient. New York’s buildings -residential, commercial and industrial- are the state’s second leading emitter of greenhouse gases, surpassed only by the transportation sector.

In New York City, buildings are the number one source of carbon pollution.

RGGI has paid for over 30,000 free or reduced-cost energy audits for New York State homeowners. It also helps to fund low-cost energy efficiency retrofits for single and multi-family buildings.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

As RGGI’s financial success continues, Governor Cuomo has moved to codify the goal that 50 percent of New York’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2030.

The state is also calling attention to the fact that Congress passed two joint resolutions this week seeking to overturn the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which restricts carbon emissions from the electricity sector. The resolutions now head to the White House.

“The people of New York expect more out of the Republican members of the New York Congressional Delegation who voted to disapprove of the Clean Power Plan,” said Basil Seggos, acting commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

“The science has spoken and action to address climate change has bipartisan support,” Seggos continued. “It’s time for policy makers to act and protect our citizens from our uncertain climate future.”


Joaquin highlights need to deal with rising risk of flooding, sea level rise & climate change


Hurricane Joaquin is moving north and continues to batter the Bahamas. We may get lucky and it won’t make landfall in the U.S. but Joaquin is still going to cause widespread flooding by dumping huge amounts of rain and pushing a surge of water into coastal areas. The National Weather Service is forecasting tides over 8 feet in some parts of the Mid-Atlantic coastline.

Hurricane Joaquin. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/goes/east/tatl/vis-animated.gif

Hard to believe, but Joaquin is the first major hurricane (a hurricane with sustained wind speeds over 110 mph) to threaten the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. Sandy, you may recall, was a huge and destructive storm, but with winds less than 75 mph it was technically not a hurricane. The decade since Wilma is the longest stretch of time without a major hurricane, dating back to 1851 when records began being kept.

Despite ten years with no major hurricanes we have still had our share of major flood events. Since Wilma struck (causing $23 billion in losses) we’ve seen 16 floods or tropical storm events that have caused in excess of $1 billion in losses including Superstorm Sandy ($67 billion), Hurricane Ike ($33 billion), Hurricane Irene ($14 billion), and major floods on the Mississippi River in 2008 and 2011 (combined $14 billion).

In the past two years, the Obama administration has advanced several smart initiatives that recognize the role climate change is playing in making many natural disasters more frequent and/or more severe. And the administration is taking steps to better prepare the nation for a future where sea levels are higher, extreme weather is more likely, and the risk of flooding is on the rise.

Federal Flood Protection Standards

President Obama updated an executive order that improved the flood risk standard that federal agencies must follow when building or funding the construction of projects near coastlines and riverine floodplains. The new standard requires a higher margin of safety to account for the increased likelihood of floods and directs agencies to factor in the future risks of sea level rise and other climate impacts where necessary. Unfortunately, some in Congress want to gut this common sense measure.

Integrate Climate Impacts Into State Disaster Plans

In March, FEMA began requiring states to assess the future impacts of climate change in disaster preparedness plans that they submit to FEMA for approval. For too long, states have relied exclusively on historical data to gauge their vulnerability to floods, droughts, tropical storms, and other natural disasters. To prepare for future disasters, it’s essential to look at how climate change loads the dice in favor of more frequent and/or more severe weather events. FEMA, at the urging of NRDC, has made it clear that states need to factor climate impacts into their plans, also known as hazard mitigation plans.

National Disaster Resilience Competition

This $1 billion competition, sponsored by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, is encouraging states and communities to pursue innovative approaches for becoming more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Sixty-seven state and local governments were invited to participate in the competition. Forty finalists will submit applications at the end of this month with winners announced later this year. This effort was modeled on the highly successful Rebuild By Design program, which Congress approved as part of its Post Sandy recovery assistance.

Past Damages and Future Risks

If we just look at the areas threatened by Hurricane Joaquin, you can see just how vulnerable we are to flooding and how much more vulnerable we’ll be due to climate change.

Let’s look at some numbers for the nine states stretching from North Carolina to Massachusetts where Joaquin could make landfall.

537 Number of water and sewage treatment plans in coastal counties
894,655 Flood insurance policies backed by FEMA as of July 31, 2015
452,939 Flood insurance claims paid out by FEMA since 1978
$13.8 billion
Total amount of those claims
$11.9 billion
Additional assistance from FEMA provided to rebuild public facilities after floods and hurricanes since 1998. This does not include tens of billions of dollars in other federal assistance from HUD, USEPA, the Army Corps, etc.


These numbers are even more sobering when you consider that they only reflect our present risk and a small portion of the total amount of federal disaster assistance paid out in the nine states most at risk from Hurricane Joaquin.

Future hurricanes are likely to be more dangerous, given that sea levels are likely to be as much as 4 – 6 feet higher by the end of the century.

The National Climate Assessment projects up to 4.6 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century (and more after the end of the century), but even this doesn’t take into account the possibility of rapid melting of the polar regions. Other studies indicate sea levels could be even higher. Even 4 feet of sea level rise still has deadly serious ramifications. Every inch of sea level rise can translates into water moving up to 100 inches (over 8 feet) inland on flat coastal beaches. An analysis by the National Academy of Sciences determined that about 5 million people in the US live in the area that would be inundated by 4 feet of sea level rise.

For future storms, like Joaquin, the 8 foot tides currently forecast for the Virginia coast would be on top of 4 feet of sea level rise, which means flooding will be higher and extend far further inland.

How do we protect that many people from the encroaching oceans?

Luckily, it’s not a problem that requires one all-encompassing solution. Just as our efforts to curb the pollution that causes climate change are made up of a multitude of strategies from reducing fossil fuel use to increasing the use of renewable non-polluting energy, our efforts to manage the inevitable impacts of climate change will require an array of adaptable solutions.

Here at NRDC we’re working on a range of ways to deal with sea level rise and the rising risk of coastal and riverine flooding. We’re looking at everything from ways to make our water infrastructure better prepared for these risks to climate-smart reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that would encourage people to move away from vulnerable areas over the next several decades.

We certainly are worried about people in the Bahamas and hope that Hurricane Joaquin heads out to sea without making landfall in the U.S. But its presence on our shoreline is a powerful reminder of how vulnerable we are and how much more vulnerable we will be in the future due to climate change’s impacts.


This article appeared yesterday on Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Read Rob Moore’s blog here.

Rob Moore joined NRDC in May 2013 as a Senior Policy Analyst and leads the Water & Climate team. The Water & Climate team is working to identify and address the water-related impacts that result from our rapidly warming climate, while also making climate preparedness a priority for communities across the nation.

Prior to joining NRDC, Rob was the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York (2004-2013), New York State’s main watchdog for environmental policy-making. Earlier he served as the executive director of Prairie Rivers Network (1997-2002), the only statewide river organization in Illinois, and also as the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper at the Conservation Law Foundation (2002-2004). He has a bachelor’s degree in Physics from Illinois State University and a master’s degree in Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Illinois.

We thank Rob for allowing us to re-publish this article.

New York City Moves to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Mayor de Blasio announced today that he will be pushing for the divestment of the city’s pension funds from investments in coal. The Mayor has also proposed that New York City’s public sector pension funds, worth over $160 billion, develop a long-term strategy relative to all fossil fuels in order to “further reduce contributions to climate change while protecting retirees.”

“New York City is a global leader when it comes to taking on climate change and reducing our environmental footprint. It’s time that our investments catch up – and divestment from coal is where we must start,” said the Mayor in a statement.

Noting that the Mayor’s announcement came the day after a White House summit on how to expand offshore wind power projects, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Judith Enck stated that, “every level of government has a vital role to play to reduce carbon pollution that threatens our children’s future.”

The city’s five pension funds’ assets total over $160 billion. This includes at least $33 million of exposure to thermal coal alone in the public markets, reports the Mayor’s Office.

Perhaps the pension funds will eventually consider investing in the Long Island – New York City Offshore Wind Project, which has been described as the largest potential offshore wind project in the U.S. If executed, almost 200 3.6-megawatt wind turbines would be constructed 13 miles off the Rockaway Peninsula. The project is currently working its way through a multi-year federal review process.

Making the case that divesting from fossil fuels is smart financially

The de Blasio administration says it will meet with the city’s five primary pension boards over the coming months to “examine the specific impact and optimal reallocation of these assets [currently invested in fossil fuels].”

The city’s five primary pension funds are administered on behalf of public school teachers and other Board of Education employees, police and fire department personnel, along with employees from other city agencies.

According to the Mayor’s Office, an initial analysis has found that divestment from coal “poses little risk to pension fund returns, especially given the federal EPA’s new clean power plant rules and increased regulatory limitations on emissions, which help reduce the attractiveness of thermal coal as an investment.”

John Adler, who directs the Mayor’s Office of Pensions and Investments, argues that investing in coal at this juncture is risky. There is an urgent need, Adler says, to “address the risks that climate change poses to the long-term performance of the pension funds that protect the futures of our over 700,000 beneficiaries.”

Striving towards an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Taking action on pension fund investments is the de Blasio administration’s latest initiative related to climate change. The city has set the goal of an 80 percent reduction [relative to 2005 levels] in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the cleanest air of any large U.S. city by 2030.

“Divesting from coal reflects both our emissions reduction and clean air goals,” said Nilda Mesa, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, in a statement. “Ozone that drifts to NYC from coal-powered plants is a major source of smog, which affects our most vulnerable populations… We should be investing in energy sources that lower greenhouse gas emissions, as well as make our air cleaner.”

The de Blasio administration says it also plans to “dramatically” increase the use of renewable energy in New York, including a new initiative to power 100 percent of city government operations from renewable sources.

Referring to the twin goals of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 and moving towards renewables, the Mayor noted that, “we’re going to need every city asset helping us achieve them.”

It’s Climate Week in NYC: and there are lots of ways to join in!

One year ago this week, as many as 400,000 people marched through the streets of Manhattan demanding action on climate change. Organizers say the People’s Climate March was the largest mass action on climate change to date.

The past year has been marked by protests and organizing across the globe related to climate change — from Pacific Islanders blockading the world’s largest coal port in Australia to “kayaktivists” blocking Shell’s Arctic drilling rig in Seattle.

And in just a few weeks, on November 30th, the U.N. Paris Climate Summit will commence with the goal of creating “a universal, legally binding agreement that will enable us to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies.”

This week in New York City, climate change is taking center stage.

1.) The Pope will be speaking at the United Nations on Friday. His comments on climate change are widely anticipated. Also- the U.N. is setting a new global sustainable development agenda this week.

2.) On Thursday, two events are happening in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza (East 47th Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan, across the street from the U.N.) in anticipation of the Pope’s visit.

Light the Way multifaith gathering at 4:30pm: Participants from many spiritual traditions will join in a “festival” of song and prayer in support of Pope Francis’ message on the urgency of addressing climate change and poverty.

Under One Sky rally at 6pm: Rally of religious and civil society groups and others to shine a light on climate change, poverty and inequality, and support the U.N.’s sustainable development goals.

According to organizers, “the night before world leaders meet in New York to announce the new Global Goals intended to tackle the most urgent issues of our time – poverty, inequality and climate change – we’ll be coming together to ensure they feel the pressure of all of us demanding these goals translate into reality.

And we won’t be alone. People will be coming together in over 100 countries to demonstrate their shared vision for a better future – from Australia to India, South Africa to Brazil – millions will take action around the world.”

3.) Climate Week events series, organized by the Climate Group, an international non-profit whose goal is a “prosperous, low carbon future.”

Check out the extensive events calendar for Climate Week 2015.

The Climate Group says they are working with corporate and government partners to achieve a “clean revolution: the rapid scale-up of low carbon energy and technology.” The way to achieve this clean revolution, they say, is to “develop climate finance mechanisms, business models which promote innovation, and supportive policy frameworks.”

4.) Climate Crisis and Community workshop on Sunday

350 NYC has organized a workshop series this Sunday to discuss the Paris climate talks and the broader climate change movement, and how best to push for a “renewable energy revolution.”

The workshop is at 1:30pm at Goddard Riverside Community Center, 593 Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.

gas sux
Electric car enthusiasts at the 2014 People’s Climate March.

Says 350 NYC, “In November and December, there will be actions and demonstrations around the world to drive home the message that the world needs to get off of fossil fuels now. This weekend, hundreds of local climate action groups like 350 NYC are holding workshops and teach-ins to start getting ready.”



A Tenuous Balance: Surfing and Development in the Rockaways

Editor’s Note: The growing number of surfers—and new residents—in the Rockaways has attracted significant public attention. A recent New York Times article focuses on the conflict between residents (new and old) and surfers who both feel they have a claim to the area.

Underlying these developments is the sobering fact that the Rockaway Peninsula is one of the most vulnerable areas of New York City relative to climate change. FEMA’s recently revised 100-year flood maps now include virtually the entire peninsula and its 100,000-plus residents. During Superstorm Sandy, sections of the Rockaways experienced 14-foot storm surges.

NYER contributor Jason Leahey spent some time exploring the Rockaways this summer and this is what he saw.

According to Jeff Anthony, the intersection of Beach 67th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard used to be, “just stray dogs and dune grass and garbage.” Then thousands of townhouses, in shades of cream and wash-worn blue, appeared. Then Superstorm Sandy hit land.

And today, the Rockaways are home to a booming surf scene.

Anthony, an instructor for Skudin Surf, one of a handful of schools that operate on the beach, grew up on this strip of sand crimped between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic. Standing on his boogie board by age seven, he grew into a member of a small but dedicated local surf scene. The Rockaways were different then. More off-the-map. Miles of beach were completely closed.

Around fifteen years ago, “train surfers” who lived across the city began hopping the A line with their boards and hitting the beach in the Rockaways.

Map of the Rockaway Peninsula. Some of the most devastating destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy took place in the western portion of the peninsula. The City reported that high-velocity waves struck unprotected neighborhoods like Belle Harbor, Neponsit, Roxbury, and Breezy Point, smashing structures facing the ocean. Fires also broke out in some of these neighborhoods during Sandy, causing further destruction.
Map of the Rockaway Peninsula. Some of the most devastating destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy took place in the western portion of the peninsula. The City reported that high-velocity waves struck unprotected neighborhoods like Belle Harbor, Neponsit, Roxbury, and Breezy Point, smashing structures facing the ocean. Fires also broke out in some of these neighborhoods during Sandy, causing further destruction.

Then, three years ago, Sandy put the Rockaways on a heap of New Yorkers’ personal maps of the city. And they started coming, too.

Surge in Surfers

The surf schools, spread beneath logoed shade canopies along the sand from 67th to 69th Streets, do significant business. On a Wednesday afternoon in August, Anthony and two other instructors wrapped up a class of six- to twelve-year-olds by calling them into a huddle, whispering words of encouragement, and leading them as they raised their hands in the air and cheered. The kids scampered.

Thirty minutes later, the men were leading a class of teenagers from a local religious camp, guiding them through their stretches, delivering advice: “Definitely drop into that second wave; you need to lean up and back,” and quizzing them on the effects of the sun’s heat on water. “If you’re a surfer, you also have to be a meteorologist,” Anthony stated. A few yards down the beach in each direction, other instructors taught individuals, pairs, groups of three.

Lauren Monte, a Brooklynite, moved here ten years ago. Her seven- and twelve-year-olds are spending their second summer surfing. She told how the schools lead beach cleanups, how they pooled together money to buy a board for a kid who couldn’t afford one, and how they work with groups of people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. “It’s a very giving community,” she said.

These days, there are surf instructors who have moved here from South Africa, Germany, and Hawaii. There are surfers who live in Puerto Rico or Costa Rica the rest of the year but come to the Rockaways to live and surf in the summer.

Now, on any decent summer Saturday, anywhere from fifty to 100 surfers cram into the water from 67th to 69th, one of the two surf zones approved by the Parks Department (the other is at 88th Street). Some of these surfers are the old hands, some are beginners with a few local lessons under their belts, some are utter novices. What had been a small community of the experienced has turned, since Sandy, into a major weekend scene.

“It’s gotten to the point,” Anthony said, describing the sheer number of New Yorkers paddling out, “where it’s almost dangerous.”

But it’s also a part of a local boon.

A Local Boon

When you get off the 67th Street A stop, the first thing you encounter is a miniature strip mall: one short block of uniform white and blue architecture that starts with an Assemblyman’s office, ends in a Thai restaurant, and feels as crisp and clean as a pair of fresh bed sheets.

Across the street, the townhouses are part of Arverne by the Sea, a 2,300-home oceanfront community that withstood Sandy’s onslaught and continues to grow. A full city block is now framed in forest-green construction walls, the buckets of backhoes rearing up into view, swiveling, dumping their loads of dirt.

New businesses and restaurants have opened as well. The boardwalk is being rebuilt. Local New York State Assembly members have begun lobbying the City to expand the surf zones, citing the economic possibilities.

The Rockaway Boardwalk. The section between Beach 86th and Beach 107th streets was re-opened this summer. The City says that the boardwalk will be continuously complete by Memorial Day 2016, with intact sections of the old boardwalk and new sections linked together. The boardwalk will be entirely completed as new construction by Memorial Day 2017. Photo: CBS News

“After Sandy, people came and started patronizing the beach,” Anthony said. “Patronizing the beach led to the concessions turning into these new areas with great new food instead of just fries and burgers. There are restaurants, a nightlife. I can go out with my girlfriend now and I don’t have to just get bar food. I can get Uzbecki food; I can get Thai food; I can get great American gastropub food.” Uncle Louie G’s, the Italian ice mainstay of Brooklyn, recently opened a new store on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and 92nd.

Change Brings Conflict

This change hasn’t been without conflict. The surfers, organized into the Rockaway Beach Surfers Association, want an expanded surfing area to keep the students safe and enable the scene to keep growing. Many Arverne residents are fighting that effort because they want to swim in the ocean right in front of their homes—the same stretch of water in which the surf schools operate—but are currently forbidden to because of a lack of City personnel for lifeguarding.

And then there are the long-term residents, including some from the Sandy-devastated southwest tip of the peninsula, who are also unhappy with all the new attention and attractions.

Surfing instruction on the Rockaway coast. Photo: Jason Leahey
Surfing instruction on the Rockaway coast. Photo: Jason Leahey

Seen in transition like this, gentrification inevitably springs to mind. But developers and entrepreneurs didn’t demolish the old boardwalk or call attention to the overlooked possibility of a New York life lived in a beach town. Climate change did.

In 2015, the Rockaways have been discovered by a new generation of New Yorkers who, not that long ago, watched sections of it drown and burn on the news. They take the A train out and surf and eat and spend their money in the community. NY1 named Rockaway Beach the best beach of the year. Unless the next big storm dictates otherwise, the growth does not look like it will stop any time soon, and the swelling popularity of a once-secret surfing spot does not either.

“Sandy made this new surfing culture,” Anthony said, “where everybody from Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan wants to come and give it a try. I say bring ‘em. Everything’s coming. It’s gonna bring better roads, a better boardwalk. I’ll take that change any day.”

Jason Leahey is a writer, musician, and teaching artist living in Brooklyn for fifteen years. He blogs about food and gardening at PitchKnives & Butter Forks and runs the Maribar Writers Colony at Cricket Hill, and his band Commonwealth Revival can next be seen at Brooklyn’s Rock Shop on November 13, 2015. 

This is Jason’s first article for New York Environment Report.

NYS Forest Rangers Return Home After Fighting California Wildfires

A New York State firefighting crew is returning home after battling a 37,000+ acre wildfire in Northern California for the last two weeks. The 20-member crew, made up of state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers, employees and volunteers, assisted in the containment of the Mad River Complex wildfires.

In late July, lightning ignited the Mad River Complex fires in California’s Six Rivers National Forest, 360 miles north of San Francisco. Local news reports said the fires -which consumed over 37,000 acres- had been fully contained by the end of last week.

New York State sent another crew of firefighters to southern Oregon in late August to assist in fighting the 25,000 acre Stouts Creek wildfire.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers and volunteer firefighters returned from fighting the Stouts Creek wildfire in Oregon on August 26, 2015. Photo credit: NYS DEC

As of September 2nd, more than 8 million acres have burned in U.S. wildfires in 2015, reports the Washington Post. The volume of acres burned this year is on track to be the worst in the nation’s recorded history. It is important to note, however, that 5 million acres burned in Alaska alone this year.

California Governor Jerry Brown has drawn a direct line between the state’s 4-year drought, which has exacerbated wildfires there, and climate change.

Firefighters in six Western states – California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Utah – were contending with a total of 35 large wildfires on Wednesday, September 9th, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.

Climate summit in Brooklyn this week as countdown to 2015 U.N. negotiations begins

2015 is unfolding as planet earth’s hottest year on record as U.N. climate treaty negotiations are set to start in Paris this December. The New York City area has just experienced its third warmest August since local record keeping began.

In response, climate activists are convening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this Thursday night to propose a roadmap for New York’s (and this country’s) complete transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.

Now is the time to “turn off the flow of carbon. The engineers are telling us that we are ready to turn on the abundant flow of sun and wind,” the event’s organizer, 350NYC.org, states.

[350.org gets its name from the finding by climate scientists that in order to avoid the more extreme effects of climate change, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere needs to remain below 350 parts per million. The current level is 400 ppm.]

The majority of greenhouse gases which drive climate change, such as carbon dioxide, come from burning fossil fuels to produce energy, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Deforestation, industrial processes, and some agricultural practices also emit gases into the atmosphere, they note.

Speakers at thursday’s event will include:

NYS plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions- will it be enough?

It will be really interesting to hear what climate activists have to say Thursday night about the progress we are making here in New York on combating climate change.

Both New York State and City say they plan to drastically cut carbon emissions. The State’s long-term goal is to decrease total carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

To date, New York State has reportedly cut greenhouse gas emissions 12 percent from 1990 levels, and it says it plans to achieve a 40 percent reduction in the next 15 years.

2015: the hottest year on record

As Scientific American reported on August 20th:

“In data released Thursday, NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] measured July at 1.46°F above the 20th century July average. Because July is also climatologically the warmest month of any year, this was also the warmest month the globe has seen since 1880, topping the previous record-holder, July 1998, by 0.14°F.

For the year-to-date, 2015 is 1.53°F above the 20th century average, and 0.16°F ahead of 2010, which had the previous warmest January through July.”

Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.4°F over the past century, and is projected to rise another 2 to 11.5°F over the next hundred years, says the EPA. “Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.”

What’s the goal for this year’s climate negotiations?

Starting November 30th, France will host the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21/CMP11), otherwise known as “Paris 2015.”

The goal is to keep average global temperatures from climbing 3.6°F higher than the 20th century average.

“The aim is to reach, for the first time,” says COP21, “a universal, legally binding agreement that will enable us to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies.”

While there is ongoing debate about whether remaining below a 3.6°F increase is even realistic, scientists say that a temperature rise of that magnitude would lead to “drastic changes,” such as significant ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antarctica.

Mitigation and adaptation

Indeed, the ice sheet in Greenland -the second largest glacial ice mass on Earth- is already experiencing a “significant” shrinkage in thickness…”contributing to sea level rise.” The freshwater stored in the Greenland ice sheet has a sea level equivalent of 24 feet (7.4 meters).

Permanent melting of the ice sheet would not only dramatically increase sea level, but also likely alter ocean circulation patterns and the global climate, say scientists.

For that reason, says COP21, the agreement hammered out in Paris must focus equally on mitigation (the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming) and adaptation to the climate change already underway.

The complexity of such a global negotiation is only rivaled by what is at stake.

“These efforts must take into account the needs and capacities of each country,” says COP21. “The agreement will enter into force in 2020 and will need to be sustainable to enable long-term change.”



New reasons for New Yorkers to be hopeful about national action on climate change

In the hours leading up to last night’s Republican presidential debate, Governor Jerry Brown of California tweeted out the following question to prospective candidates: What is your plan to deal with the threat of climate change?

Despite the intransigence of the Republican Party on the issue of climate change, the results of two surveys released in the last few days offer a glimmer of hope about where the national conversation on climate change may be going.

It’s not a moment too soon.

Federal inaction on climate change for the last quarter century has become almost surreal. News reports from the West, where devastating drought and historic wildfires are afflicting several states, point to a long-term crisis with no solution in sight. Governor Brown has drawn a direct line between California’s 4-year drought and climate change.

california drought
The perimeter of the Almaden Reservoir in San Jose, California. January, 2014. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Why does this matter for New Yorkers? Because we won’t be able to go it alone on climate change even if we want to. No matter how much we cut back on carbon emissions, our area sea levels and weather patterns will be increasingly impacted by the collective amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Staten Island Sandy
Picking up the pieces on Staten Island after Superstorm Sandy.

The wildfires this summer in California and other states are a case in point. One of the concerns -beyond the local devastation they are causing- is that they are releasing significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Consider this analysis published in yesterday’s Washington Post:

“Before 2000, there is no year on record with more than eight million acres burned across the U.S., according to figures going back to 1983 provided by the National Interagency Fire Center…

Since 2000, however, there have been six years with more than eight million acres burned, and three with over 9 million burned. And 2015, with nearly six million acres burned already — well above the ten year average for this time of the year — could potentially join this list….

It is becoming almost trite to state that this has something to do with climate change. Wildfire risks are strongly influenced by local climatic factors which, in turn, are trending because of changes to the global climate. Heat and dryness favor wildfires — that’s why this year has fire-watchers so concerned, because western drought has been so widespread.”

Where do Americans stand today on climate change?

According to the results of a Quinnipiac University poll released four days ago, U.S. voters support Pope Francis’ call for action to address climate change by a 65 to 27 percent margin.

A younarcher from Coney Island
Marchers from Coney Island at the 2014 People’s Climate March. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

Even more interesting, a July, 2015 survey of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina indicates that there may be broader support than previously imagined for a pro-active national response to climate change.

The survey was commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters, and carried out by American Viewpoint, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia.

The survey found the following:

1.) The Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire and South Carolina is fairly conservative, yet they still show support for pro-environment policies.

2.) Republican primary voters want to expand the development of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar; and they have mixed views about “traditional” energy sources, such as coal and oil.

Almost three-quarters of Republicans polled -both in New Hampshire and South Carolina- want the U.S. to increase its use of renewable energy.

And, almost three-quarters (72 percent) of New Hampshire Republican primary voters and 68 percent of South Carolina voters say a clean energy plan is important to them when deciding which presidential candidate to support.

The Long Island Solar Farm at Brookhaven National Laboratory, currently the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in the Eastern United States. The plant is generating enough renewable energy to power approximately 4,500 homes. Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory

3.) There are several clean energy policies that have broad appeal to Republican primary voters.

These proposals all scored well (ranging from a high of 77 percent to a low of 46 percent approving) with Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina:

  • eliminating corporate tax loopholes for oil companies as part of reducing taxes for all Americans;
  • modernizing and upgrading power lines to minimize energy loss;
  • improving energy efficiency in homes, offices, businesses, etc.;
  • expanding access to job training for clean energy jobs; and
  • providing tax incentives for investment in new energy technologies like solar panels and hybrid or electric cars.

Smaller groups of Republican voters were surveyed about setting national targets for renewable energy use, and there was surprising support for this idea as well.

The goal that one-third of all U.S. energy should come from renewable sources by 2030 had the support of almost half of Republicans surveyed in New Hampshire and South Carolina; as did the even higher target of going 50 percent renewable by 2030.

4.) Majorities of Republican primary voters believe in climate change.

In New Hampshire, 51 percent of Republican primary voters said there is solid evidence that climate change is happening; while 48 percent of South Carolina voters agreed with the same statement.

It is worth noting that surveyors did not specifically refer to climate change as “man-made” when they spoke with voters.

5.) There is significant support among Republican primary voters for policies to address carbon pollution.

Nearly 60 percent of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina favored placing limits on carbon pollution.

Surprisingly, even a majority of Republicans in both states supported the EPA proposal to set strict carbon dioxide limits on existing coal-fired power plants (50 percent in New Hampshire and 52 percent in South Carolina).

There is even greater support for action at the state level. Three-quarters of Republican primary voters in both states favored their state “developing its own plan to reduce carbon pollution and increase the use of clean energy and energy efficiency.”

What makes these survey responses so powerful is that they show a potential way forward for U.S. public policy on climate change. Read more here about the survey’s results and methodology.

Will we ever address climate change at the national level?

In the face of federal inaction, New York State and City have moved ahead on both climate change mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (preparing for the impacts of more carbon in the atmosphere).

Take a look at the “Climate” section on our website to learn more.

Whether New York State and City are doing enough to address climate change is an open question. But there is no doubt that our elected officials feel they have a mandate to move forward.

South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan after Superstorm Sandy. Photo: Associated Press

Many states and municipalities are doing the same thing. Look at the city of Chicago’s plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050; or the state of California’s goals to cut petroleum use in half and go 50 percent renewable by 2030.

One reason we may never have federal action on climate change – it has long been argued- is that the American electorate is simply too divided about government’s role in addressing the issue.

The prevailing wisdom has been that a sizable proportion of U.S. voters, especially those not living on the “more progressive” East and West coasts, are ambivalent about concerted government action on climate change, such as establishing a carbon tax or subsidies for renewable energy development.

Republican voters, it is said, are especially reactionary on the topic. After all, they have elected numerous representatives to Congress (and other political offices) who even question whether climate change is real.

But the results of last month’s survey begin to call assertions about American public opinion into question. At the very least, people’s minds may be shifting as Americans suffer through catastrophic storms, historic flooding, devastating droughts and wildfires.

Devastation after Superstorm Sandy.

The real question is this: how prepared are any of the presidential candidates -Republican or otherwise- to fight for their constituents’ views on climate change?


It’s Not Just the Heat: Ozone Levels Are Dangerously High in NYC & Long Island

As temperatures climb, Ozone Air Quality Advisories have been issued two days in a row this week for the New York City metro-area and Long Island. Similar ozone advisories were issued two days last week.

Ozone is a dangerous ground-level air pollutant that should not be confused with the protective layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere. Ozone pollution is caused by auto exhaust and larger emission sources, such as power plants which burn fossil fuels.

Ozone pollution is also exacerbated by rising temperatures due to climate change.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s advisories this week apply to New York City, Westchester and Rockland counties, and Long Island, including Nassau and Suffolk counties.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens and State Department of Health (DOH) Commissioner Howard Zucker issued the advisories, which are in effect each day until 11 p.m.

Higher Temperatures = More Ozone Pollution

Unlike other air pollutants, ozone is not directly emitted by pollution sources. Instead, this “powerful oxidant” is formed in the air itself during smog conditions.

High temperatures (over 80°F) and sunlight react with emissions from vehicles and smokestacks to form ozone. Hydrocarbons such as gasoline vapors and nitrogen dioxide – what the state calls “ozone precursors”- can help to trigger the gas.

According to the state, automobile exhaust and out-of-state emission sources (such as power plants) are the primary sources of ground‑level ozone.

As average temperatures rise across the U.S. (and the globe) due to climate change, ozone pollution is also expected to increase unless the emission of ozone precursors can be cut significantly.

Americans face the risk of a 70 percent increase in unhealthy summertime ozone levels by 2050, a 2014 National Science Foundation study found. According to the NSF:

“Even short periods of unhealthy ozone levels can cause local death rates to rise. Ozone pollution also damages crops and other plants….However, the research also showed that a sharp reduction in the emissions of certain pollutants would lead to dramatically decreased levels of ozone even as temperatures warm.”

A public health threat for New Yorkers

Ozone is one of the most serious air pollution problems in the northeast. The New York City-metro area is currently in “non-attainment” of 2008 federal ozone standards.

A recent analysis by the City of New York estimated that 2,700 “premature” deaths every year can be tied to ozone and fine particulate matter, two separate air pollutants. Roughly 1 in 10 emergency room visits for asthma in New York City are attributable to ozone pollution.

asthma patient 2
Young asthma patient. Photo credit: nyc.gov

New York State (and City) have made major progress in reducing levels of fine particulate matter pollution, which is released by combustion sources such as building heating systems, vehicle exhaust, power plant and industry emissions, and even wood burning.

Reducing ozone levels, because they are tied to rising temperatures and partially caused by out-of-state pollution sources, remains a huge challenge.

Failing grades for ozone pollution in the NYC metro area

According to the 2015 State of the Air report card released by the American Lung Association, Suffolk and Westchester counties, along with the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island, all received failing grades for ozone pollution.

Both Manhattan and Rockland County received a “D”. Data for Brooklyn and Nassau County was unavailable.

The grades were calculated by totalling the number of days (in 2011, 2012 and 2013) in which ozone levels surpassed public safety guidelines over an 8-hour period. Suffolk County experienced 24 days when ozone levels were “orange”, or dangerous for sensitive populations. Staten Island experienced 17 such days, and Queens experienced 15.

Take precautions- especially when ozone levels peak

People, especially young children, those who exercise outdoors, those involved in vigorous outdoor work and those who have respiratory disease (such as asthma) are being asked to consider limiting strenuous outdoor physical activity when ozone levels are the highest (generally afternoon to early evening).

When outdoor levels of ozone are elevated, going indoors will usually reduce your exposure. Individuals experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain or coughing should consider consulting their doctor, say state officials.

Ozone levels generally decrease at night. They can be minimized during daylight hours by the reduction of pollution from cars and other vehicles, for instance.

New Yorkers can help reduce ozone levels by using mass transit and conserving energy

State regulators are urging New Yorkers to:

  • use mass transit or carpool instead of driving, as automobile emissions account for about 60 percent of pollution in our cities;
  • conserve fuel and reduce exhaust emissions by combining necessary motor vehicle trips;
  • turn off all lights and electrical appliances in unoccupied areas;
  • use fans to circulate air. If air conditioning is necessary, set thermostats at 78 degrees;
  • close the blinds and shades to limit heat build-up and to preserve cooled air;
  • limit use of household appliances. If necessary, run the appliances at off-peak (after 7 p.m.) hours. These would include dishwashers, dryers, pool pumps and water heaters;
  • set refrigerators and freezers at more efficient temperatures;
  • purchase and install energy efficient lighting and appliances with the Energy Star label; and
  • reduce or eliminate outdoor burning and attempt to minimize indoor sources of PM 2.5 [fine particulate matter pollution] such as smoking.

More helpful info from state regulators

The state departments of Environmental Conservation and Health issue Air Quality Health Advisories when DEC meteorologists predict levels of pollution, either ozone or fine particulate matter, are expected to exceed an Air Quality Index (AQI) value of 100. The AQI was created as an easy way to correlate levels of different pollutants to one scale, with a higher AQI value indicating a greater health concern.

A toll‑free Air Quality Hotline (1-800-535-1345) has been established by DEC to keep New Yorkers informed of the latest Air Quality situation.

Further information on ozone and PM 2.5 [fine particulate matter pollution] is available on DEC’s web site and on the DOH website.

Uh Oh. Two New Studies Warn Sea Level Rise Is Coming, and Fast.

Two studies out in recent days put New York City at a severe risk of climate change-enhanced flooding—and much sooner than previously thought.

2 Degrees, Surging Seas

The first is a comprehensive new review in the journal Science that shows that if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F), sea levels will rise about 20 feet. Obviously, this could have dramatic impacts on  coastal cities across the globe—including our favorite coastal metropolis, New York City.

If the data is accurate, the authors suggest this could all happen by 2200.

Entire neighborhoods in NYC would be submerged—the East and West Village, TriBeCa, Chelsea, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Coney Island, Long Island City, and the Rockaways to name a few—and nearly 2 million people could be displaced.

A map built by the group Climate Control using this data, shows the impact that two degrees Celsius could have on America’s coastlines.

A significant portion of lower Manhattan would be underwater.
A significant portion of lower Manhattan would be underwater. Image via Climate Central.
Coney Island and the Rockaways would be completely submerged.
Coney Island and the Rockaways would be completely submerged. Image via Climate Central.

Help Me, Hansen

A bicyclist making his way past a stranded taxi on a flooded New York City Street as Tropical Storm Irene passes through the city in August, 2011.
A bicyclist making his way past a stranded taxi on a flooded New York City Street as Tropical Storm Irene passes through the city in August, 2011. Photo credit: AP

The second study is written by James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, along with 16 co-authors, and will soon be published in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry. It posits that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous estimates, which will result in sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years.

According to Slate, the study focuses on

“a feedback loop in the ocean near Antarctica that results in cooler freshwater from melting glaciers forcing warmer, saltier water underneath the ice sheets, speeding up the melting rate.”

Hansen gives no specific timeline, but suggests the feedback loop is likely to occur this century—that is, by 2100.

If correct, Hansen’s findings mean that ice is melting and seas are rising much faster than expected. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected closer to 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Even that amount that would mean serious consequences for New York City residents, and would put runways of JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports underwater.

As Slate’s Eric Holthaus puts it, “New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left.”

According to Hansen, this report requires “emergency cooperation among nations.” He continues:

“We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

Time to batten down the hatches and get to work.