NEW YORK ― The nation’s most populous and most economically influential city could become the country’s first to establish a new agency to manage its efforts to deal with climate change if a new bill announced Wednesday passes.
The legislation, authored by City Councilman Costa Constantinides, would create a new commissioner-led department to carry out the city’s sustainability policies, including a historic bill to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
“Climate change is going to be the great challenge of the 21st century,” Constantinides, a Queens Democrat, said while standing in City Hall Park. “We need to put that on par with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Protection.”
The creation of such a department would mark a significant escalation of what increasingly looks like a fight for survival for a sprawling coastal metropolis still suffering the effects of a climate change-fueled megastorm seven years ago.
Climate preparedness traditionally falls under existing urban planning or environmental agencies. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, already maintains an Office of Sustainability and an Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which oversee the city’s OneNYC climate plan. Pete Sikora, a senior adviser to the nonprofit climate and housing advocacy New York Communities for Change, criticized OneNYC as “a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of making the big stuff happen.”
In an email to HuffPost, the mayor’s office said it was “currently reviewing this bill.”
“The Mayor’s Offices are well-positioned to execute our citywide plan for mitigating and adapting to climate change,” said Seth Stein, a spokesman. “We look forward to working with the Council to ensure that continues in future administrations.”
The bill proposes merging the offices into a new agency called the Department of Sustainability that Constantinides said could marshal more resources from the state and federal governments and deploy a larger workforce of city officials to deal with energy, zoning and relief efforts. It would create a new role for a commissioner.
“It is about having the staff to get things done,” the councilman said. “It’s an opportunity for us to lobby Albany and lobby the feds.”
He did not say how big the budget for the proposed department would be.
Constantinides said he planned to introduce a second bill that would create a new Office of Renewable Energy that would function as a “working group” aimed at scaling up the city’s solar and wind energy, which make up a small fraction of its electricity production.
“If the creation of a Department of Sustainability somehow gives the new entity a higher profile, more sway, more money in the city bureaucracy, then it could be a good thing,” said Ashley Dawson, author of the book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change. “If not, then it may just be shuffling deck chairs around.”
The introduction of the bill comes at a moment when New York is a hotbed of political activity. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the progressive firebrand representing a district stretching from the Bronx to Queens, is spearheading the most dramatic shift in American climate politics in decades, crusading for a so-called Green New Deal that would overhaul the economy and make the United States the world leader on reducing emissions. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Brooklyn native, serves as the Senate minority leader at a historic moment in the administration of President Donald Trump, himself a native New Yorker. De Blasio is now rumored to be considering joining the crowded field of Democrats making 2020 bids for the White House.
“It could be a good thing ... it may just be shuffling deck chairs around.”
The establishment of a climate department would organize the disparate but growing efforts to prepare for a warmer, hotter and more densely populated city.
Earlier on Wednesday, City Councilman Mark Treyger, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced a bill that would mandate the city’s transportation regulators to study the feasibility of painting streets in overheated residential neighborhoods with a special coating to reduce the so-called urban heat island effect that kills up to 600 mostly poor New Yorkers each year.
In January, Constantinides proposed a bill that would require the city to devise a plan to phase out its 24 oil- and gas-burning power stations and replace them with renewables and batteries. Two months earlier, the lawmaker introduced legislation to mandate dramatic retrofits to cut energy and water use in buildings over 25,000 square feet, the city’s largest source of climate pollution.
De Blasio kicked off 2018 by filing a landmark lawsuit against five oil giants, seeking to recoup the costs of damages linked to climate change. At the same time, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced plans to divest the city’s $200 billion pension funds of oil and gas.
The efforts are starting to filter up to the state level. For years, the Republican-controlled state Senate blocked climate legislation that passed in the Assembly from even coming up for a vote. Now that Democrats control the entire Legislature, the New York State Climate and Community Protection Act, a bill hailed by activists as one of the most progressive pieces of climate legislation in the nation, is poised to come up for a vote. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) vowed to pursue a Green New Deal of his own.
In October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined world governments have roughly a decade to halve global emissions or face cataclysmic global warming. Few countries are on track, and the United States, the world’s largest historic emitter, is ramping up oil and gas production under the Trump administration, arguably making municipal policies more urgent than ever.
This story has been updated to include comment from the mayor’s office.