NYC Mayoral Front-Runner, Embracing Climate Activists' Demands, Vows To Ban Fossil Fuels

Scott Stringer is leaning into the Green New Deal to consolidate support among the Big Apple’s political left.

Scott Stringer, an early front-runner for New York City mayor, pledged to completely phase out fossil fuels, drive private utility companies out of the nation’s largest metropolis, and “electrify everything” in a near total embrace of climate activists’ demands ahead of this year’s election.

The 34-page proposal Stringer laid out Sunday would transform the five boroughs, glazing the rooftops with solar panels and battery units, prioritizing bike lanes and pedestrian walkways over highways, and providing new programs to make electricity cheaper and green jobs more plentiful for the city’s squeezed working class.

“The time for pie-in-the-sky platitudes is over,” he said in a Zoom press conference. “The time for incrementalism has passed.”

He promised to block all new fossil fuel infrastructure, including a controversial pipeline currently under construction in Brooklyn, and vowed to ban all gas hookups in newly built and renovated construction. He called the city’s network of roughly a dozen gas- and oil-burning power plants “relics of the past, and that’s where I’ll put them,” and promised a fleet of electric buses and subway improvements. He said he’d implement a standing proposal to shutter the infamous prison on Rikers Island and convert the facility to a solar farm and target aid to communities that suffered the worst excesses of both polluters and policing.

“Emissions are up since 2017, we’re still putting pipelines in the ground, and air emissions have led to more COVID deaths in the Bronx than anywhere in the country,” Stringer said. “To move forward, we must turn the page on decades of environmental racism. We gotta say it, it’s true. The buck stops with me. No more excuses.”

Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller now running for mayor, embraced a full-fledged Green New Deal platform as more candidates crowd into the race.
Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller now running for mayor, embraced a full-fledged Green New Deal platform as more candidates crowd into the race.
Steven A Henry via Getty Images

The plan marks something of a transformation for Stringer. A fixture in Manhattan politics for more than three decades, the 60-year-old Democrat forged his most significant climate policy in 2018 at his current post as the city’s comptroller, kick-starting the process of divesting New York’s pension funds of fossil fuel stocks.

But in an increasingly crowded field of mayoral hopefuls, Stringer has distinguished himself as an enthusiastic ally of the city’s influential Green New Deal movement, joining protests against new fossil fuel infrastructure and racking up endorsements from unions and socialist firebrand lawmakers alike.

It’s a model that worked for Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), whose fealty to Green New Deal activists revitalized his 44-year record in Congress and helped him beat back a spirited primary challenge last year from Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy, who had been favored to win.

The climate proposal, the first major plan the campaign has rolled out, so impressed Food & Water Action that the progressive environmental group suspended its candidate screening process and now plans to give Stringer its backing in an announcement Monday.

Thousands of New Yorkers marched for climate action on the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.
Thousands of New Yorkers marched for climate action on the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.
Erik McGregor via Getty Images

“I read it and started thinking, ‘Who on Earth are we going to endorse? No one else is going to have this kind of plan,’” Alex Beauchamp, Food & Water Action’s Brooklyn-based regional director, said by phone. “This plan is the best I’ve seen from virtually any candidate for any office. It seemed obvious.”

The Climate Election

Climate change already looked set to become a defining theme of this year’s election. Term limits opened 60% of the 51-seat City Council and barred Mayor Bill de Blasio from running again. Since the end of November’s historic national election, candidates have rushed into what’s expected to be a heated six-month contest ahead of the June 22 Democratic primary.

Brad Lander, the progressive city councilman from Brooklyn running to succeed Stringer as comptroller, released the first major climate proposal in the race, laying out a detailed plan to complete the city’s fossil fuel divestment, expand public financing for clean infrastructure and create a new auditing department to hold city agencies and companies accountable to climate goals. In western Queens, city council hopeful Tiffany Cabán made “implementing a Green New Deal” one of her three top priorities, while southeast Queens candidate Moumita Ahmed listed climate justice as the third plank of her platform.

Other contenders for mayor have signaled concern about the issue. Maya Wiley, the former mayoral counsel and MSNBC host, promised to place “making New York more resilient in the face of climate change” among “her top priorities as mayor,” a spokesperson said. Another mayoral contender, former Obama-era Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, highlighted his work overseeing the recovery from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Andrew Yang, the failed 2020 Democratic presidential contender, was spotted filming his own mayoral announcement on the Coney Island waterfront last month.

The emphasis shows how far climate change has come as a political issue in the past few years.

The climate movement underwent an unprecedented surge since 2018, when United Nations scientists warned that governments had a decade to cut planet-heating emissions in half or doom the world to catastrophic, irreversible warming. The findings made clear that politically unpopular schemes to put a price on carbon emissions and incrementally transition from fossil fuels, which had until then dominated the climate policy mainstream, could not alone deliver the economic changes needed.

In response, youth activists and a new cadre of progressive lawmakers, led largely by the Bronx’s own Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), outlined an alternative. The Green New Deal, a policy framework for the kind of federal industrial policy not seen since World War II, quickly gained steam. By the time Democrats began declaring their bids for president the next year, nearly every major candidate embraced the framework, including the ultimate victor, President-elect Joe Biden.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks to residents in Queens about her bill to invest in greening the city's public housing complexes — legislation Stringer vowed to champion if elected mayor.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks to residents in Queens about her bill to invest in greening the city's public housing complexes — legislation Stringer vowed to champion if elected mayor.
Yana Paskova via Getty Images

The movement took root locally, too. In 2019, City Council lawmakers enacted a package of measures requiring landlords to slash climate pollution from the city’s biggest buildings, making it easier to build solar panels and small turbines on rooftops, and establishing a new loan program for renewable energy. Months later, New York state passed one of the ambitious climate laws in the country, mandating a carbon-neutral economy in less than 30 years.

The city’s 2020 Democratic primary cemented climate as a winning issue. Green New Deal backers won more than half a dozen seats in the state legislature and in the U.S. congressional delegation, unseating entrenched incumbents.

Advocates, meanwhile, upped the ante. Groups such as New York Communities for Change and the local chapters of Democratic Socialists of America and the Green New Deal-crusading Sunrise Movement started demanding the government replace Consolidated Edison and National Grid, the investor-owned utilities that currently deliver the city’s electricity and heating gas, with government-run alternatives. And activists stepped up fights against new gas pipelines into the city, including one currently under construction in North Brooklyn.

“The time for incrementalism has passed.”

- Scott Stringer

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the city, other groups authored a 40-page plan for a green recovery, urging the city to spend $16 billion over the next three years retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, expanding bike lanes, and boosting green manufacturing on Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront.

City On The Hill

If elected, much of what he proposed, including new spending and the establishment of public utilities, would require Stringer to marshal allies in the City Council, Albany and Washington to enact new legislation. And the executive job in a city with an economy bigger than that of most countries offers a powerful bully pulpit.

Stringer told HuffPost he envisioned a “reset with Albany” after nearly a decade of bickering and intransigence between de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and he said the young progressive lawmakers elected to the state Assembly and Senate would provide a pathway for advocating his agenda.

“We can no longer play checkers when everyone like the governor is playing chess,” Stringer said. “We have to sell this plan the way we never have before.”

But advocates say the things Stringer could do unilaterally as mayor are some of the most promising pledges in his proposal. Ramping up enforcement of laws against lead paint in low-income housing, creating new regulations on indoor air pollution, and implementing a new fast-track process for green permitting all fall under the mayoral purview, and could dramatically improve life for New Yorkers suffering the worst exposure to toxic pollution.

“This is a good day for the Green New Deal movement,” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who published a study tracking the evolution of New York City climate policy in the journal Environmental Politics in September.

He said Stringer “should consider giving more emphasis to express bus lanes, the only part of the public transit system that the city controls directly.”

Stringer’s opposition to new fossil fuel infrastructure is another good sign to advocates.

“There’s a commitment to fight against all new fossil fuel infrastructure, including references to revoking existing city permits,” Beauchamp said. “We’ve been pretty disappointed with the city’s response to this so far. That’s been a thing that the current administration says is a nonstarter.”

Costa Constantinides, the Queens councilman behind the city’s major 2019 climate bill, said he is now serving as Stringer’s climate adviser.

“You have a track record of getting things done,” Constantinides said. “And that’s what we need in the next mayor on climate.”

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