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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Climate Change: Failing to Act?

Posted by NYPIRG on November 20, 2017 at 11:13 am
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There can be no doubt that the planet is warming; 2016 was the fifth time in the 21st century a new record high annual temperature has been set (along with 2005, 2010, 2014, and 2015) and also marks the 40th consecutive year (since 1977) that the annual temperature has been above the 20th century average.  To date, all 16 years of the 21st century rank among the seventeen warmest on record (1998 is currently the eighth warmest).  The five warmest years have all occurred since 2010.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the environmentally catastrophic policies of the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress.  The Trump Administration has been busy rolling back the already inadequate programs of the former Obama Administration and advancing measures to stimulate the use of coal in energy production – arguably the worst fossil fuel in terms of heating the planet.

Despite the stunningly dangerous policies of the Trump Administration, the world has long known of the dangers posed by the burning of oil, gas and coal.

Twenty-five years ago, more than 1700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” The Warning urged that the world must take measures to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

This month on the twenty-fifth anniversary of that call, scientists looked back to evaluate the world’s responses.  What they found, though not surprising, was disturbing: since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, the world has failed to make sufficient progress in solving the environmental challenges and, in fact, most of them are getting far worse.

Their review specifically identified the rapidly increasing threat of catastrophic climate change resulting from the rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production.

That warning was released just as the 23rd conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) was meeting in Bonn, Germany.  The Convention was meeting to take steps to implement the 2015 Paris agreement and to set the stage for next year’s draft rules to fully implement the Paris agreement.

Under the Paris agreement, nearly 200 nations submitted individual pledges to curb their greenhouse-gas emissions.  Under the agreement, nations vowed to limit the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution to “well below” 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

At this year’s meeting, the goal was to develop rules to verify whether the nations are actually reducing emissions consistent with the goals of the agreement.  Reportedly, the negotiators made progress toward that goal and the rules are supposed to be in place in time for next year’s climate conference in Katowice, Poland.

Those measurements are critical.  Goals that reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are supposed to hit goals for the year 2030, for example, need to have established, measureable annual mileposts in order to know whether environmental policies will be met and nations are meeting their pledge goals.

Given the Trump Administration’s callous disregard for the suffering that is, and will be, from climate changes, states have argued that they will follow the Paris accord.  New York to its credit is one of those states.

And the Cuomo Administration has set aggressive goals to meet the Paris Agreement:

  • A reduction in New York’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050;
  • Half of those reductions will come by the year 2030; and
  • 50% of the state’s electricity will come from renewable energy sources.

But like the Paris accord itself, a clear public reporting system should be put in place.  In January, Governor Cuomo will offer his State of the State address.  During that speech, the governor will outline both the successes of his Administration and his roadmap for future plans.  He should use that address as a way to hold himself publicly accountable by laying out what has been done to meet the state’s climate change-fighting agenda.  In that way, New York can show the world how to succeed in tackling the single most daunting problem facing humanity.

Of course, success in New York does not solve the problem.  Americans must insist that the Trump Administration and its allies in the Congress embrace aggressive climate change fighting efforts.  Failure to do so will result in catastrophic consequences.  When it comes to a dangerously warming planet, there are no alternative facts.

We must insist that governments at every level take immediate action; it is a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life.

 

Whither Reform?

Posted by NYPIRG on November 13, 2017 at 10:36 am
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Last week, New Yorkers turned down an opportunity to call a constitutional convention.  If it had been approved, delegates would have been elected and given the mandate to propose changes to New York State’s governmental blueprint.

But as it had in 1997, voters overwhelmingly rejected the option.  Advocates for the convention argued that state government is a mess – plagued by corruption, its processes too inefficient and cumbersome, and one which relies far too heavily on secrecy in its decision-making.  And polling said that New Yorkers wanted reform.  According to a recent Siena Research Institute poll, New York voters – “regardless of party, geography, gender, race, income, or ideology – overwhelmingly support term limits for legislators and state elected officials, eliminating the LLC loophole, creating a system of initiative and referendum, and making the State Legislature full-time, with a ban on outside employment for legislators.”

So New Yorkers want reforms, but yet voted down the convention option with over 80 percent voting no.  Why?

The opposition’s arguments were strongly focused on a key weakness of the convention process – how delegates would be selected.  Under a process set in the state constitution, delegates would have been elected in a manner more or less the same as anyone else running for office.  Opponents made the reasonable argument that who else but those in the political class could get enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, raise the necessary campaign contributions to successfully run, and then have the free time to serve in a convention?

Opponents argued that it would be redundant to what happens in Albany now, so why waste the money?  It’s possible that things could get even worse.

Of course, a convention is a different venue than the legislative process, but nevertheless, voters were more concerned that bad things were more likely to come out of a convention, and said no.

Unfortunately, the current process hasn’t been responsive to the public’s demands for reforms, in fact quite the opposite.

So now what?

The critique offered by supporters of the convention – that Albany is a mess, is one shared by national experts.  According to the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, “it’s fair to say that New York remains one of the most corrupt states if not the most corrupt state.”

2018 will see a number of high level corruption cases coming to a head.  Former top aides to the governor are scheduled to have their corruption trials heard in the first half of the year and the retrials of the former leaders of the Assembly and Senate are likely to also be heard during that time.

Just as lawmakers are in session, the glare from these high profile cases may shine intensely on the governor and the state legislature.  And 2018 is an election year, for all 213 lawmakers, the governor, the comptroller and the attorney general.  All have run with a promise to clean up Albany, a promise that can be described charitably as one that is as yet unfulfilled.

Reformers, both inside government and outside of it, must roll up their sleeves and get back to work.  It’s pretty clear that left to its own devices, the executive and legislature will advance proposals that sound good, but do little to achieve the cultural change that Albany needs.

Instead, an aggressive reform package must be advanced.  A plan that includes:

  • New strict accountability measures that would result in an open, ethical, and efficient way to award government contracts, an area which was identified as a key problem in the indictments of the governor’s top aides.
  • Significant changes to the state’s campaign finance system, one which eliminates the advantages granted to Limited Liability Companies, advantages that are far more generous than ones granted to other businesses. LLCs have also been at the heart of some of Albany’s most troubling scandals.
  • Real limits on the outside income for legislators and the executive. Moonlighting by top legislative leaders and top members of the executive branch have triggered indictments by the federal prosecutors.
  • And the creation of a truly independent ethics enforcement.

Voters must hold their elected representatives accountable for what they do, not what they say, when it comes to battling corruption in state government. Next election day, New Yorkers should expect to have seen concrete changes to fix Albany’s ethics.

 

Three Questions for Election Day

Posted by NYPIRG on November 6, 2017 at 11:23 am
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This year’s Election Day offers voters a range of candidates for local office.  In addition, New Yorkers will have three questions on the ballot that could impact the state’s constitution.

Since New York does not have a process for citizens to directly change the constitution, the only way that the constitution can be changed is either by an amendment approved by two successive legislatures and then put to voters for approval, or through a constitutional convention at which elected delegates develop changes to submit to voters for approval.

The three questions will appear on the back side of this year’s paper ballot.  The questions each have a number, one, two or three.  Here are the questions being put to voters.

Question 1 may be the question which, if approved, could have the biggest impact on the future of the state.  Question 1 is the proposal for voters to decide whether they want to convene a constitutional convention.

Under the state constitution, every twenty years voters have the opportunity to decide if they want to convene a convention at which the current constitution could be re-written.  If voters approve the creation of a convention, then delegates would be elected the following year.  Those delegates could propose revisions to the constitution in any way they wanted.  The changes proposed by the delegates would then be forwarded to voters in the following election to decide whether they want to approve the changes.

Proponents argue that Albany’s a mess – corrupt, operating in secret, costing too much and that only a convention can fix it. In addition, they argue that the State’s basic document is old, anachronistic, and contains provisions that are now considered unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution.  A convention could modernize the state constitution.

Opponents argue that the current State Constitution includes provisions that protect the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, require a sound, basic education for children, require that the poor are protected, and enshrines protections for workers in the state. And, they contend, those protections should not be put at risk.

Question 2 amends the constitution to allow judges to reduce or revoke the state pension of a public officer convicted of corruption, defined as a felony conviction stemming from a corrupt act that occurred during his or her official duties.

Under current law, public officials can put their pension at risk if they are convicted of corruption and they took office after 2010.  Under New York’s state constitution, public pensions cannot be altered once the individual is in the system.  Changes can only be made for future public employees.

Question 2 would make a constitutional change that would allow for the reduction or removal of a public pension from a public official who was in the system prior to 2011.

Question 3 is a proposal to amend the state constitution to allow for the creation of a 250-acre land bank to be used in the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves.  If approved, the land bank would allow local governments to request the use of the land in the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserve for projects in exchange for the state acquiring 250 acres to be designated for the Parks.

The reason that this question is on the ballot is that the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves are protected under the “Forever Wild” clause of the New York State Constitution.  As a result, the Parks are protected as wild forest land, thus prohibiting the lease, sale, exchange, or taking of any forest preserve land.

Question 3 would allow counties and townships of certain regions that have no viable alternative to using forest preserve land to address specific public health and safety concerns.  In order to offset such uses, the proposal requires that the state obtain another 250 acres of land that will be added to the forest preserve, subject to legislative approval. The proposed amendment also will allow bicycle trails and certain public utility lines to be located within the width of specified highways that cross the forest preserve while minimizing removal of trees and vegetation.

If you’re not sure if you are registered, or where you should vote, or who the candidates are, you can find out by going to the state Board of elections website at https://www.elections.ny.gov/.

Off year elections are usually marked by low voter turnouts. Many voters are simply disinterested in voting on candidates for local offices.  But this year is different, there are two proposals to change the state constitution and a once-in-two-decades chance to vote on whether to convene a convention to alter the blueprint for government in New York.  Let your voice be heard, vote.

Superstorm Sandy’s Fifth Anniversary

Posted by NYPIRG on October 30, 2017 at 9:37 am
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Climate change is not something that will impact in the future – it’s happening now.  An unrelenting heat wave in California and on the west coast has helped fuel forest fires, there has been massive flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal that have devastated that region, hurricanes Irma and Maria have decimated the Caribbean, hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in Texas.

Yet, these aren’t the first catastrophes; 5 years ago this week Superstorm Sandy hammered New York and New Jersey.

Sandy spawned incredible storm surge flooding, claimed 159 lives in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern regions of the country and left behind more than $70 billion in damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Sandy hammered New York and New Jersey, leaving much of New York City powerless and in some areas under feet of water.

Like the catastrophes left in Sandy’s wake, the islands of the Caribbean, Texas, and the other nations have suffered unprecedented damage from this year’s hurricanes.

What do these storms have to do with climate change?

Here is what we know: Global warming heats the atmosphere which leads to heat waves; higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation, leading to rapid drying of soils, which not only contributes to droughts, it can also lead to forest fires.  Global warming also leads to higher sea levels, which in turn increases the risk of storm surge, contributing to the damage brought by hurricanes.

But you wouldn’t know it from what we hear from Washington.  There, climate deniers continue to argue that the science isn’t settled, that programs to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases are useless, and, in fact, that the federal government should bail out the coal industry – a leading contributor to the world’s warming crisis.

Yeah, you read that correctly, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has advanced a plan to bail out the coal industry.  Under the proposal, the federal government would require anyone who receives an electric bill to pay owners of coal and nuclear power plants their operating costs, plus a guaranteed profit – regardless of whether their plants are selling electricity at a competitive price.

Bailing out those responsible for global warming is exactly the wrong approach.  Instead, policymakers should be making the fossil fuel industry pay to help us all deal with the responses.  That’s what happening right now in California.  Five cities have filed lawsuits against five of the biggest oil companies to offset the costs from local flooding in low-lying areas, eroding shores, and salt water impacts on water treatment systems, just a few of the impacts linked to sea level rise.

Of course, more needs to be done –stopping the industry from creating new infrastructure is another important step.  After all, new pipelines and other facilities need to be used for decades in order to pay off the cost of building them in the first place.

When it comes to climate change, there is no time left.

As downstate residents found out when facing Superstorm Sandy, the time for rhetoric is over.  The time for action is now.

America’s Food Waste Crisis Moves to the Front Burner

Posted by NYPIRG on October 23, 2017 at 11:23 am
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In an era of growing poverty, homelessness and hunger, it’s amazing how little attention the problem of food waste gets by policymakers.  According to a 2016 report (in the Guardian), roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting “one third of all foodstuffs.”

Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

What causes this? A major reason is that food is cheap in the U.S.  In addition, the concern over the appearance of food also drives waste.   Fruits and vegetables, for example, have a tendency to more easily bruise or discolor and that is a big “no no” for American shoppers.  Thus, aesthetically unappealing foods are yanked off supermarket shelves and sent to landfills.  The cost is of this food loss is included in the cost of food that is sold and it is estimated that it costs an average American family an additional $1,600 annually.

Food experts say there is growing awareness that governments cannot effectively fight hunger, or climate change, without reducing food waste. Food waste accounts for about 8% of global climate pollution, more than India or Russia.

Within the US, discarded food is the biggest single component of landfill and incinerators, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food dumps are a rising source of methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Policymakers admit that they are only beginning to come to grips with the scale of the problem.

But that growing problem may start to change.

A recent documentary (“WASTED! The Story of Food Waste”) was released by well-known chefs Anthony Bourdain and Danny Bowien and presents statistics about America’s food waste crisis, examples of policy changes around the world, opportunities in systems from schools to grocery stores, and stories from other notable chefs such as Dan Barber and Mario Batali.

The film examines the growing attention the issue of food waste is having on policymakers in other countries.  For example, recently France became the first nation in the world to ban supermarkets from wasting food.

In that country, large grocery stores must now donate unsold food to charities, a move that will result in millions more meals for France’s needy.  The law came on the heels of a grassroots movement by shoppers that aims to expand versions of France’s law to all of the European Union.

Previously, French supermarkets could trash still-edible food before it even reached its best-before or sell-by dates. (Such dates don’t indicate when a product will spoil, but rather when it reaches peak quality.)

Supermarkets will also be banned from intentionally destroying discarded food; there had been reports that some French supermarkets had dumped bleach onto throw-away food to prevent others from eating it.  The reason, the stores reportedly said, was to prevent food poisoning.

Other stores secured trash bins to prevent people from taking edible food from them, an increasingly popular practice among France’s unemployed, homeless and poor.  Now all supermarkets over 4,300 square feet in size must hold contracts with nonprofits or food banks.

In turn, those charities must collect, stock and properly redistribute the would-be wasted food, added responsibilities that will require more volunteers and more storage space.

Beyond France, the nation of Italy passed a law to reduce food waste as well, Japan has adopted aggressive measures to curb the wasting of food and South Korea charges residents fees by volume for their food waste, which is separated like recyclables.

New York (both the state and the city), which prides itself on environmental sensitivities and which is home to some of the greatest restaurants in the world, has taken steps toward attacking this problem.  A comprehensive embrace of the growing global movement to curb food waste could dramatically strengthen those efforts.  Done correctly, it could help feed the hungry, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and save consumers some money.

A win-win-win.