Reimagining New York’s Approach to Fighting Climate Change

The biggest challenge facing New York isn’t convincing the public and our elected leaders to take climate change seriously; that battle has been won here. Instead, the primary obstacle is bridging the gap between ambitious climate goals and the often unglamorous world of practical implementation.

WEEHAWKEN, NJ - MAY 19: The sun sets on the skyline of midtown Manhattan and the Empire State Building in New York City on May 19, 2024, as seen from Weehawken, New Jersey.
New York has set the right priorities; now, it’s time to reimagine our approach to achieving them. Getty Images

Last July, the earth had its hottest week on record, then the hottest month, which became the hottest year—well, the hottest year so far. Before 2023 was over, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that the era of global warming was now behind us; we had entered a new era of “global boiling.” Blistering temperatures have already caused deaths in Southeast Asia and rolling blackouts in Mexico. Summer is just weeks away.

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Some wondered if last summer was the turning point in the fight against climate change; if the Canadian wildfires incinerating enough land to consume the entire state of New York were  (hopefully) hitting rock bottom. Whether it was a “turning point” depends on how you define the term. Globally, 2023 concluded on an optimistic note, as the U.N. Climate Change Conference recommended for the first time a “transitioning away from fossil fuels.” Words do not magically make climate challenges disappear—but five years ago, in my adopted state of New York, elected leaders decided to action beyond just rhetoric. 

In 2019, New York State enacted one of the most ambitious climate laws in the country, and New York City passed a similarly ambitious law aimed at significantly reducing carbon emissions in both offices and residential buildings. These laws are essential for the state to transition to a zero-emission economy by 2050. How are we doing? There have been challenges. Multiple planned renewable energy projects have faltered, thanks mostly to supply-chain bottlenecks, high interest rates and high inflation. A significant obstacle has been preventing increased costs from being passed on to the public through the rates typically levied to customers to fund large-scale utility infrastructure projects. New York is not alone; off the coast of New England and beyond, capital costs of building offshore wind projects have risen as much as 60 percent in the past three years.  

Despite these macroeconomic headwinds, many climate activists hoped that the state’s recently passed $237 billion budget—the largest in state history—would include the New York Heat Act, a measure to end the practice of natural gas as the default energy source for new buildings, a key component for meeting New York’s climate goals. The final budget included billions for education, healthcare, transit and other things. It did not include the Heat Act, which led some advocates to conclude that the entire budget did not reflect the urgency of the climate crisis. Another proclaimed the bill was the “most important thing” that could have been done to move forward on climate and clean energy.

Though directionally correct, the New York Heat Act underscores a broader challenge in climate change politics. Too often, complex issues are reduced to binary solutions, with narratives further amplified by a fractured, algorithm-driven media landscape. Such framing tends to obscure the significant progress that has been made. Contrary to the ominous headlines that dominate the news, in 2023, the total investment in renewable energy surpassed the amount invested in fossil fuels. Americans may have yet to fully embrace all-electric vehicles, but more electric vehicles were sold in just one week in 2023 than in all of 2013. The federal government is investing more in green technologies than any at any point in history, and although Republican governors may not like to say the words “climate change,” some of the reddest states in the country are leaders of renewable energy. Never underestimate the power of market forces to transcend red and blue divides.

The reality is that our increasing demand for energy is vastly different from 2019, when New York’s Climate Act was signed into law. The free money era has ended, dramatically driving up costs to build new renewable energy sources. Simultaneously, the world’s biggest tech companies are spending hundreds of billions on data centers—each of which can consume enough energy to power 80,000 homes—to fuel trillion-dollar AI ambitions. Moving office buildings toward energy efficiency is further complicated when properties fall into default, at which point the banks are more interested in getting distressed assets off their books than reducing carbon footprints. Urging people to care about climate change is important, but so is ensuring they have somewhere to live. Balancing these varied but important priorities while fighting against climate change will continue to be one of the biggest challenges for liberal democracies moving forward.

Recognizing that most voters may have more immediate and pressing needs beyond climate change, how we communicate climate risks is critically important. While catastrophic doomsaying might capture attention, it often fails to inspire widespread, collective action. For example, despite sea levels rising in the southeast at least six inches higher than in 2010, millions of people (and businesses) still moved there. In Not the End of the World—How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, data scientist Dr. Hannah Ritchie writes that not only are doom narratives often untrue, but such impending doom can leave people feeling paralyzed and unwilling to act. By moving away from catastrophe to optimism, we can motivate individuals to believe in and work towards achievable solutions rather than feeling overwhelmed and disengaged.

By far, the biggest challenge facing New York isn’t convincing the public and our elected leaders to take climate change seriously; that battle has been won here. Instead, the primary obstacle is bridging the gap between ambitious climate goals and the often unglamorous world of practical implementation. Making renewable energy sources like wind and solar so ubiquitous that fossil fuel sources become obsolete involves more than just expanding infrastructure for new renewable energy sources and multiplying EV charging stations. It requires building upon one of New York’s biggest strengths: our high-density housing and extensive public transportation network, which have made New York one of the country’s lowest carbon footprints per capita. This entails reforming ossified bureaucracies that are usually legally required to focus on process rather than outcomes, overcoming entrenched local ‘not in my backyard’ resistance, and fostering greater collaboration between public, private and advocacy sectors to find new ways to adapt to how drastically the world has changed in the last five years.

Some may view these recommendations as detached from the harsh realities of electoral politics, seen only through rose-colored glasses—but the urgency and gravity of our climate crisis demand we move beyond the incremental progress of a zero-sum political landscape, sensational rhetoric, and sluggish implementation. In a world where the effects of climate change are increasingly undeniable, New York’s effort toward a zero-emission economy can be a blueprint for others to follow. An unsustainable world isn’t inevitable; our progress demonstrates that the world is far more malleable than we think. New York has set the right priorities; now, it’s time to reimagine our approach to achieving them.

Reimagining New York’s Approach to Fighting Climate Change