Isn’t It Time You Were Working on Climate Already?

My face when I first heard the Thwaites news 😱🙀

I rang in last new year with a post, “The First Climate Decade“, that included this line: “Contrarian though the position sounds – barring a not-unforeseeable rapid ice-sheet collapse scenario – NYC is relatively well-positioned among major US cities from a climate standpoint, at least for ~the rest of this century.”

Unfortunately, with the release of the recent report from the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration – covered here not too sensationally in Rolling Stone by Jeff Goodell, whose journalistic work on sea-level rise I’ve pointed to in the past – the unfolding in the next decade of that not-unforeseeable scenario has now grown much more imaginable. Hyperbolic though this may sound, this news is easily the most unsettling I’ve heard in years, and if you’re inclined to think that’s only because I live in a low-lying coastal metropolis, just consider what the simultaneous disruption/inundation over the course of potentially only a few years (Note: there is huge uncertainty about when/if/how/and over what time horizon the Thwaites Glacier might collapse, and what the knock-on consequences of such a collapse might be for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and thus for global sea levels, nor would I pretend to understand the underlying science here well) would look like relative to our current global supply chain issues.

Lots of people have been talking about (and praising) Don’t Look Up. I thought the movie was bad, but hope it inspires people to take climate action. I tweeted my take in a nutshell, but to offer a little more depth, here’s what I had to say in a text exchange with a friend on the subject:

I think by choosing a comet strike, which is something that could actually happen, they muddied the metaphorical waters. Further, while human (and corporate) agency is involved in the origins of climate crisis, comets are naturally occurring celestial bodies. Basically, they gave the fossil fuel industry a free pass, while shifting the blame/demonization to big tech (in line w/current priorities in DC) in the form of the sociopath CEO. They also elide the entire global climate movement in favor of a few heroic technocrats and scientists. These choices in turn undercut the satire’s effectiveness in my view.

Speaking of tweets, and in view of the Thwaites news, I believe it’s a matter of when, not if, New York City comes to terms with the obvious and converts the entire low-lying extent of the West Side Highway and FDR Drive into a sea wall/beautiful berm park, and I hope that when the conversion happens, it is not executed in a panic; the berm park option is chosen and offers a beautiful amenity for all New Yorkers/Manhattanites; and that we understand that these sorts of mega-projects can also strike a blow for rewilding, against car culture, and in favor with a more rooted and less consumerist way of being. I could go on, but I believe that the current dynamics of rapidly and radically escalating climate crisis are such that we have to look to muddle through as rapidly as we can, even in view of all the contradictions, hypocrisies, and complexities embedded in attempting to avert worst-case-type scenarios given our historical realities and current global political economy.

So, finally, coming to the title of this post, I believe – a third and final time for now – that we’ve now crossed over from a time when working to address climate crisis was a rather marginal activity (the type of thing people patted you on the back for, bless your heart), to a time (say last year) when a growing number of smart, ambitious people were proactively choosing to work on climate given the urgency, to a time (now, today, happy new year! And welcome to 2022) when it is increasingly becoming necessary for people who 1) enjoy the luxury of some amount of choice in their work/about their personal financial situation; 2) are not already doing work that relates to a core human/societal need (eg, birth work, being an ER doc, keeping the MTA running, working for the DSNY); and 3) have a conscience to ask themselves, if they’re not already working to address climate crisis: Why not? And when, and how soon, can I start?

One case in point, the organizing work I’ve been engaged in around climate policy in NYC would be a hell of a lot easier if more people gave a shit, got informed, and got involved. But that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg, so if you’re reading this, and asking yourself: When? And why not? I encourage you, grapple with the question, dive deep, and then get started already, and feel free to reach out if you like. I’m always happy to be a resource.

… and Then You Win

Short and sweet today. After a year of grinding away at the unglamorous work of organizing and lobbying, our small grassroots coalition won a big victory with the passage, by the New York City Council, of a ban on natural gas connections in new buildings. The victory does not come without compromises (the ban will take effect in buildings under seven stories at the end of 2023, and in those over seven, not until 2027), but represents, nonetheless, another major step towards climate sanity in our policy framework, and sends a signal nationally and globally about our rapidly changing times.

Speaking of times, the corporate media coverage was, predictably, idiotic and dishonest, ranging from the New York Times‘ emphasis on gas stoves, to Forbes‘ outright lies regarding the regressiveness of the bill (which was championed by a diverse coalition of environmental justice orgs). Here’s what I wrote on the My Climate Journey Slack with respect to the Times headline:

This is a stupid headline from the NYT, as most of the emissions from natural gas in NYC come from heating buildings (and not from gas stoves, which are dangerous and unhealthy, but to which many people have a sentimental attachment that has been fostered by decades of gas industry propaganda), but the victory is a big one. I worked closely (on a pro bono basis) on the grassroots campaign that led to this legislation’s passage. The four lead organizations on the campaign, all nonprofits that operate on shoestring budgets, spent perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars over the course of one year to fuel the organizing that led to this win, and yet ~40% of NYC’s ~50MT of CO2e annual emissions come from heating buildings. We, of course, still have to decarbonize our electricity generation, a very heavy lift, but even so, that’s an impressive prospective impact per dollar, to the extent that many MCJ community members are accustomed to thinking about ROI in terms of emissions. This legislation is also a massive tailwind to startups working on energy efficiency, electrification, smart grid, etc. Hope we see much more emphasis on climate policy from the climate tech and finance communities going forward. Time for the “government is our enemy” ideology of too many tech folks to die, as we don’t successfully address climate crisis without government action at every level.

With respect to the framing in Forbes, the magazine’s reactionary high-brow ethos speaks for itself, but let’s just say that 1) anyone who believes that the transition off fossil fuels isn’t both inevitable and urgently necessary is in denial, at best, and 2) given the relatively long time frame for the phase in of this bill, which only applies to new construction, it is hard to understand how it could possibly put regressive energy costs on low-income New Yorkers (save in a case where energy transition totally fails, but then we have much bigger problems), though I’m heartened to see Forbes suddenly so interested in economic justice and energy poverty.

I dwell on the negative, momentarily, only because we would have won this fight much sooner if not for the lies, obfuscation, and bad faith of the corporate media and the corporate Democrats – including my own council member, outgoing Speaker Corey Johnson, who did nothing to support us, refused to endorse the proposed bill, let Queens council member Jim Gennaro lock the legislation up in committee for months, but then rushed to take credit for this monumental victory in the press once we finally managed to push it through – to say nothing of the few Republicans on the NYC City Council.

Are you moved and inspired, as I am, by this victory? Get involved. You can reach out to me directly about being part of our next campaign, which will launch in early 2022, and, at very least, you can donate to New York Communities for Change, Food and Water Watch, NYPIRG, and WE ACT. These are the core organizations in the coalition that won passage of the Climate Mobilization Act, with Local Law 97 at its core, in 2019; an expansion of Local Law 97, on which I worked intensively, in 2020; and now this gas ban, in 2021, under the banner of a #GasFreeNYC. As mentioned above, the entire budget for our campaign this year couldn’t have been more than a few hundred thousand dollars. Just imagine what we could accomplish if we were well-capitalized and had proper broad-based support from a well-informed public?! You can be a part of making those hopeful conditions a reality, but it will mean getting informed, getting engaged, and embracing that public policy is one of the most powerful levers we have for wrenching the future in the direction of sanity and justice.

Urgent action items for a #GasFreeNYC: Two phone calls + a rally

If you live in New York City, please consider this (copied from an e-mail I sent to some friends and fellow New Yorkers this afternoon) an appeal to throw your support behind our last push to pass the #GasFreeNYC bill in 2021. One real estate lobby-backed council member in Queens stands between us and the biggest municipal climate policy victory of the year in the US:

“Dear Friends,

As fellow New Yorkers, who – at some level – have been engaged with the effort to pass Intro 2317 (aka, the #GasFreeNYC bill), you grasp how significant a win it would be to see this legislation pass the NYC City Council this year. Time is now wearing thin, and, unfortunately, Councilmember Jim Gennaro of Queens – ironically, Chair of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection – is stalling the bill in committee as the end of the year and the session rapidly approach. Fully half of the council is now co-sponsoring the legislation and the Mayor is ready to sign it, but we have to force this bill out of committee ASAP, and that will require some popular pressure.

Here’s what you can and should do today/this week:


1. Call Council Member Gennaro’s office and urge him to allow a vote on the bill: 866-583-2908 or 718-217-4969
2. Call your own CM and urge them to co-sponsor if they haven’t already (here’s the list) or, if they are already co-sponsoring, to go to Gennaro and Speaker Corey Johnson to urge passage of the bill.
3. If you’re a die hard, join this rally Wednesday at noon at Gennaro’s Queens district office: Click here for details and to RSVP

If you’re feeling extra motivated, please don’t hesitate to call Speaker Johnson’s office directly (at 212-788-7210) to urge passage of Intro 2317 (and express your dissatisfaction at the foot-dragging and his failure to champion/co-sponsor this important climate legislation), and, of course, please do circulate this email as you see fit to friends, relatives, and an other New Yorkers who are ready to throw their support behind taking a big step forward for climate progress. 

To keep yourself honest, I encourage you to reply to me to let me know what you followed through on (and if you plan to join me at the rally). Let’s get this done.

Warmly,
Tom


PS: Given that Gennaro’s victory in a special election earlier this year was fueled by money from the real estate industry, it should come as no surprise that he is now doing the real estate lobby’s bidding. Even ConEd has come out in support of this bill though, and it’s beyond time we passed it.”

Being a Member of Society

It’s been strange, in recent months, to continue to be concerned about COVID-19 in New York City as popular sentiment has leaned into “post-pandemic.” Although it runs counter to my nature, I’ve turned down invitations to both social and professional events that involved large groups gathering unmasked indoors. I’ve felt rather fugitive in having to explain to friends, especially as the weather has grown colder, that I’m back to not eating indoors. These are, of course, minor concerns, but they have me reflecting on the lived realities of people who deal with immunocomprimisation or mobility issues – the challenge of navigating social settings not structured to address one’s needs or that might put one’s life in danger.

In December of last year, I shared the hope that vaccines might bring a relatively rapid end to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in countries rich enough to provide their citizens the privilege of vaccine access. Around the same time, I began to worry that variants that achieved some level of immune escape might upset this hopeful narrative. Sadly, although both expectations have been born out to some extent, the latter is arguably proving the more defining.

For a brief window in the late spring and early summer of this year, I truly let my guard down. Fully vaccinated, and breathing a sigh of relief, my partner and I resumed dining indoors, visiting friends homes, etc. (again, only relatively minor sacrifice had been involved in missing these pleasures, but they do add to the richness of life); however, by early July, as stories of Delta Variant breakthroughs proliferated, and multiple fully-vaccinated friends of ours experienced relatively nasty infections, we largely resumed taking pre-vaccination precautions, though informed by the latest science-based best practices (basically, masks indoors, and enjoying ourselves out). We agreed that we’d both keep that up until infection levels in NYC dropped down to at least the “Moderate” level according to the NYC DOHMH’s schema. Around the end of October, we were both starting to relax our precautions again, when a renewed increase in cases (sharper in our neighborhood than city-wide) caused us renewed mutual concern. Here’s what the citywide transmission chart looks like today:

Courtesy of the NYC COVID-19 data portal – the thick black line is the city-wide trend, the blue lines, those for the five boroughs.

For context, here’s the chart for the whole course of the pandemic in NYC:

Clearly, the numbers are much better today than during either of the previous two peaks, and infections now are disproportionately among the unvaccinated (although I’d venture, without having looked it up, that roughly equivalent numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated New Yorkers are getting infected these days owing to our high vaccination rates). Additionally, the economy is much more open today than it was a year ago, and fewer precautions are being taken, on average, so perhaps the current trend should not be seen as too worrying. On the other hand, the sharp recent uptrend (broken at the very end only by a temporary break in testing over the holiday), could very easily be the start of a much more pronounced spike – fueled, as last year’s was, by holiday travel.

Rather than delve too much more deeply into all this, here’s a text to some friends from this morning that more or less sums up my current thinking:

GM! Hate to be the Cassandra, but in view of Hochul’s emergency order, etc, I’d like to propose drinks and oysters under a heater at [a restaurant] (or something like that!). Such a drag, but I’m quite concerned that we might be descending back into another pretty grim Covid winter […]. Hope I’m wrong but trends here, news from Europe, and now this omicron variant (about which I’m reserving judgment even if the financial markets aren’t) are all worrying.

Given that many people – including many friends of ours in service and healthcare jobs – have far less control over their exposure to infection risk, I’ve felt inclined, for my own health, and from a public health perspective, to stay cautious, as I enjoy the luxury of doing so. It’s been relatively easy to make that commitment as every week or so, I hear another story of a friend or acquaintance suffering brain fog, lasting loss of sense of taste or smell, etc. from a breakthrough, or have to cancel plans when, for example, many members of one branch of my family suffer breakthrough infections after attending an indoor event together.

At the same time I’ve been reflecting on all this, I’ve also continued my long-standing rumination on NYC’s public goods, which of course often brings me back to the central role of the automobile in our cities. Few activities lead people to engage in more casual sociopathy than driving, and yet through the dominance of car culture, these behaviors have been totally normalized. It is not seen as altogether surprising that an individual otherwise averse to threatening a stranger with deadly violence over a trifle might menace an elder, a child, or their own neighbor with a vehicle or fly into a screaming rage over something like a parking spot. That’s just car culture for you, and sadly, it’s been so totally naturalized in our collective consciousness that it is hard to see how ugly and disfiguring it is, or how totally insane. Such is the deep emotional attachment that people have to their vehicles, too, and the “freedom” those vehicles enable (the interminable hours in traffic, the bizarre alternate-side parking rituals, the expense, the stress, the occasional bouts of blinding fury), that attempts to challenge the dominance of car culture, even discursively, often as not lead to rather explosive encounters.

Not so dissimilar are people’s responses (at least some people’s!) should anyone dare to question their behavior with, say, their children, their dogs, their phones, their vapes… I recently made the mistake of suggesting to a fellow – who could easily have been mistaken for me by someone not good at telling people of vaguely similar age, build, and demographics apart – that it might be better not to let his toddler – who was just then stripping flowers, one at a time, from a shrub in a public garden – do too much damage to the plants “as a courtesy to everyone else, you know, and to set a good example.” He stared at me like bloody murder, and said, “You’re right. Thanks” in a way that clearly meant, “Fuck you. Drop dead.” It wasn’t a nice experience, but I continue to feel that part of what ails us in New York – as in the United States more broadly, as in much of the world – is the general collective unwillingness to intervene in the name of public goods and basic decency, an unwillingness, of course, often rooted in fear.

Of course, taken further, activities like ‘being white,’ ‘being male’, or ‘being rich,’ if admittedly more abstract than driving, are also far more likely still to lead to casual sociopathy. Those are, for all the obvious reasons, harder sorts of activities to talk about, given their foundationality to individual identity and social hierarchies alike.

In all of this, I guess the fundamental question is: What happens if everyone behaves the way that I’m behaving now? Do we end up with a dangerous, polluted, loud, angry, and schismatic metropolis? Do we end up with gardens stripped of flowers in the name of someone’s sentimental attachment to an idea of childhood (rather than a commitment to socializing children to be good lower-case-c citizens)? Do we end up with the intractably unjust social order we live within today?

These were much the issues and the question that were front of mind for me in March of 2020 when I began writing feverishly about the then-still-impending pandemic. Back in January, I made a conscious choice to shift my focus more or less fully back to the climate action that is at the center of my life’s work. These same issues and that same question have much the same relevance with respect to climate crisis and climate action, so as I hope we don’t descend back into another grim winter, but brace myself for the possibility that we do, I’ll end on a hopeful note: The pandemic will end, and I’m increasingly of the belief that the climate crisis will too, and not in a doomsday scenario. The work today is the hard, pragmatic social, political, infrastructural, and technological work of muddling through as quickly as possible to a more livable reality. I’m not particularly sanguine about the prospects that other social ills will be meaningfully addressed at the same time that worst-case-scenario climate crisis is averted, but it is good to have a North Star in engaging in the uncertain, taxing, long-term work of organizing – whether to remake our cities, redirect our often toxic culture, or steer away from the cliff’s edge with respect to greenhouse gas emissions (and other planetary boundaries) – and, even as most everyone is mired in contradiction and hypocrisy to some extent, my own North Star certainly resides somewhere around the intersection of public goods, public health, and public wealth.

Postscript: For anyone who’s interested, my last post, “Let’s Win a Gas Ban for New York City, was the first that I published in tandem on Mirror. After the New York City Council hearing last week on Intro 2317, I think we will win a gas ban for NYC before year’s end. Finally, reference is not an endorsement, but on the subject of New York City and society, I was reminded recently of what may be the funniest moment in all of Seinfeld (a low bar in the mind’s of some viewers, I know) and one relevant to this piece.

Let’s Win a Gas Ban for New York City

I’d hoped to write a nice long piece today after my long hiatus from writing, but, instead, I ended up taking three nice long fall walks instead.

As regular readers know, a significant part of my own work is around climate policy organizing in NYC. For the past year, a grassroots coalition of which I’m a part has worked to pass legislation to ban natural gas hook-ups in new construction and major renovations in NYC. Exxon has been funding a disinformation campaign on FB targeting us, but in spite of that headwind, and the opposition of REBNY, we have a hearing scheduled for this coming Wednesday for this important climate legislation. We have the co-sponsorship of 23 of the 49 seated members of the NYC City Council (two seats are currently open) as well as that of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and I’d love if we had your support as well. We’ll be holding a virtual rally at 11 AM ET this Wednesday, November 17th, and the hearing will follow at noon. Please do consider joining, testifying, or, at very least, writing to or calling your city councilperson to voice your strong support for Intro 2317.

Beyond that, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve been thinking a lot about the crypto-climate intersection. There are suddenly a lot of interesting, credible projects at that interface – or at least projects that are not obviously either pie-in-the-sky or outright scams. A few of the more noteworthy efforts are KlimaDAO, Toucan, and MOSS, but there are dozens of others at this point, many of them organized as DAOs. Curious to see where this leads.

I hope to be writing more in the next month or so. In the meantime, hope to have your support on Wednesday in winning another major climate victory in New York!