For New York City’s next mayor, climate change presents a series of immense challenges — as well as several key opportunities for the city’s economy and improving conditions in historically neglected neighborhoods.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the city in 2012, scientists now believe that sea levels are rising faster than previously predicted, putting pressure on city construction efforts aimed at preventing flooding during storms, and forcing the issue of whether, or how to, move properties and businesses away from shoreline communities. Rising heat levels, as well, will require innovative changes to the city’s infrastructure to mitigate heat waves and make buildings cooler.
At the same time, the crisis could unlock some economic development at a moment when the city needs investment to fuel a rebound: New rules, such as stricter energy standards for buildings, as well as major infrastructure projects like turning over the city’s energy sources to be 100% renewable, could fuel a green job boom.
With many voters also looking closely at the candidates’ racial justice platforms, many are pitching their climate plans as dovetailing with calls for investment in historically underserved Black and Hispanic communities — which researchers have shown will likely bear the brunt of the effects of climate change.
Experts on climate policy say they have largely been impressed by the candidates’ proposals, and that their proposals coalesce around a few central ideas: expanding public space and filling it with plants and trees, green jobs programs and coordinated resiliency plans.
“What I'm really encouraged to see is how much they all broadly agree on the things that need to be done,” said Justin Gundlach, a senior attorney with New York University law school’s Institute for Policy Integrity.
What remains to be seen, he said, is how the candidates prioritize each of their ideas: “Not just priority among climate-related things, but priority given to climate-related issues as opposed to other issues.”
Not all the candidates have the same level of detail in their plans. The most specific plan belongs to Scott Stringer, while Maya Wiley, Dianne Morales, Shaun Donovan and Kathryn Garcia also have long, detailed plans on their websites. Eric Adams and Ray McGuire list just a few ideas on their websites under headings related to the environment. Andrew Yang lists his plans as “coming soon.”
Yet Earth Day, on April 22, is around the corner, and the campaigns are participating in multiple endorsement processes for environmental groups that will likely announce their winners around that time. Several mayoral forums related to issues of the environment and sustainability are also planned for just before Earth Day.
But to make sure we had some concrete answers from the candidates, we closely read the plans they have available, and asked them five key questions about how New York City should address the problems posed by climate change.
Here’s where the candidates stand:
What do the candidates agree on?
More parks. Nearly all the candidates call for an expansion of public green space, with some citing the pandemic as showing city residents the importance of adequate access to the outdoors.
Adams and Stringer both specifically call for scaling back urban highways, including those built in the New Deal era that displaced tens of thousands of Black and immigrant residents, and replacing them with pedestrian park space.
“Everybody’s getting outside and appreciating our parks, and maybe saying, why isn't my park bigger or better,” said Carter Strickland, the director of the New York and New Jersey office of the Trust for Public Land. “This is a really critical moment to make the case for parks as important infrastructure for cities.”
Nearly every candidate wants to jumpstart New York City’s green economy. A popular proposal is creating a training program to get New York City students and residents into green jobs, such as in green design and energy efficient construction. Maya Wiley proposes creating an AmeriCorps-style program that would place young professionals in city agencies and other organizations that promote sustainability. Shaun Donovan imagines creating a Clean Power Generator Jobs Accelerator, which would streamline the process for private investment in wind power.
The candidates also propose some ideas around reducing emissions and making buildings more energy efficient. Yang sets a goal of fully electrifying the city’s vehicle fleet by 2035, a target that Mayor Bill de Blasio set for 2040. Garcia and Stringer propose a Green New Deal for the city’s public housing buildings, with Garcia calling for electrifying the buildings’ energy systems and installing solar panels on more than half of NYCHA buildings within five years.
Adams, Stringer, Wiley, Donovan, Garcia and Morales tie their climate plans to racial justice movements as well, pushing proposals to improve air quality, give NYCHA residents special access to green jobs and increasing access to bikes and e-scooters in areas that have poor transportation options.
“The opportunity presented by a combination of retrofits, electrification and greening the city, strikes me as something that is not only compatible with racial justice, but maybe the shortest distance to it,” said Gundlach.
Several candidates also voice their support of existing plans or legislation, which they say they would champion, such as turning Rikers Island into a hub of green innovation and sustainable energy generation, and enforcing Local Law 97, which sets limits on building emissions.
Where do they disagree?
In their proposals, the candidates offer different visions of a few major energy issues, though in several cases they signal their differences simply in how they talk about those issues.
One concerns control of the utilities that provide electricity and other energy sources to the city. Morales calls for a “public takeover” of private electricity utilities, which for New York City mainly means ConEd, an investor-owned company that has been accused by public officials of poor energy restoration of blackouts, and which in 2016 agreed to pay $171 million after a bribery scandal. (The company did not admit wrongdoing.)
Wiley, in her plan, says ConEd needs “public accountability,” while Garcia calls for working with ConEd, as well as the Department of Transportation, to safeguard vulnerable utilities. More on this issue below.
Stringer, following on an issue he has raised as city comptroller, lists specific goals for so-called peaker plants, which run when energy demand peaks, or spikes, and have high costs and emissions. Stringer wants to close half of the city’s peaker plants by 2028 and the rest by 2035. Wiley wants to increase investment in local solar energy projects to displace peaker plants. Garcia proposes building energy lines to Canada to carry renewable energy all the way down to New York City, and store that energy in batteries, to reduce reliance on peaker plants.
What are the signature projects they’re proposing?
Yang, though his plan is limited, lists one unique idea: painting city streets brighter colors to lower the city’s temperature. Black, the color of most city roads, absorbs heat; some cities, like Los Angeles, are hoping that white roads will reflect the sun’s rays.
Yang’s ideas have drawn more negative attention for their climate impact: His pitch to make New York City a hub for generating cryptocurrency would be an enormous energy sink, at a time when the area has few options for sustainable energy sources. Cryptocurrency is “mined” by running calculations on computer servers, with most mining operations requiring massive amounts of electricity to keep hundreds or thousands of servers running around the clock. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have estimated that the most popular cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, uses about as much energy as the entire country of Argentina.
Donovan wants to introduce recycling requirements for construction and demolition jobs, which the city has estimated accounts for more than half of all the waste generated in the city. Morales has an entire section of her plan about food, saying she’ll create an Office of Urban Agriculture (run by urban farmers) and strengthen community-level food distribution plans.
Wiley says she would allocate $3 billion in spending to make New York City more resilient, out of a $10 billion “New Deal New York” program aimed at jumpstarting the economy. One unique proposal in her plan is to “daylight” streams and rivers around the city that have been covered or paved over.
What issues did they overlook?
There’s a big gap in the candidates’ plans: specific resiliency measures aimed at preventing flooding, a major oversight for a waterfront city. Most of the candidates say they would create a citywide resiliency plan.
Yet only Stringer directly tackles the question of shoreline retreat, proposing to expand home buyout programs established after Hurricane Sandy and returning those areas to coastal wetlands. As you’ll see below, Wiley’s campaign did not respond to a question about whether the city should buy out homeowners who live in flood-prone areas.
Communities in flood-prone areas want politicians to help them develop plans for a managed retreat from the shore, according to Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, which works with cities and small communities on resiliency plans. A recent survey released by the Regional Plan Association found that 54% of residents in the New York City metro area support local governments buying out homeowners in areas with high risk of flooding.
“Everyone has their reasons why they want to leave or stay,” Chester said. “We want to make sure that communities have the change to do this on their own terms, before anyone could force them to do it.”
There’s ample funding from both the state and the federal governments for these kinds of initiatives, Chester says, which may include pieces of President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan. Getting out ahead of storms that would uproot coastal communities, she added, would also protect inland communities who receive those moving away from the ocean.
“When community members are gonna shift in New York, they're gonna go to another place,” Chester said. “You can imagine that as people move away from the Rockaways, maybe they move to Flatbush, and put pressure on the housing there.”
Five key questions for the candidates
We asked each campaign to respond to five questions — four yes-or-no, one open-ended — that get at some of the most important issues the city is facing related to climate and energy.
Here’s what the campaigns had to say in responses shared via email. In some cases, we have paraphrased their responses for clarity.
A spokesperson for Yang’s campaign declined repeated requests to respond to the questions.
Should NYC ban all new fossil fuel infrastructure, as well as begin the process of retiring existing fossil fuel infrastructure?
Garcia: “I support an outright ban once we’ve established a faster pace at which we are moving towards renewable energy and that will be my priority.”
McGuire: A spokesperson for his campaign not directly answer the question, but noted that renewable energy will play a large role in meeting the city’s goal of getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Should NYC scale back parts of its urban highway system and give that space over to become green pedestrian areas?
Garcia: “Yes - I support the Transportation Alternatives proposal to convert 25% of street space currently reserved for cars and designated it for people.”
McGuire: “I’m open to the idea if we can ensure it doesn’t negatively impact neighborhoods and small businesses.”
Should the city seek full public control of utilities?
Adams: “I am in favor of moving our information utilities into public control.”
Garcia: “No - I believe there are ways to work with utilities to get the best possible service for New Yorkers before taking on a complicated undertaking of transferring control.”
McGuire: “No. ConEd can do better and I’d work with them to do so but am not convinced that a government agency would better manage it.”
Should the city buy out homeowners and property owners with properties in the most flood-prone areas of the city?
Adams: He proposes offering to move homeowners in the most at-risk areas who cannot afford to move themselves using federal funds leftover from recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy.
Donovan: “I support flood buyouts and resettlement strategies for high-risk areas in addition to other adaptation and resilience efforts.”
Garcia: “On a voluntary basis the City should be agreeable to buying out owners of properties in flood-prone areas.”
McGuire: “We first need robust resiliency programs that include flood protection measures, home elevations, and coastal protection projects.”
Morales: “Yes, if they’re willing.”
Wiley: Her campaign did not offer a response.
How will the city, under your administration, pay for initiatives related to resiliency, sustainability and climate justice?
Adams: “I strongly believe that investments in resiliency and our environment pay for themselves through green jobs and cost savings when we prevent damage from storms, environmental damage, and issues caused by deteriorating infrastructure.”
Donovan: “The private sector needs to be part of the solution, and these measures go directly at two leading local contributors to pollution and therefore sustainability and climate justice - transportation (especially trucking) and buildings. Additionally, I will explore a ‘green bonds’ program to finance the improvements to city-owned and used properties that will reduce emissions (and operating costs) over the long term. But no resiliency strategy can be fully realized without strong Federal support and resources.”
Garcia: “I will reform the existing capital process to get infrastructure projects done faster and more affordably. Often, the City overpays because our bureaucratic process is cumbersome and reduces competition. I expect the Biden administration will work with Congress to pass a substantial infrastructure bill and I will fight to ensure those dollars come to New York City and go towards vital climate infrastructure.”
McGuire: “The federal relief package should be used to get the city back on track instead of as a one-time stimulus to cover up the city’s mismanaged budget. My administration will review budgets in each agency and look for waste and redundancies. If necessary, I will also propose a mix of spending cuts and short-term dedicated tax increases on the wealthiest New Yorkers.”
Morales: Morales calls for establishing a “Public Bank to divest public funds from fossil fuels and incarceration while investing in decarbonization and environmental justice, as well as providing low-interest loans to local small businesses and community-based resilience projects and community development.” She also supports a bonds program, advocating for federal support for those bonds and developing “a thematic Green Participatory Budgeting Program to democratize the distribution and administration of public funds and program development.”
Stringer: “We need a massive federal commitment behind a green new deal, even beyond the Biden infrastructure package, green bonds and blue bonds, a surcharge on high value insurance for resilience funding, polluter pay laws and more to make the transformative investments we need in a comprehensive climate agenda.”
Wiley: Her campaign pointed to stimulus funds from this year’s federal stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan.
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