New York City can tackle climate change and inequality hand-in-hand

Apprentices in the Sandy Build it Back Program

Two weeks ago, I attended the People’s Climate March in Washington DC. Over 200,000 people came together in a national call to action. As the climate change denier-in-chief continues to remove environmental protections, communities and local governments are joining forces to push back with local solutions.

Tomorrow, New Yorkers will gather to hear how the momentum from the Climate March is being translated into practical action here in the city — at the “Climate, Jobs and Justice Accountability Forum.”

One approach is a technocratic, business as usual response to climate change.

Or, there’s the only true response. A response that does not only look at emissions and resilience, but also tackles the city’s glaring inequality head on, by creating good, living wage jobs and building healthy, vibrant communities.

To achieve this vision, workers — in particular people of color, immigrants, and women — and local communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution have to be at the forefront, working in partnership with local officials.

The good thing is that there are precedents for the direction we need to go in.

Five years ago, Hurricane Sandy tore through the city. It had a disproportionate impact on the city’s low-income residents and people of color. Thousands found themselves without power, cut off from health services, and in damaged homes. Through a pioneering local hiring program, “Sandy Build it Back” created good, career-track jobs in the construction industries for Sandy-impacted residents.

Now is the time to massively scale up this kind of response. With the Trump administration leading a devastating roll-back of environmental protections and posing a direct threat to immigrants, it’s all the more urgent that cities like New York take the lead in demonstrating the way forward.

The city is making good progress. It has committed to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. It has initiated programs that will contribute to that target and help address inequality at the same time.

Here are three specific ways that these efforts can be made even more effective in the months and years to come.

  1. Make investments in solar energy that ensure good jobs and prioritize environmental justice communities

New York has set the goal of installing 100 megawatts of solar power on public buildings by 2025. The Climate Works for All Coalition recommends that all of these installations are subject to a project labor agreement — to ensure good, union jobs for the workers — and are accompanied by robust local hiring programs within communities that are most at risk of pollution and climate change.

If the city maximizes savings from solar installations, the savings can be reinvested into environmental justice and other low-income communities. A recent report by the coalition, “Re-start solar: Energizing Environmental Justice Communities,” emphasizes that the city needs to give greater priority to these communities in siting its solar investments. It’s time to bring environmental benefits to neighborhoods that have been long over-burdened by environmental hazards.

2. Require comprehensive energy efficiency improvements in the city’s large private buildings

Buildings account for over 70% of New York City’s carbon emissions, with large buildings making up over 50% of the city’s total energy use. Surprise surprise, among the biggest polluters are buildings owned by Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. We must modernize our buildings to make them cleaner and stop wasteful energy use. Requiring energy efficiency improvements in privately-owned big buildings will be an essential step if the city is going to fulfill its climate commitments.

With the right set of policies and programs, this measure can also create thousands of higher-wage positions for immigrants, people of color and women: the groups that are most at risk from Trump’s regressive policies.

As an illustration of the economic opportunities in energy-efficiency improvements, on Earth Day Mayor de Blasio and the Building and Construction Trades Council announced the NYC Green Jobs Corps, which will train 3,000 New Yorkers in retrofitting and similar skills over the next three years.

3. Clean up the city’s commercial waste industry

The commercial waste industry in NYC currently operates like the “wild wild west.” Overlapping truck routes drive up emissions, three neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens (whose residents are predominantly people of color), receive over 75% of the city’s waste, and workers in the industry face low wages and hazardous conditions.

Following extensive campaigning by the Transform Don’t Trash coalition, the city has committed to implement an exclusive zoning system for commercial waste. As the details of this new zoning are worked out, the coalition will continue to work with the administration to ensure it will significantly reduce emissions, increase recycling, provide good safe jobs and create a more equitable waste system in the city.

Join us and make your voice heard!

I hope you’ll join us at the Forum tomorrow to ensure that New Yorkers and our elected officials rise to the Climate, Jobs, and Justice challenge.