Gotham Gazette

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On #EarthDay50, The Answer to Two Existential Crises is Staring Us in the Face

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The future is renewable, the author writes (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day—Wednesday, April 22, 2020—, the world is in crisis. An unbearable number of lives lost each day. Livelihoods disappearing or threatened. And the uncertainty of what might come next is disrupting communities. Our infrastructure is strained to the brink and our most marginalized communities are bearing a disproportionate brunt of the pain. I’m of course talking about the ongoing devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tragedy is that these disruptions are already equally true of our ongoing climate crisis. The impacts of climate change can be seen in the swarms of locusts ravaging East Africa, the wildfires that have raged across California and Australia, the heatwaves shattering records across the globe. And it came for New Yorkers when Hurricane Sandy roared ashore in 2012, the worst natural disaster New York City has faced. These climate disruptions will only be made worse and more chaotic in the reality of our new COVID-19 world. In many ways, this global health emergency has given us an early preview of how our climate crisis will unfold.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. At this moment when we are debating our path forward from this pandemic, we have a clear choice. We can simply choose to get “back to normal” — but we know that the status quo was not working. Or we can choose to emerge stronger and more resilient from this crisis with a green recovery that prioritizes clean energy infrastructure, job creation, and environmental justice: a Green New Deal for all Americans.

The recovery in front of us is perhaps the last, best opportunity to choose a new future and avert the even worse impacts that climate change will cause going forward.

The immediate health crisis has of course not yet abated. But we cannot lose sight of the climate crisis and the threats to public health and well-being that it poses, with the worst still looming ahead. We face a climate emergency primarily caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels and the decades-long campaign of deception and denial by the fossil fuel industry.

Here in New York City, we remain committed to ending the age of fossil fuels and investing in clean energy climate solutions as part of our world-leading Green New Deal climate policy.

That’s why Mayor de Blasio signed the world’s strongest municipal ban on fossil fuels as part of the second wave of New York City’s Green New Deal, making opposition to projects like the Williams pipeline our default position going forward. It’s why we are divesting our pension funds from fossil fuels, which are dragging down our economy. And it’s why we enacted ambitious building retrofit mandates to halt our carbon pollution at its source.

Of course, it’s not enough to just say no to fossil fuels. We need to say yes to job-creating investments in clean energy like solar, wind, and hydropower.

And in this moment, we need federal support to make that happen. With Congress continuing to grapple with the right way to recover from this pandemic and spur the economy, the obvious answer is staring right at us and we must have the courage to seize it.

Investing in clean energy and resilient infrastructure over the next decade would spur our nation’s economy, and create enormous numbers of good-paying and accessible jobs, at just the right moment to align with the scientific demands of our climate crisis and the needs of an American economy that is suffering its worst unemployment since the Great Depression. So let’s put Americans back to work putting solar power on every roof, building out the extensive offshore wind necessary to power our cities, installing the long-distance energy transmission that can connect clean energy to our local communities, and building out the resilient infrastructure that will protect us from the next disaster.

This Green New Deal would put millions of Americans back to work, get our nation on track to solve our climate crisis, clean up our air and water, and address the inequities that ravage our marginalized communities.

And over time this strategy will pay for itself in cleaner air and better health outcomes, avoided damages from severe storms, and a renewed economy that leads the world in renewable energy and clean industry that also rights the environmental injustices of the past at the same time.

We’ve emerged stronger after tragedy before – whether 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, or the Great Recession. Our current challenges are no less potent, but the opportunity right now is pivotal. We must put solving the climate crisis at the heart of our recovery from this pandemic – at the scale and pace of our climate emergency – because our unsustainable practices have pushed our planet to the brink.

This may be our last chance. The moment to choose a better future—a Green New Deal—is now.

Daniel A. Zarrilli is New York City’s Chief Climate Policy Advisor. On Twitter @dzarrilli.

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