As NYC Reels From Ida, Its Likely Next Mayor Faces Fresh Scrutiny On Climate

2021-09-02 18:04:29

Tropical storm Ida deluged New York City with unprecedented rainfall Wednesday night, crippling the subway and roadways and killing more than a dozen people, including a toddler who drowned in a flooded apartment. 

Torrents in Central Park broke records set just a week earlier when tropical storm Henri made landfall. As the death toll mounted Thursday, so too did new questions about how prepared the nation’s largest city is for climate change-fueled megastorms ― and how Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams plans to deal with it.

So far, advocates say his approach is vague ― his campaign website doesn’t feature climate change among the candidate’s six core issues ― and statements from his camp suggest he may weaken the landmark law already in place to cut planet-heating pollution. 

Adams, 61, is a retired police officer and the current Brooklyn borough president who has pitched himself as a tough-on-crime maverick. He defeated a crowded field of rivals in the June primary, including high-profile contenders who ran on detailed, wonky plans to curb emissions and fortify the five boroughs against extreme weather. He’s now considered a shoo-in against Republican nominee Curtis Sliwa when the overwhelmingly Democratic city votes in November’s general election. 

But the deadliest cyclone to hit New York City since 2012’s Superstorm Sandy has put new scrutiny on how an Adams administration will manage future disasters and meaningfully slash the city’s output of greenhouse gases. 

“It is striking that here he is, months away from being the mayor of the largest city in the country, and we don’t really know where he stands on some of the most important environmental issues facing the city,” said Judith Enck, who served as New York’s regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Obama administration. “This can certainly be remedied with strong staff, but the big decisions will come from him.”

The Adams campaign’s seven-page climate plan offers paragraph-long promises to hasten the deployment of electric buses, offer new tax credits for energy efficiency, and “step up on resiliency” by burying power lines. Adams separately proposed a series of steps to make New York City a manufacturing hub for the offshore wind industry. In an email, a top adviser said Adams is “against all new fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines” and “for converting” the city’s entire fleet of peaker plants ― about a dozen oil- and gas-fired power stations that roar online when demand for electricity exceeds the grid’s supply ― to batteries paired with renewable generators. 

“Eric has called for significant changes to how we approach resiliency — including a comprehensive citywide process to determine where we need to invest in coordination with our state and federal partners and metrics for tracking the number of people at risk of injury from a flood, properties at risk of damage from, and the cost liability to public and private property from a flood,” said Evan Thies, the campaign’s adviser, in an emailed statement. 

Cars sit abandoned on the flooded Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx following a night of heavy wind and rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2 in New York City. 

Appearing on television amid the downpour Wednesday night, Adams said he had “never witnessed something like this.”

“It’s real that global warming is here,” he added. 

Big Apple, Bigger Emissions

Adams will likely take office next year at the helm of a city with growing emissions. In April, the nuclear plant that produced 80% of New York City’s carbon-free electricity, Indian Point, shut down, making the city almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels for power. 

While offshore wind turbines may replace some of that output, they are still years away from coming online. And a transmission line project to carry hydropower down the Hudson River from dams in Canada has floundered for 13 years amid opposition from environmentalists and property owners. 

Though the City Hall of one of the world’s largest municipal economies provides a powerful bully pulpit to lobby for policy changes in both the state and national capital, the mayor has little power over electrical systems and utilities that answer to regulators in Albany or Washington.

The same is largely true of the emissions from vehicle tailpipes, the largest single source of climate pollution. While Adams said he supports adding congestion pricing tolls to limit traffic into Manhattan and raise money for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-run agency that controls the subways, control over the policy rests in state hands. Convincing drivers to switch to electric vehicles, meanwhile, requires federally funded infrastructure and tax credits. 

The more than 1 million buildings that bristle from the New York archipelago and make up the city’s iconic skyline, however, fall squarely under municipal control.

That’s why, in 2007, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg established his PlaNYC sustainability program in a bid to track and ultimately lower the city’s pollution. By 2013, his administration phased out some of the dirtiest heating oils used to heat homes, delivering some of the cleanest air New Yorkers had breathed in half a century.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was term-limited this year, overlooked climate change when he first took office the following year. Over the past few years, the incumbent Democrat sued big oil companies over climate damages and divested its pension funds of coal stocks, and ultimately presided over the most significant emissions-cutting law ever passed in the city. 

That 2019 law, known as Local Law 97, mandates landlords retrofit big buildings ― most of those over 25,000 square feet, which generate about a third of the city’s climate pollution ― to cut emissions from the sector 40% by the end of the decade. Those cuts increase to 80% by 2050. The legislation, which comes into full force in 2024, earned de Blasio plaudits from once-critical activists as “America’s best climate mayor.” 

Real Estate Strikes Back

But the real estate industry, by far New York’s most powerful local business sector, fiercely opposed the law, and lobbied legislators in Manhattan and Albany to water it down. The law already gives landlords the option to buy limited numbers of renewable energy credits instead of making costly upgrades, offsetting part of their buildings’ pollution by funding the construction of new clean electricity projects for the city. 

New York City Parks Security Service officers on horseback explore the Greyshot Arch, which is flooded in Central Park after

New York City Parks Security Service officers on horseback explore the Greyshot Arch, which is flooded in Central Park after a night of extremely heavy rain caused by Hurricane Ida.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Democrat who resigned in disgrace over sexual harassment allegations last month, proposed a carve-out that would allow building owners to tap a virtually unlimited pool of credits including those for projects that already exist elsewhere in the state ― a scheme critics say would enrich some companies but do nothing to reduce emissions. The proposal failed in the state legislature in April.

But a spokesman for Adams seemed to signal the likely next mayor’s willingness to reduce fines on landlords who fail to comply with the law. Jonah Allon, a spokesman for the borough president’s office, told Politico last month that Adams was “concerned that we will not reach our environmental goals unless the City works to reduce the costs of retrofits and upgrades that will be prohibitively expensive for some owners, as well as unfair fines that punish efficient buildings.” 

The remark echoed the Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s most influential lobbying group, many of whose members were among Adams’ biggest donors. It stoked concerns that wealthy interests de Blasio shunned and Bloomberg, a billionaire, didn’t need to finance his campaigns could wield greater influence over the next administration than at any point in two decades. 

Enck called the comment “chilling.” Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, warned Adams’ efforts to “actively engage and solicit the real estate industry” were concerning. Pete Sikora, a senior adviser to the climate campaign group New York Communities for Change, said the statement suggests Adams may “defang” a law that, if fully implemented, would create up to 141,000 jobs in New York City by the end of the decade, per one Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher’s estimate

It is striking that here he is, months away from being the mayor of the largest city in the country, and we don’t really know where he stands on some of the most important environmental issues facing the city.
Judith Enck, former regional EPA administrator

“There’s a huge question looming over Eric Adams’ rhetoric of fighting inequality and the reality of letting real estate off the hook on job creation and the climate crisis by making Local Law 97 toothless,” said Sikora, whose group marshaled protests that helped get the legislation passed. “It’s extremely troubling that his spokesperson signaled that he’s open to lowering penalties and is using the real estate industry’s talking points.”

Asked what changes Adams would make to the law, Thies, who has previously consulted for the Real Estate Board of New York, said simply that Adams is “for the goals of Local Law 97.”

The Next Big Fight

The City Council is currently debating a bill to make New York the biggest city yet to ban gas hookups in new or renovated buildings that supporters hope to pass this year. The legislation, known as Intro. 2317, would take effect two years after its passage, potentially moving the 2030 deadline the de Blasio administration set for phasing out heating and cooking gas in new buildings to as early as 2023.

Though the bill was introduced shortly before the election, Adams was the lone primary candidate to endorse maintaining the original 2030 deadline, while seven of his rivals said they would support a more ambitious date. His campaign did not respond to a question about whether he supports the legislation. 

Corey Johnson, the council speaker, has yet to say if he will back the bill. If passed, however, de Blasio said he would sign it into law. But it would be up to Adams to implement a mandate the real estate industry opposes. 

A chart from the 2019 New York City greenhouse gas inventory shows the major sources of climate-heating pollution. Landfills

A chart from the 2019 New York City greenhouse gas inventory shows the major sources of climate-heating pollution. Landfills make up most of the “waste” category,” and automobiles comprise the majority of “transportation.” The biggest sources in the “stationary energy” category are residential buildings, followed by commercial buildings and manufacturers. 

Costa Constantinides, the former city council member who authored Local Law 97, said Adams should not only defend the landmark legislation, but also “move the ball forward” with new climate mandates. 

“Despite what big real estate says, we don’t have time for small, incremental measures,” he said shortly after Shop-Vac-ing the water that flooded his Queens apartment Wednesday night. “We have to be bold. Now is the moment to be bold, and days like today only reaffirm that.” 

Tiffany Cabán, the left-wing Democratic nominee all but guaranteed to fill Constantinides’ seat on the council, said the likely next crop of lawmakers in the city’s legislature would form a bulwark to preserve the progress New York has made on climate. 

“There is overwhelming alignment between council members, especially the progressive incoming members,” she said. “Climate change is here. It’s now. We needed to act yesterday and there has to be absolutely no excuses. This is about survival.”

Despite concerns, some in the climate world say they’re hopeful about Adams. 

“The Adams administration is going to be full of really smart people who can confront this,” said Alexander Gleason, a political strategist who works on clean energy issues at the Manhattan lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs. 

Current Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a press conference in August at which he endorsed Eric Adams as his successor.

Current Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a press conference in August at which he endorsed Eric Adams as his successor.

And there are clear steps Adams could take next year to help prevent New York City’s growing number of basement apartments ― some of the few places poorer families, particularly immigrants, can afford in the extremely expensive metropolis ― from turning into death traps when torrents flood the city. Such was the case on Wednesday night, when a 2-year-old boy and his two family members drowned in a subterranean unit in the working-class neighborhood of Woodside, Queens.

When the cost of fighting COVID-19 forced the city to make budget cuts last year, the funding for a program to make basement apartments safer fell from $12 million to just $91,580. 

“I’ve been talking to constituents today, and the overarching theme is that those who live in basement apartments are more susceptible to not only losing their entire apartment but also their lives,” said Zohran Mamdani, the Democratic state assemblyman in the western Queens neighborhood of Astoria. 

“I was disappointed by the lack of focus in the primary on the climate crisis, and I really hope the Adams administration will have an immense focus on this and understand this is a radical issue that requires radical solutions,” he added. “We have to face up to the reality that storms like this will happen again.” 

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