State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Will de Blasio and Cuomo Make Sustainability a Higher Priority?

Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has allowed the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability to lose many of its most talented staff, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is using capital funds meant to finance environmental facilities to help pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge. These two progressive elected officials talk the talk of environment and sustainability, but environmentalists are unsure if they walk the walk. New York’s mayor is finally recruiting a new director for his sustainability office and Cuomo has a good overall record on environmental issues, but neither seems to have integrated environmental protection and sustainability management into their broader and higher priority economic development goals. Both of these elected officials see the environment as a secondary policy arena, and have failed to make the same leap that Mike Bloomberg did when he developed and became identified with PlaNYC 2030: New York City’s path-breaking sustainability plan.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo

I confess that I like and support both de Blasio and Cuomo. Neither is perfect, but who is? Nevertheless, I do not think that they see the deep connection of environmental quality and a renewable economy to sustainable economic growth. After Hurricane Sandy, Governor Cuomo briefly connected the storm to climate change, but in the end seemed more interested in scoring political points at photo ops and by announcing grants to distribute federally financed Sandy relief funds. Mayor de Blasio has made excellent appointments to head his Departments of Environmental Protection, Sanitation, Parks and Transportation. There is little question that he considers environmental protection an item on his progressive agenda, but it is not a central agenda item; pre-K, housing, inequality, and social justice are the issues that capture the mayor’s imagination.

As Joanna Foster wrote in Climate Progress in late May:

Environmental issues never topped de Blasio’s talking points during his campaign for mayor. There were 19 topics listed on de Blasio’s issues section on his campaign website and climate resiliency came in dead last, with sustainability faring just slightly better at number 11. And nearly five months in, his administration has kept quiet on how the mayor intends to move forward, assuming he will, on Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious long-range plans for creating a more sustainable and climate-resilient city.

In July, the New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn observed that,  “…six months into his first term, the mayor has yet to give a major policy address on his environmental vision.” To be fair, at a similar point in his first term, Mayor Bloomberg was cutting costs by dismantling the city’s fragile recycling effort. Mayor Bloomberg eventually learned the centrality of sustainability to urban economic development; perhaps the still new mayor will as well. Bloomberg came to understand that the million additional people New York would gain by 2030 could make the city a polluted, unpleasant, unsustainable mess. He understood that we are in a global competition with other world cities for people, business, tourists, and, ultimately, dynamism and brainpower. If visitors to the city saw smog, energy shortages, interrupted water supplies, terrible mass transit and gridlock, they would think twice about moving their families or businesses to New York. That understanding led to the integration of economic development and environmental protection goals in PlaNYC 2030. It stimulated Mike Bloomberg’s growing understanding of the importance of climate change and the development of a renewable economy. We do not trade off economic growth and environmental protection. A clean and productive ecosphere is a major source of economic wealth.

As for our governor, he remains an enigma. Does he want to close Indian Point as his father closed the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island? Is he in favor of fracking? Is he against it? Will he ever relent and sit down for an interview on NY1 (New York City’s local all news station) and tell us what he thinks? He has done some important work in stimulating economic development in upstate New York and has worked hard to keep the state government open and functional, but he governs in isolation and behind the scenes. He may be capable of the soaring rhetoric of Barack Obama or Mario Cuomo, but it’s not clear he’ll ever let us know.

Still, I like these guys because they are smart, talented, savvy and progressive elected officials who govern from principle, but understand that politics requires accommodating diverse interests and values. I just want them to integrate sustainability more fully into their set of political, policy and governing principles. I suspect that they still see the environmental issue as one dominated by groups like NRDC, EDF and the Sierra Club. Probably, they’ve also taken note of environmental justice groups such as WEACT and Sustainable South Bronx. Traditional environmentalism is valuable and is rooted in a love of nature — sustainability is something else. Nature is not valued for its own sake, but for our own sake. Sustainability encompasses environmentalism, but involves other values as well.

I have been involved in environmental policy since 1975 when I took my first graduate course in environmental politics. EPA was only five years old back then. I first went to work for EPA in 1977. What has changed in the ensuing four decades is that the costs of water, energy, waste management and environmental impacts have moved from the edge of corporate balance sheets to their center. On the negative side: Ask BP and GE what it feels like to spend billions of dollars on environmental remediation. BP had to pay for damaging the Gulf of Mexico and GE had to pay for cleaning up the Hudson River. On the positive side: Ask WalMart how much money they save by requiring their suppliers to adhere to sustainability principles. Sustainability and a renewable resource based economy are central corporate goals pursued by companies ranging from WalMart to Pepsi, from Nike to Starbucks. New York real estate developers know that sustainability sells. People want to live and work in “green buildings.” What probably started as green-washing in many companies has taken hold as a key business strategy in the world’s best-managed companies.

The inability of Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo to visibly integrate sustainability into their broader economic development goals indicates that environment remains separate and secondary. It is not that these two leaders have bad environmental records. It is that they are still stuck in the 20th-century paradigm that sees a tradeoff between environmental quality and economic growth. These leaders may understand the interconnection between environment and economic growth, but their actions indicate that they haven’t internalized this understanding enough to translate it into action.

The visibility of some environmental activists who oppose all economic development has obscured the record of environmental interest groups who have worked with industry and government to promote sustainable economic development. Environmental justice groups in New York City have worked with the government and real estate developers on housing projects. EDF is working to understand the science of fracking. The average person understands that clean air, clean water, and healthy food are not luxuries but necessities. To the average person, economic development that damages the environment is unacceptable.

The sustainability perspective integrates economic growth, environmental protection and public health. I am confident that New York City’s mayor and New York State’s governor understand this. However, I see little evidence that they have integrated this way of thinking into their approach to politics, policy and governance. I may not be looking hard enough, but if they get it, why are they keeping it such a secret?

Steve Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute. This post was originally published on the Huffington Post website on 8/11/14. The original post can be found here.

The Earth Institute and its affiliates offer a variety of academic degree programs in sustainability.  These include the one year MPA in Environmental Science and Policy and the MS in Sustainability Management that is offered both full- and part-time.  For more information about all of the Earth Institute’s education programs, click here.


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