By Bill McKibben
January 13, 2023
Governor Kathy Hochul’s ambitious climate plan for New York.
New York’s newly elected governor, Kathy Hochul, stood center-ice on the fabled Lake Placid hockey rink on Thursday night, welcoming fourteen hundred athletes from around the world to the thirty-first World University Games—Olympics for college kids—winter edition. Flags of the nations had been paraded on toboggans, aerialists had descended on wires from the rafters, and now the Governor was beaming in the spotlight. (I’m a longtime denizen of the Adirondacks, and got to watch close up as an honorary bearer of the—electric, renewable-powered—torch.) The Governor paid homage to the Miracle on Ice, from the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, when the upstart American hockey team had defeated the Soviet Union; she saluted the local officials who had helped win more than five hundred million dollars in government funding to refurbish the town’s ski trails and bobsled runs; and then she noted that New York is the only state ever to host the World University Games three times. “Third time’s definitely the charm,” she said, and the rink roared.
Outside, however, it had begun to rain, and by the time the crowd began to stream out almost no one wanted to party on Lake Placid’s closed-off Main Street. The buildings and trees shone with gold and white lights, but the glow reflected in growing puddles; what should, indeed, have been charming was glum. It was one more reminder—in a winter when ski resorts in the Alps have had to turn off their lifts and offer their guests mountain bikes—that we can no longer take winter for granted. Lake Placid had also hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932, but the cold that made it a model Olympic town can no longer be counted on anywhere. A study last year predicted that, out of the twenty-one cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics, only four will still be able to do so by mid-century. As one of the four is Lake Placid, even that might be an optimistic count.
All of this served to underscore the importance of what Hochul had done earlier in the week, in her State of the State address, when she pledged to support a truly wide-ranging and ambitious plan to rein in New York’s carbon emissions and put the state on a new energy path. New York has the tenth-largest economy in the world, just ahead of South Korea’s, so Hochul’s plans matter, and in this case they are drawing praise from environmentalists—and growing opposition from the fossil-fuel industry.
The Governor’s call for a ban on gas hookups for new construction, for small buildings, by 2025 was the most visible part of the plan, because, by an accident of timing, it wandered into the middle of a new culture-war battle over gas stoves. Last week, Richard Trumka, Jr., a member of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, responded to data showing a link between gas stoves in the kitchen and childhood asthma by saying that the government might need to regulate or even ban sales of new stoves. Cue right-wing outrage: the Republican congressmen Ronny Jackson, of Texas (Donald Trump’s onetime chief medical adviser), and Matt Gaetz, of Florida, both said that they will only be parted from their gas ranges once the appliances are pried from their “cold dead hands.” Not only is this an odd image for a cooking device, no one has even mentioned taking existing gas stoves from people’s homes. The idea is merely to move to cleaner induction cooktops (and heat pumps, instead of furnaces) in new construction, and as old gas stoves wear out. But Big Oil perceives even that as a threat, and the Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi reported that front groups such as the Propane Education & Research Council have begun hiring actors and influencers to spread the blue-flame gospel.
In any event, the gas ban is only a part of Hochul’s program. More important is a broad program called Cap and Invest, which would set enforceable and steadily declining caps on carbon pollution statewide. Big polluters—power plants, say—would have to buy allowances, and the money would be spent on both rebates to consumers, to insure that their energy costs do not rise, and on building out the state’s renewable-energy infrastructure “from home retrofits to green manufacturing,” as the Governor put it in the State of the State. Pete Sikora, the climate and inequality campaigns director at New York Communities for Change, signalled immediate support for the idea, provided that it trims emissions at a pace consistent with the Paris climate accords, provides union jobs, and doesn’t raise prices for working people. A successful plan “should lower prices,” he said, pointing out that things like electric vehicles and induction cooktops are cheaper to run than their fossil-fuel counterparts.
Sikora raised another issue: the new cap system must cut emissions everywhere in New York, and especially in “low-income communities and communities of color.” That’s been a stumbling block in other cap-type programs proposed elsewhere: modelling has shown that old plants in poor neighborhoods might just pay the new fees as an added cost of doing business, burdening these communities with continuing bad air, even as emissions across an entire state began to fall. But Albany may have earned some leeway with environmental-justice groups: those activists fought hard for 2019’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, whose mandates for steep emissions cuts produced the plan that Hochul announced, and which also mandated that forty per cent of state climate funds be spent in poor areas. “The Cap and Invest program needs to be big to really matter,” Sikora said. “Like, really big: raising enough to cover rebate costs and spending large multibillions per year on climate and jobs action. And that’s what they’re signalling.”
Those signals, of course, have not gone unnoticed by the fossil-fuel industry, which will respond with force more subtle and more powerful than paid influencers defending gas stoves. A recent investigation by the Public Accountability Initiative reported that the industry and its front groups have spent “more than $15.5 million on lobbyists to advance fracking and expand fossil fuel infrastructure” and have “donated more than $1.4 million to politicians on both sides of the aisle.” Advocates I spoke with are worried that an ad barrage from the industry over the next weeks could start to lower Hochul’s approval ratings, and scare her off from the more far-reaching proposals. On the other hand, real progress on an issue that polls extraordinarily well with Democratic voters could elevate the status of a politician who ascended to her office when her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, was forced to resign, and who won an unexpectedly narrow election in November. She’ll introduce details of her proposed budget later this month, the legislature will respond in February, and the budget will theoretically be adopted by early April.
In Lake Placid, meanwhile, it poured all Thursday night, and by dawn Mirror Lake, in the town’s center, was a steel-gray sheet of slush. But at about 8:30 a.m., just before the first ski races were to start, the rain changed to snow—big fat flakes that made Lake Placid, at least for a day, look as lovely as everyone had hoped. Let the games begin!