Governor Andrew Cuomo has called climate change an “existential threat,” but it remains in many ways a vague one.
New York got a crash course in epidemiology last year, with coronavirus data starring daily in the governor’s endless PowerPoint presentations, and once-esoteric phrases like “R-naught” and “positivity rate” creeping into the popular lexicon. Throughout New York’s long fight against COVID-19, the state has assiduously pumped out charts and graphs to track progress—and even an infamous Styrofoam mountain.
So far, that zeal for data hasn’t been brought to the effort to decarbonize New York’s economy and make communities in the state more resilient to climate impacts—arguably an even more technically dense topic, and one on which state government transparency is equally vital.
In 2019, with the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, New York adopted some of the nation’s most ambitious climate goals. The CLCPA commits New York to full decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2040, net-zero carbon emissions for the statewide economy by 2050, and large investments in the communities likely to be hardest hit by climate change.
It’s a bold vision, and probably the kind of action that will be necessary in order to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change. But without better data, advocates say, there’s no real way to hold the state accountable to making progress.
“Unfortunately, the state has had climate and energy goals in the past, and has missed them—missed them by miles,” says Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). If New York leaders are truly committed to making climate progress, Moran says, state agencies need to release more clearly accessible data. “If they are committed to the state meeting these goals, and they feel confident in the state’s ability to adopt policies and plans to have us meet these goals, they shouldn’t have any reason to hesitate to put this information out to the public.”
Show Us the Data
Rather than wait for the state to come up with a scorecard for tracking climate progress, NYPIRG released its own in late May, a five-page document that gives New York mixed reviews on a variety of climate benchmarks. In some areas—for instance, the development of solar energy—the state is on track to meet short-term benchmarks. But in order to get on track for meeting greenhouse gas emissions goals, the state needs to accelerate emissions reductions across all sectors.
Among the issues with publicly accessible state climate data, NYPIRG reports, is that key pieces are out of date—and not because the state doesn’t have access to them. The most recent comprehensive greenhouse gas inventory for the state includes data only up to 2016. “NYPIRG is only able to access information that is currently publicly available. New York State has far more resources and tools at its disposal to offer a more comprehensive scorecard,” the report says.
New York does in fact have an online dashboard of energy data drawn from electric and gas utilities: the Clean Energy Dashboard, published by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). In fact, it’s where NYPIRG drew some of the information used to develop its scorecard. But the dashboard is forbiddingly complicated to use, and there’s no obvious way to use it to measure progress toward the state’s CLCPA goals.
“It’s not as if they don’t have this data and information,” Moran says. “But the only way to find it right now is by sourcing through an insane number of very complex reports.”
Moran says that making climate and energy data more accessible and transparent will boost public support for the task of decarbonizing the state’s economy, which will prove to be both technically and politically challenging. Greater public awareness and support for the state’s climate goals may prove critical in the state legislature, which failed to pass several key pieces of legislation aimed at making progress toward CLCPA goals in the recently ended legislative session.
“By enabling public understanding, the state will gain an ally,” Moran says.
If New York State did release a data-rich dashboard tracking progress toward emissions and other climate goals, there’s no guarantee it would be free of political spin. The state Department of Health’s skewed reporting on nursing home COVID deaths last year, which became a national scandal, is barely in the rearview mirror.
But even so, more accessible and digestible climate data would give scientists, reporters, climate action advocates, and others who might seek to hold the state accountable to its goals a place to start. And as they say in engineering, what gets measured gets done.
Holding New York’s Feet to the Fire on Environmental Justice
If you haven’t been following state climate politics closely over the past year or so, the recently created Climate Action Council might be the most important New York State government body you’ve never heard of. The 22 members of the CAC—a mix of state agency heads, industry representatives, advocates, and scientists—have been tasked with coming up with a “scoping plan” by January of 2022 that will serve as a broad roadmap for state climate action in the years to come. The emerging details of that scoping plan have been the subject of intense wrangling in an array of advisory groups, which were created to give the CAC expert recommendations on specific sectors and problems.
The scoping plan is, to put it bluntly, a big deal. “What’s in there—and importantly, what’s not in there—is going to have major repercussions on the way this state does business, soup to nuts,” says Katherine Nadeau, deputy director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.
A crucial part of that scoping plan will be figuring out how the state will meet its climate justice mandate. Enshrined in law as part of the CLCPA is a mandate that 35 to 40 percent of state climate and energy investment must go toward disadvantaged communities on the front lines of climate impact, an approach that has since been borrowed by the Biden administration’s climate plan.
At the most recent CAC meeting, on June 28, members of the Climate Justice Working Group repeatedly called on the council to plan for tracking and sharing data on investment in communities, in a presentation that also took critical aim at an advisory group’s developing plan for the transportation sector.
Elizabeth Yeampierre, director of the Brooklyn Latino community organization UPROSE and a member of the Climate Justice Working Group, told the council that in order to benefit frontline communities, climate investments need to be clearly measured and communicated to the public.
“The scoping plan should include clear guidance for how benefits and investments will be defined, measured, tracked, and shared over the long term,” Yeampierre told the council. “Better data will be needed to accurately measure the success of the CLCPA’s implementation, including the impact on disadvantaged communities over the short and long term.”
As with New York’s other big climate goals, the mandate to invest in frontline communities is clear, but the road map to get there is anything but. For one thing, the CAC is still hammering out how exactly the phrase “disadvantaged communities” should be defined. And with no clear funding stream currently in place to accomplish most of the CLCPA’s goals, there’s not much to measure yet: 40 percent of zero is zero.
Climate justice advocates who are already pushing the state for transparency on community investment under the CLCPA have at least one thing going for them: A clear unit of measurement. Counting carbon emissions and offsets can be devilishly tricky; climate accountants must contend with scientific uncertainty, the perils of double counting, and greenhouse gases that have different impacts depending on how far into the future the impact is measured. But a dollar is a dollar.
“One of the best metrics for tracking investments is in dollars,” says Arielle Swernoff, spokesperson for NY Renews, a statewide coalition of more than 200 environmental and community groups pushing for climate legislation. “You can really easily measure dollars, and that’s what communities deserve.”