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Reducing Greenhouse Gasses: NYC Is Not Waiting for the U.S. Congress

Apr 22, 2013 | Updated Jun 22, 2013

Like most people, I'm no longer surprised by the dysfunction and paralysis of our federal government. Fortunately, while political ideology trumps common sense in our nation's capital, communities and cities continue to make progress on our real problems. New York State and Connecticut have enacted tougher new gun control laws, and cities all over America are trying to reduce waste, pollution and greenhouse gasses. Last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, applying the business-like and persistent approach that may be his most enduring legacy as Mayor, expanded the city's effort to enlist its largest institutions in efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. The NYC Mayor's Office announced an expansion of:

Carbon Challenge, an initiative launched through the City's sustainability program, PlaNYC, to encourage businesses, universities and other private organizations to cut greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and reduce the impact of climate change. Ten companies will participate in the Carbon Challenge and commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their offices by up to 40 percent in the next 10 years. They include: American International Group, BlackRock, Bloomberg LP, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Google, JetBlue Airways, JPMorgan Chase, and PVH. The companies join 17 universities with more than 35 campuses that accepted the Carbon Challenge when it began in 2007, and the 11 largest hospital organizations that joined in 2009. The Mayor also announced that four of the participating universities and one participating hospital have already reached their reduction targets well-ahead of schedule. The Carbon Challenge builds on the City's own goal to cut emissions in municipal buildings by 30 percent by 2017 and will help meet the PlaNYC target to reduce emissions citywide by 30 percent in 2030. The City is more than halfway to meeting its goal, having achieved 16 percent of its emissions in the last six years.

These large and prominent corporations, and many smaller businesses in New York City, have created a market for "green office space" throughout New York's Central Business District. Anyone trying to lease new prime office space in New York knows that top tenants are looking for energy and water efficiency as well as other features that contribute to the health and well-being of office workers. Older buildings undergoing renovation must also respond to these market forces. The recent renovation of the Empire State Building included energy efficient windows, as well as other improvements that resulted in energy savings and a LEED Gold certification for the iconic New York landmark. Nick Zieminski, reporting in Reuters last year, detailed the path breaking effort to increase profits while reducing the use of energy and observed that:

The updated Empire State Building ranks in the top 10 of all buildings in terms of efficiency and won a Gold LEED rating. It mixed quick-pay back measures, such as new lighting and new ventilation systems, with a host of longer-term fixes, such as replacing or modernizing boilers and chillers.

Students attending New York's colleges are pushing university administrators to make their campuses even more environmentally friendly. While Congress seems unable to understand and act on climate science, the American public seems to get it. Although public opinion on climate has not been consistent over the past several years, most people still believe that human activity is causing the planet to warm, and most people in New York State attributed the intensity of Hurricane Sandy to global warming.

Most public opinion studies report that the public understands that the planet is warming, but that some people are not quite sure. A Pew study in 2012 indicated that 67 percent of the American public believed that the planet was getting warmer, but that is a lower number than the 77 percent who confirmed global warming in 2006. In fact, according to Matt McGrath of the BBC:

A new piece of research on opinion in the US published in the journal Climatic Change suggests that the public's response to the great scientific issue of the day is often determined by the state of the weather. The study, carried out by the University of British Columbia, looked at public and media attitudes to climate science over the past 20 years. They found that skepticism rose during cold snaps, but belief in global warming increased during hot spells. Prof Simon Donner who carried out the analysis told me that it wasn't quite as simple as that. 'It is not just a knee-jerk reaction - 'Oh it's cold outside, global warming must be fake', it is the accumulated experience over a few months that makes you start to question things, and it is that accumulated experience that makes things start appearing in the papers,' he said.

That has always been the political problem with global warming. Unlike other environmental issues, such as toxic waste or air pollution, you cannot see, touch or smell global warming. Climate change is caused everywhere and most of its impact is in the future. Nevertheless, people are quite capable of understanding the issue. A strong majority of the public still believes that the science of climate change is correct. In New York, polling by Sienna College after Hurricane Sandy illustrated the public's ability to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather events. In a poll published in early December 2012, the Sienna Poll reported that: "By an overwhelming 69-24 percent margin, voters say recent severe storms demonstrate global climate change rather than representing isolated weather events." In this case, New Yorkers had a chance to see and feel the impact of the worst flooding to hit New York's coast lines in recorded history. The very natural search for a cause for this calamity led New Yorkers to accept the explanation offered by some climate scientists.

And then there are the universities, hospitals and businesses that have joined Mayor Bloomberg's Carbon Challenge. This is a concerted effort to attack global warming that is being implemented by the most powerful institutions in this nation's largest city. While it is true that the first 30 percent of carbon reduction is the "low hanging fruit," you can't get to the second 30 percent of reduction until you achieve the first 30 percent. It would be better if New York City's efforts were reinforced by federal policies like a carbon tax, a crash program to develop new renewable energy technologies or a fully implemented program to regulate greenhouse gasses. But New York City is not going to wait around for the U.S. Congress to do something rational. Congress is too busy having tea parties, defeating modest gun regulation, and sequestering critical research funds to be considered a serious participant in climate policy. We'll just have to move on without them. We need to start making every day Earth Day.