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Industrial Strength Sustainability

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

April 24, 2013

Which New York City Mayoral hopeful has the muscle to deliver on the promise of an industrial strength urban sustainability agenda? The nine declared candidates had the chance to convince New York voters they were the one at a 2013 Earth Day Sustainability Forum.

Organized by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, a near-overflow crowd listened and sometimes cheered or jeered as Sal Albanese, John Catsimatidis, Adolfo Carrión, Bill de Blasio, Joe Lhota, John Liu, George McDonald, Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson responded to the questions of WNYC's Brian Lehrer. At times, he asked them to raise their hands if they agreed with the statement that humans caused climate change or who wanted to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Switching gears, Mr. Lehrer also asked roomier questions about questions ranging from air quality to zoning. At one point, he expressed surprise that virtually all the candidates gave a thumbs-up for the energy efficiency makeovers of existing buildings, surely, in his view, a rather dry campaigning point.

For forum organizer and co-panelist Marcia Bystryn, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters the take away from the evening was, "We're delighted — all nine candidates committed to kicking PlaNYC 2030 up a notch!" Another way of saying this is that despite term-limits, Mayor Bloomberg's blueprint for greening Gotham and cutting its carbon footprint 30% by 2030, even as its population and economy grow, has a chance to survive through the next administration. But will it thrive? Here's a speed-date version of the candidates positions.

Mr. Lehrer started out with asking the candidates by a show of hands if they believed in the reality of man-made global warming. Everyone raised a hand except Mr. Catsimatidis who said he wasn't certain about the scientific case. At the same time, there was general support for the PlaNYC 2030 carbon reduction goal. To get there, candidates ticked off lists of transit, building and energy ideas including traffic tolling and more mass transit, added bike lanes & select bus service in outer boroughs.

Advancing the Greener, Greater, Building Plan, with its focus on improving the energy efficiency of New York's building stock and a menu of ideas for scaling up renewable energy were also high on everyone's list. There was no disagreement or argument among the nine candidates, but there were differences in emphasis, but Ms. Quinn, given her role in enacting the Plan, was the most specific in what's been done so far.

Mr. Lhota said the next Mayor must use the City's zoning powers to encourage more energy efficiency, and cited the proposed rezoning of midtown east as an example. Mr. De Blasio applauded PlaNYC for putting the City on the right path, but said the next Mayor would have to speed things up. Buildings need more aggressive finance policy to speed retrofitting up and cited public housing's desperate need for energy retrofitting. Throughout, Mr. McDonald sought to link his sustainability ideas to the creation of jobs and job incentive programs. Mr. Catsimatidis, while not sure about the science of anthropomorphic climate change, still saw it as the job of the next Mayor, to help all New Yorkers do their part, but did not commit to the particulars of PlaNYC. In contrast, Mr. Liu was explicitly praised PlaNYC as a good idea with the qualification that it has not been as fully carried out as needed. He proposed tapping the financial power of the City's pension system and creating green bonds system for this purpose.

Brian Lehrer also asked by a show of hands if the Indian Point nuclear power plant should be shut down. Only Ms. Quinn raised her hand, but no one opined about whether the Mayor has any legal role in making this decision. Instead, the candidates focused on the importance of renewable energy, including prospects for offshore wind power and the furor over hydrofracking and new natural gas pipeline construction into the City.

The forum turned next to challenges of post-Sandy rebuilding in flood zone areas. According to Mr. Lhota, the Rockaways need building code amendments that will require elevated buildings. Staten Island is different because there is more interest in buy-outs and letting marshlands thrive. Lower Manhattan is different again and will need concerted public and private action to get storm-proofed, not necessarily with a sea wall; instead, soft ecological initiatives like oyster beds might be best. Mr. Thompson favored Governor Cuomo's plan for optional buy-outs. The overall Sandy response won't be a one-size-fits-all answer for changes in building code, or deployment of natural and man made solutions. Taking a different approach, Mr. Albanese insisted that New York City has had a reactive government, one that did not heed scientists Sandy warning.

Policies and actions for the next Mayor regarding the City's parks, recycling program and the City's overall solid waste management plan, urban farming, bike lanes, and air quality and environmental justice were also engaged. However, as with every issue, discussed or noted in passing, no issue sparked debates or rebuttals at the forum. How extraordinary for nine people who reflect a wide political spectrum and are competing to become the next Mayor of New York!

Given this apparent comity, Republican and Independent candidate replies to Mr. Lehrer's question, "What is the role of environmental regulation?" were riveting. Mr. Lhota vigorously distinguished his environmental stance from that of the national Republican Party by insisting that, if "done properly", environmental protection can also grow the economy and create jobs. Mr. Catsimatidis also distinguished New York City Republicans from the national party and Mr. McDonald said he was interested in being NYC mayor, not leading a political party. Mr. Carrión highlighted that he was running as an independent and public policy should be driven by the public interest, which for him was pro-sustainability, pro new economic growth. No candidate, Republican, Independent or Democrat chose to cite an example of environmental regulation that harmed local business.

Still, the evening was not entirely warm and fuzzy when it came to nailing down where the candidates stood on sustainability and what they highlighted in their campaigns. Ms. Bystryn announced that she would be e-mailing the membership of the New York League of Conservation Voters and asking them to log onto every candidate's web site to see what it said about environmental platforms and priorities. Sounds like a good idea and I invite Sallan readers to do their sustainability homework on the men and woman who would be your next Mayor.

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