New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, like California’s Governor Jerry Brown, has used his executive authority to mandate that 50 percent of electricity generated in his state must come from renewable sources by 2030. The Hawaii legislature has gone them better by setting a goal of 100 percent by 2045. Twenty-nine US states have renewable portfolio standards, but that leaves 31 states out of the story.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 68 percent of US electrical generation comes from burning fossil fuels. Just over 28 percent of greenhouse gases in the US come from generating electricity. Getting to green still leaves a big job to do.
Cuomo and Brown have listened to the scientists who warn that failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions will wreck economies. But this week, the scientists stepped up their ask.
In the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the conclusion of 91 scientists is that humanity has until 2050 to get to net-zero carbon emissions.
But we (humanity, that is) only have until 2030 to stop global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
As 2018 Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus has been saying for years, climate change has economic consequences. A quick glance at the IPCC report gives us the phrase “high confidence,” which characterizes the views of the scientists who summarized 6,000 peer-reviewed studies on how strongly they view the likelihood of more and more costly consequences of continuing to use fossil fuels.
But let’s get local
We’re on a virtue island here in New York State.
Thanks to a very robust political consensus nurtured by New York’s Democratic governor, there’s a broad acceptance of the need for action on renewable energy—a consensus that 60 percent of voters in the nextdoor Province of Ontario may have also shared, but then they split their votes so that the winner of 40 percent of their votes in the recent election took over the rule of Canada’s most populous province with what Premiere Ford believes is a mandate to move away from renewable energy commitments. (Canada, as characterized by the right-leaning business paper The National Post, isn’t even on the path toward getting on the path toward meeting its Paris Accord commitments to reaching lower carbon emissions.)
There’s no such commitment or consensus in Pennsylvania, which has committed to methane-leaking fracking for natural gas.
But Hurricane Sandy in 2012 made believers out of climate-change deniers in the New York metro area. The insane storms that loosed rivers of rain on the Finger Lakes this past summer are evidently now annual events: the “100-year” flooding actually happened twice in 2018, so it’s uncomfortable to be a climate-change denier even in New York State’s reddest region. Cuomo’s ban on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas still has critics like Carl Paladino, who point to the quick riches scored by frackers in Pennsylvania as the reason to put Southern Tier watersheds at risk, but the IPCC report is very clear on the real downside: methane leaks.
Way back in August 2018, scientists reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned of feedback loops that could give us “a Hothouse Earth” even if we are successful in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
But let’s face it: hat’s not how we roll when it comes to decision-making here, or in New York State, or in Washington.
Elites here generally do not put climate-change issues front and center in their campaigns.
Andrew Cuomo is not defending his second-only-to Hawai’s record on renewable energy, his fracking ban, his greenhouse-gas reductions achieved or planned.
In the race for the 27th Congressional District, there is silence from both the incumbent and the challenger on the IPCC report.
Unlike Chicago and other major cities, there is neither a Mayoral nor a Common Council initiative to invest City of Buffalo resources in assessing, addressing, or reducing the environmental impact of how city services do or don’t or will or won’t reduce their carbon footprint. Ditto Erie County government, which has hundreds of vehicles and buildings that use fossil fuels.
And the Buffalo News editorial page, which remains the leading mainstream opinion journal of the Western New York media market, invests its resources in asserting that Buffalo’s priorities must include a new $500 million convention center and a new $1 billion stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
How the dots connect
Money is the reason to undertake the astounding amount of policy and engineering work that scientists say with high confidence has to happen.
It’s as if the calmest, most rational voices in the land are all chorusing for a very basic service, like sewer systems, or clean water, but still have to explain how much it would cost not to have sewers or clean water.
So given that even getting 100 percent of our electricity from renewable resources still leaves 68 percent of the greenhouse gas problem unsolved, let’s do a thought experiment about the return on investment of investing $1.5 billion of public money in the Buffalo area on dealing with the greenhouse gas problem rather than on a 25-year construction bill for a stadium-convention center complex.
As we already have both a stadium and a convention center, replacing those two structures would cost $1.5 billion but would have about the same (i.e., negative) economic impact of the existing structures. Both are tax-eaters: the stadium costs taxpayers about $15 million a year, the convention center between $1.5 million and $2 million a year, not counting the debt service on the $130 million Poloncarz-era stadium upgrades and the $10 million of capital improvements to the convention center over the past decade.
The Electric Vehicle Transportation Center cites a couple of dozen studies of how cities (mainly European but some American), companies, and even units of the US military have switched from oil-power to renewable-powered buses, trucks, taxis, and other vehicles. It wouldn’t take much effort to figure out the conversion costs of turning every Niagara Frontier Transportation Agency bus, every Erie County vehicle, and every other municipal vehicle into an EV. The consulting fee for doing the research might be the same or less than the $150,000 Erie County paid to the out-of-town guys who recently exclaimed that we need a new, $500 million money-losing convention center.
(Perhaps the New York State Energy Research and Development Administration could undertake the study as a government-to-government project. Or perhaps the New York Power Authority’s Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board, which is mandated to spend money on projects within 30 miles of the Robert Moses Power Project on the Niagara River, could commission such a study. Or perhaps the Stanford University scholars who created a state-by-state renewable energy plan could be enlisted to take a look at this issue, and maybe even answer this question:
What would the costs and benefits be were Buffalo-area taxpayers to make a 25-year investment of $1.5 billion in green energy?
What would the economic impact be—and would that investment get Western New York much closer to what the state of Hawaii is targeting by 2045, namely a carbon-neutral economy?
Here’s a beginning number to think about: utility-scale installations of solar photovoltaic panels, the promotion of which President Barack Obama (remember him?) used his executive authority to push, by 29 percent by 2017. The cost per kilowatt-hour is now under six cents. (Check your electric bill: You probably pay 11 cents or more; the national average is about 11.9 cents.) So that means that if you got your electricity from a massive utility-scale solar array, you’d save money.
Get talking, folks
We talk about what interest groups here want us to talk about.
The very, very difficult new business environment of the local news media requires that daily newspapers and daily TV news operations have a permanent draw for their core demographic—which is why daily newspapers and daily TV news operations devote about one-third of their daily content to major league sports. Without major league sports, their core audiences would not exist. Ergo, we will talk about sports—stadiums, personalities, rivalries—in every single paper and on every single broadcast.
But we also talk about what the most financially relevant funders of politics want us to talk about.
Here, that means real-estate development. The political class in Buffalo reports, principally, to the real-estate developer class here. It’s the real-estate developers who have given us the discourse of “growth” and “renaissance” in an environment where the population of Erie County is 50,000 below what it was in 1980, where the population of Buffalo in continuous decline, but where the number of housing units constructed annually exceeds the number of households formed.
If you’re wondering whether Buffalo needs a new $500 million convention center, or a new $1 billion Buffalo Bills stadium, ask yourself this: Over the course of the 25 years that your Erie County property taxes would be used to pay for those new toys, might there be some other use for your money that could keep you and your kids from, say, frying, starving, or being overwhelmed by climate refugees?
Weaving the new climate science reports into our local discourse means broadening our understanding of the costs, and benefits, of doing what the climate scientists tell us that we urgently need to do. And that we need to do it locally.
So here’s a proposal: Whenever any political candidate says anything, make your response in the following form: “What part of the IPCC report’s switch to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels do you think we should do first, cars or buildings?”
Just don’t change the subject, and don’t let anybody else change the subject.
Because there isn’t anything else more important, actually.
Bruce Fisher teaches at SUNY Buffalo State and is director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies. His latest book, Where the Streets Are Paved With Rust: Essays From America’s Broken Heartland (The Public Books/Foundling Press 2018) is available at Talking Leaves Books and at foundlingspress.com.