Interviews & Profiles

Pat Ryan’s got his own Green New Deal

The Ulster County executive discusses how “locality” is the differentiator in his plan for the environment and how local governments can confront climate change.

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan at his Earth Day Press Conference

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan at his Earth Day Press Conference Office of County Executive Pat Ryan

New York politics have featured Green New Deals for more than a decade. Howie Hawkins, the 2018 Green Party gubernatorial nominee, ran under the banner of confronting climate change and the damage done to disadvantaged communities by fossil fuels in one legislative go. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have their own respective plans. Add Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan to the list.

The upstate Democrat recently unveiled his own 21st Century homage to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's signature initiatives against the Great Depression. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency in buildings and spurring economic activity based in the transition to renewable energy all have a place in the plans that Ryan unveiled earlier this month. What makes his plan unique is how it might show how county governments might tackle climate change.

If all goes well with the plan, the 39 year-old Army veteran and Mother Earth alike might benefit. Mankind will be a tad bit closer to avoiding the 1.5°C global temperature increase that scientists warn would trigger full-on climate disaster. Ryan meanwhile would have something for his newly established political action committee to brag about. 

City & State recently spoke with Ryan to see how this win-win scenario might play out in the upcoming years. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What makes your Green New Deal unique?

I'm pretty confident in saying we're the first county in the state, and definitely one of the first in the country, to have an actual true Green New Deal. It's a multi-pronged plan over a 20-year time horizon. There's over 30 different specific programs and initiatives – all tied to three goals: the transition to clean energy to build an equitable green economy, conserving natural resources and building resiliency. 

Much of the conversation about climate change in New York concerns rising sea levels, how is it affecting an inland place like Ulster County?

Even though we're 90 miles up the Hudson River where I'm sitting now in Kingston, we had major flooding due to Hurricane Sandy. We’ve had other natural disasters due to climate impacts. These areas, in the city of Kingston in particular, include communities of color and people who are economically disadvantaged. We see environmental injustice and pollution. The Danskammer natural gas expansion in nearby Orange County is coming before the state Public Service Commission’s Siting Board. Earlier this week, I formally submitted comments calling for it to not get approved.

So how does your plan help communities harmed by the use of fossil fuels?

We got to make sure that our local workers, particularly those in the building trades, are paid fair wages as we transition from the fossil fuel economy to a newables system. Our retrofit initiative will be heavily focused on those who would not otherwise be able to afford to do that. The other area where we're really hitting that is actually in our workforce development. I launched a green careers academy in 2019 and a lot of folks have been coming through that program. We’ve worked heavily to recruit from communities that have paid the price for environmental injustice in our past policies. There’s significant funding in our plan for expanding that. 

But aren’t all these plans just executive actions you’ve taken. You won’t be county executive forever, why not use the legislative process?

The good news is, we're going to do both. We already got a bill in the works, but I wanted to move quickly to at least begin and end to signal also to the market that this is how we're going to do business, at least here in Ulster County.

Do Democrats control the county Legislature?

It’s 12 to 11. We have a one-person Democratic advantage. 

You’re an ambitious guy. You just launched a PAC, what’s this Green New Deal got to do with that?

I campaigned for county executive with a Green New Deal for Ulster County on my campaign signs. I really believe that it is not only a moral imperative, but that it also is really the economically necessary thing to do to position this county, which is where I grew up and where my family's lived for five generations. I believe this deeply.

So … what is unique about your Green New Deal again?

The locality of it is an important aspect of what differentiates it from the others. Yet, we have to set these goals at the federal level and provide resources – and the same in the state. We’re one of the largest emitters in our county so even just implementing our own climate action plan and lead by example is a major part of it. 

County government is the Exxon of Ulster?

“We’re one of the largest employers and have one of the largest carbon footprints. We also have a large vehicle fleet and many buildings. The ability to build physical, tangible things, that contribute to not only job creation but doing well by the environment – that’s something local governments can do.