New York State

Gillibrand’s climate plan ignores cities

The environmental justice component of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s climate change plan is focused on rural communities. Released a week after a record-breaking heat wave gripped New York City, why is she ignoring urban communities?

Three people making their way through a flooded street in New York City's Red Hook neighborhood during Superstorm Sandy, October 29, 2012.

Three people making their way through a flooded street in New York City's Red Hook neighborhood during Superstorm Sandy, October 29, 2012. Justin Lane/EPA/Shutterstock

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand cracked up the audience at the second Democratic presidential debate when she said the first thing she would do if elected president would be to “Clorox the Oval Office.” That drew more attention than the more substantive line that followed: The second thing she would do is reengage on global climate change. Putting climate at the front of her agenda signals a shift for a senator more often associated with campaigning for women’s and LGBTQ rights, such as leading the effort to improve access to justice for victims of sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, and repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned gays from serving openly in the military.

The comment came just a few days after Gillibrand released her climate moonshot plan on July 25 – an ambitious $10 trillion proposal to get the United States to net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. Her plan includes creating well-paying green jobs, ending fracking on public lands immediately, transforming the electric grid and enacting an excise tax on fossil fuel production as well as a tax on carbon emissions to fund climate change mitigation projects.

So far, it has garnered cautious praise from environmental groups. “We feel like her plan is as strong as any of the climate front-runners plans,” Jenny Marienau, U.S. divestment campaign manager for 350 Action, told City & State. “What was most exciting to us was this piece about holding the fossil fuel industry accountable that would pull $300 billion in taxes. Even though other candidates have said similar things, only really Gillibrand and (Washington Gov. Jay) Inslee have come out with these kinds of things in their plans.”

The word “rural” appears over a dozen times in her plan; “city” or “urban” make no appearance.

The environmental justice component of Gillibrand’s plan is titled: “Prioritize rural advancement, frontline communities, and marginalized voices.” Gillibrand would create a fund to help rural communities make their infrastructure more resilient, makeresiliency a top priority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research and agricultural support programs, and create a rural energy revolution to help rural communities adapt to and prepare for the effects of climate change. The word “rural” appears over a dozen times in her plan, while “city” or “urban” do not.

Released a week after a record-breaking heat wave gripped New York City, with over 50,000 residents losing power, the absence of cities and urban areas is conspicuous. Of the 82% of Americans that live in cities, many face dramatic threats from climate change, including extreme heat, more powerful storms and rising sea levels. However, their concerns seem to take a backseat for a senator who represents America’s largest city as she tries to win votes in sparsely populated early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. During the debate, Gillibrand illustrated the effects of flooding by citing a family she visited in Iowa. Gillibrand’s Senate and campaign offices did not respond to a request for comment from City & State.

According to a Medium post she wrote detailing her climate agenda: “Rural America’s farmers, manufacturers, and innovators are absolutely essential to our country confronting climate change.” In another post, she goes on to say that our broken economy and broken government have left talent on the sidelines as rural America has suffered a series of crippling losses for decades.”

Gillibrand’s focus on rural communities seems to hark back to her time as congresswoman for New York’s 20th Congressional District, which consists of largely white, Republican towns and farming communities. She has left behind her history as a moderate and moved decidedly leftward during her time in the Senate and become an advocate of aggressive action to combat climate change, but her presidential climate agenda does not reflect the particular needs of New York.

Cities are in many ways at the forefront already of addressing climate change. OneNYC, New York City’s $20 billion portfolio of policies and programs to make the city more resilient to climate change includes design guidelines for all city capital projects, an improved flood hazard map and a new set of policies for waterfront planning, preservation and development projects.

But many of the city’s plans – similar to national plans like the “Green New Deal” and Gillibrand’s climate platform – don’t address core urban environmental justice concerns like reversing the federal government’s massive subsidies for suburban sprawl and highway construction. Progressive policies would tackle cars – and sprawl – not just by making all cars electric vehicles, but by investing in mass transit, sidewalks and bike lanesdeprioritizing private automobiles and densifying cities.

Aside from her own upstate upbringing, Gillibrand’s interest in the rural side of environmental policy may stem in part from her committee assignments. Gillibrand has sat on both the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee as well as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Nearly one-third of the bills she has sponsored are related to agriculture, the environment or public lands.

“If she is supporting a Green New Deal then she is going to have the support of (cities) anyway. She has got to get from Iowa to Hampshire to South Carolina. … She can speak their language more with this.” – Lloyd Kass, former NYCHA energy director

“It certainly makes sense that this is what she would be focusing on given her background and the committees she sits on,” said Lloyd Kass, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It may also reflect political concerns that go beyond the primaries and into the general election, where Democrats hope to reduce President Donald Trump’s advantage in coal-producing regions of crucial swing states like Virginia and Ohio. “Rural communities are feeling the economic brunt of the loss of things like coal,” Kass said. “If she is not going to be pro-fracking, then she will need a way to win those communities.”

Gillibrand has focused on issues of special importance to New York City and its suburbs, including some that are climate-related. She continues to seek funding for recovery from Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, and she drafted the bill to make the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund permanent. She also backed the recent Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a New York state law that calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and requires that a portion of funds flow to disadvantaged communities.

But specifically not focusing on cities in her plan might also be a strategic move. “If she is supporting a Green New Deal then she is going to have the support of (cities) anyway,” Kass said. “She has got to get from Iowa to Hampshire to South Carolina. She might feel like she can speak their language more with this.”

Nor has the rural focus of her climate policies harmed Gillibrand’s standing among progressive activists. According to left-wing think tank Data for Progress’ Green New Deal candidate scorecard, Gillibrand comes out “towards the front of the pack,” said Julian Noisecat, a strategist for the organization. Her plan includes more federal policies and actions to address what Data for Progress considers the essential Green New Deal components than many of her competitors, such as setting economywide emission targets, putting a price on carbon and supporting a global Green New Deal.

Environmental groups are looking for strong policies that hold the fossil fuel industry accountable, and Gillibrand’s seems to stand up to that test. “There is no version of a Green New Deal or otherwise that doesn’t include going up in competition against the fossil fuel industry,” Noisecat said. “It seems like Gillibrand and many of her colleagues understand that.”

Some environmentalists may even see the rural tilt of Gillibrand’s climate policy as evidence of a positive development for their movement: increasingly, climate change is seen as a major issue by rural voters. A June CNN survey found that three-quarters of Iowa Democrats considered climate change to be one of their top issues. Gillibrand isn’t the only Democratic candidate from the East Coast focusing on rural farm communities. On Aug. 7, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts introduced her New Farm Economy plan targeting small family farms, and on Aug. 8, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey released a climate change bill funding voluntary farm stewardship, reforestation and wetlands restoration, much of which targets rural America.

While Gillibrand isn’t running on climate change as her core issue – only Inslee is doing that – as far as her record goes, there is little reason to doubt that she is serious about the matter. Gillibrand has a 95% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, having voted with environmentalists 100% of the time since 2014. She voted against approving the Keystone XL pipeline and has co-sponsored recent bills on climate change, including the Green New Deal, the Climate Change Education Act,which would seek to increase climate literacy among students in the US, and the International Climate Accountability Act, which would direct the president to develop a plan for the U.S. to meet its emission reduction obligations under the Paris climate agreement. These bills were also co-sponsored by several other senators running for president, including U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Booker.

The climate change bills that Gillibrand has sponsored are less controversial and largely related to infrastructure. These include the Resilient Highways Act of 2019,which would help ensure federal highways and bridges are more resilient, and the PIPE Act, which would require the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a grant program for drinking water or wastewater infrastructure projects.

Progressive environmental groups like 350 Action are cautiously optimistic about Gillibrand as a climate candidate. “We’d like to see more from her about how to deal with environmental racism and have her commit to addressing climate change issues on day one,” Marienau said. “I think we’ll need to see what she talks about on the campaign trail and what she commits to doing.”

Environmental racism, such as the tendency of fossil fuel power plants to be located in communities of color is, of course, very much an urban issue. But don’t expect to hear Gillibrand talk about it on the campaign trail soon. Nor is she likely to be focusing on climate challenges in New York City, Miami or New Orleans. On Aug. 7, Gillibrand came out with the next major plank in her policy platform. The title? “Rebuilding Rural America for Our Future.”