In the wake of deadly flooding from Tropical Storm Ida, Gov. Kathy Hochul began talking about climate change with a sense of urgency one would expect after an extreme weather event resulted in over a dozen deaths in the country’s biggest city. But despite promises made during press conferences about taking “dramatic action,” other comments suggest that she may not yet be ready to take the bold steps that environmental advocates hope to see.
At an unrelated press conference on Wednesday, Hochul would not commit to supporting a carbon tax on corporate polluters to help pay for climate change initiatives. Climate activists say such a tax stands to not only promote a shift away from fossil fuels, but to raise $15 billion from the state’s top polluters to pay for climate change and resiliency projects needed to hit the ambitious goals set in 2019 by the state Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. “That’s an option,” Hochul said when asked about raising money through a carbon tax. “But we also have the climate act, which is going to go before the voters – the bond act – which will be on the ballot in 2022.”
Hochul was referencing the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act first passed in 2020. It requires approval from the voters that would open up a $3 billion funding source for environmental conservation and climate change remediation efforts. Heralded by environmental advocates as a major victory when it passed in 2020 and again in 2021, the bond act will undoubtedly help inject much needed cash into climate efforts. Support for the bond act was among a list of climate demands outlined by the liberal climate change coalition NY Renews in an open letter to the governor.
But more money than what the bond act can provide will be needed. “There is no question that the bond act alone is (anywhere) near the amount of the funding we need,” said Liz Moran, environmental policy director at the good government organization New York Public Interest Research Group. “And unless the governor comes up with another mechanism, the bond act is actually paid for by the taxpayers.” Moran added that a carbon tax could be coupled with the bond act to make polluters pay the money back, rather than average New Yorkers.
The new governor so far seems to have shied away from taking an early stance on a key climate issue. “We have a strategy on this,” Hochul said of the bond act. “I know you’re suggesting one approach, I’m saying there’s another approach on the table, but I am looking at all options right now.” She declined to specifically express support for the Climate and Community Investment Act, carbon tax legislation that failed in the state Legislature this past session after business and fossil fuel interests lobbied against it. “I will be supporting anything that's going to get us to a better place,” Hochul said at the Wednesday press conference when asked about the bill, before once again reiterating how last week’s catastrophic flooding served as a “red alert.”
Moran said that while Hochul has the right rhetoric around the urgency of addressing climate change, she needs to take tangible action and offer real support. “We need bold policies, and the CCIA (carbon tax legislation) is that, so the governor should not hesitate to support it this coming session,” Moran said. While she added that she is disappointed that Hochul did not take a clearly affirmative stance on supporting a carbon tax, she acknowledged that it’s still early in the administration with plenty of opportunities to take that bold action through legislation and the budget. It’s a hopeful view shared by other advocates as well. “The Governor has an opportunity to break from her predecessor and really promote climate justice policies,” said NY Renews coalition coordinator Stephan Edal in a statement. “That means passing the CCIA and ensuring the CLCPA scoping plan (which makes recommendations for state action on climate change) takes aggressive action to reduce emissions and invest in frontline communities, without false solutions.”
Recent actions from Hochul’s administration have given activists reason for hope even in the early days of her tenure, despite not yet explicitly supporting a carbon tax. Notably, the Department of Environmental Conservation has taken stances against a controversial new power plant in development in Astoria, Queens, and a proposed bitcoin mining operation near Seneca Lake. Ahead of final decisions, the state has put out statements that both proposed plants would be inconsistent with the state’s climate laws and goals. “Governor Hochul has an opportunity to lead New York’s bold climate initiative across the finish line by rejecting the frivolous burning of fossil fuels for private use,” Yvonne Taylor, vice president and co-founder of the group Seneca Lake Guardian, said in a statement praising the preliminary stance on the cryptocurrency mining operation.
With this in mind, Moran said she remains optimistic that Hochul will take the lead on climate change once she has had a chance to settle into her new position, especially in light of recent major weather events. “This is truly a dire moment, we’re already losing people to the climate crisis,” Moran said, adding that it will need to be a central priority moving forward. “So now is the time for bold action, and we need Gov. Hochul to deliver.”