The Democratic Socialists of America is making the climate crisis a central factor in the group’s first round of 2022 legislative primary endorsements — including its first outside New York City.
Yet while candidates and activists share a concern that incumbent Democratic lawmakers are not acting urgently enough on climate change, they are targeting several legislators who have carried bills in recent years to aggressively cut emissions and address the effects of climate change in disadvantaged communities — espoused priorities of the NYC-DSA.
Still, the group cites a lack of major policy achievements since the 2019 passage of the state’s landmark law setting up strict limits on emissions — and they argue the state can’t simply rest on its laurels.
“Climate change is the most existential threat to our society. We desperately, desperately need to make bold change,” said David Alexis, who is challenging Sen. Kevin Parker, the chair of the chamber’s energy committee, both of whom are Black. “When you see the effects of this lack of bold action … you’re seeing terrible air quality, you’re seeing increasing cases of respiratory illnesses, and other effects that have disproportionately affected communities like mine, which are predominantly Black and brown.”
NYC-DSA has supported Alexis, an organizer who has been involved in rideshare drivers and community health. This will be Parker’s first primary challenge since 2010, when a potential opponent decided to run for City Council.
Parker is a coprime sponsor for the Build Public Renewables Bill, NYC-DSA’s signature climate policy priority. The group also endorsed opponents to Assemblymember Kevin Cahill — who is sponsoring a carbon pricing measure that would redistribute funds raised to individuals and investments in disadvantaged communities — and Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who recently proposed a bill to mandate all new buildings be electrified by 2024.
These endorsements reflect a wider dissatisfaction among progressive advocates over a perceived lack action on a host priority such as affordable housing, climate change, and health care, despite Democratic supermajorities both in the Senate and Assembly.
NYC-DSA is also seeking to extend its reach beyond the city with the endorsement of Cahill’s challenger, Sarahana Shrestha, an immigrant from Nepal who has helped organize with the Mid-Hudson Valley DSA. The group’s campaign arm, DSA For the Many, successfully elected five socialist candidates to the Legislature in 2020 and is seeking to double its fundraising for this year’s slate to $500,000.
Building momentum for action on climate policy is a central goal of the group’s endorsements and organizing support.
“I think a few well-organized climate slate candidates would have an enormous impact,” said Stylianos Karolidis, a NYC-DSA organizer.
NYC-DSA endorsed Illapa Saairitupac against Kavanagh’s seat and also backed Samy Nmir-Olivares to defeat Assemblymember Erik Dilan.
The 2019 passage of a state law mandating that emissions be cut by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 and by 85 percent by 2050 was a significant victory for the left as well as environmental advocates. The law also requires that electricity is free from emissions by 2040.
The implementation of the measure is underway, and a draft plan is due by the end this year. Top Democratic lawmakers have provided interim support. taken a wait-and-see approach. But since then, no major new pieces of climate legislation have emerged — though the Covid-19 pandemic and the implosion of the Cuomo administration has sucked up much of Albany’s focus over the last two years.
The Legislature passed a measure to mandate all electric vehicle sales by 2035. It is dependent on California taking action. This was already in progress by the executive. They’ve also revamped the siting process for new renewables, addressing what many private developers saw as the major barrier to achieving the state’s renewable electricity mandate of 70 percent by 2030.
But for many environmental advocates, the slow pace of the climate law’s implementation and the dearth of new policy has been a source of major frustration.
“The urgency that we’re feeling on the outside is not translating on the inside. There’s a disconnect,” said Shrestha. She is seeking Cahill’s seat which currently includes Kingston, Rhinebeck and New Paltz.
NY Renews, a broad coalition of environmental, community and labor groups that originated the campaign for what became the state’s landmark 2019 law, is backing a bill to charge fees on carbon and other pollutants.
Climate and Community Investment Act would allocate that money to provide rebates against rising energy costs and to invest it in disadvantaged areas to transition to renewables and to mitigate the effects of climate changes. It’s a massive, economy-wide proposition that faces cost concerns from moderate Long Island Democrats.
Parker is the Senate sponsor for the measure. Cahill carries it in Assembly.
Cahill stated that the primary obstacles facing the sponsors of the measure could hinder efforts to pass CCIA in this year’s parliament. He stated that he considered last year the introductory year for the bill, and this year the one to make it the centerpiece of environmental legislation. He said it will be difficult to get support from lawmakers through a strong political argument.
“It will require a lot of explanation by members to their constituents about why they voted for a tax,” Cahill said. “If the environmental community doesn’t get fully behind it … I don’t know how we’re expected to convince our constituencies that it’s time to put a tax on carbon.”
He said it’s clear that people are already paying for the costs of emitting carbon through the negative impacts of climate change like extreme weather, and he thinks now is the time to put it in place.
Both Alexis and Shrestha said they supported CCIA, but are more focused upon another bill backed the NYC-DSA.
In coordination with the Public Power NY campaign, the group has concentrated its organizing power on a narrower but still important proposition: allowing New York Power Authority (NYPA) to build and own all renewable energy in the state.
That’s an alarming prospect for renewable developers who are investing in projects in New York and have already won contracts worth billions from the state’s other energy authority to supply about a quarter of the electricity forecast to be needed in 2030.
Campaign backers point out the inability to develop renewables projects thus far. They argue that NYPA could build new projects more quickly and cheaper if it had the ability to issue low-cost bonds.
“Public institutions are really powerful in taking risks that private companies cannot digest and they have the ability to invest back in communities,” Shrestha said.
Policymakers have generally celebrated the private sector investment in the state’s clean energy efforts, as competition lowers costs for renewable energy credits funded by utility ratepayers. New siting rules were introduced to speed up the construction of the projects. They must also secure permits to minimize any environmental or public impacts.
NYPA was granted more authority to finance renewable energy in the 2019 budget. However, this was limited to a few smaller projects.
Although Parker introduced the NYPA bill as a co-prime sponsor in April 2021, he said it was not necessary to achieve the state’s goals. He said that the CCIA would do more for efforts to reduce emissions because it offers a way to finance it.
“You do not need public power in order to implement climate change legislation. That’s the fallacy of their whole position,” Parker said. “They’re trying to get people to believe that the state has to own every asset.”
Parker’s challenge is directly driven by the inaction on climate bills he sponsors in his committee. Alexis and his supporters characterize Parker as the “Joe Manchin of Albany,” a reference to the polarizing Democratic U.S. Senator from West Virginia who has slowed down on major climate policy at federal level.
“His intention is to tank legislation,” said Karolidis. The group has also documented Parker’s campaign contributions from energy companies including fossil fuel plants and utilities.
Parker laughed when told of the comparison to Manchin, noting that he’s not nearly as powerful.
“They can’t count. We have a supermajority so my vote is not needed to do anything,” Parker said.
He cited his record on clean-energy since 2003, when he was elected: promoting the Green Jobs Green New York program which provides loans for low-income residents to help them with energy efficiency projects; supporting net meters to encourage solar development; and passing Article 10, the predecessor law to the current renewable sitting legislation. Parker stated that even for non-controversial items, it takes years to pass legislation and that the DSA members need to be more dedicated to the work.
“They’re a bunch of interlopers. They’ve gentrified our communities and now they’re trying to gentrify our politics,” Parker said.
Alexis stated that his community has had to deal with flooding and blackouts from Ida. His two daughters were also diagnosed with asthma. The community is experiencing high rates of respiratory illness and low wages.
“To imply that it is the fault of organizers, it’s the fault of people who want a better vision for their future, who are not satisfied with the status quo, who are not satisfied to watch us drag our feet … to a future that is necessary to thrive not survive,” Alexis said. “I’m not interested in dealing with these assertions that are not connected to what people are dealing with on the ground.”