In Local Fight Against Climate Change, State Senators Missing in Action

Karen Blondel and Dan Sherrell address the audience at the Climate Solutions Town Hall. / Ahmed Aly

During last Tuesday evening’s “Climate Solutions Town Hall” held in the Student Center, two reserved seats remained empty.

Diane Savino and Jesse Hamilton, two Democrats of the New York State Senate — representing northern Staten Island and central Brooklyn, respectively — who recently failed to bring an environmental legislative bill to the floor for debate, were no-shows to the social and legislative action planning meeting.

The three panelists leading the discussion were not particularly enamored by the gesture.

“People are dying right now because of climate change,” said Dan Sherrell, the campaign coordinator for New York Renews. He added that “the moral urgency is undeniable.” Karen Blondel of Turning the Tide said that “the water is not going to stop because I live in the projects and you live in a condominium across the street. It’s coming for both of us.” Sean Sweeney, Director of the CUNY Murphy Institute’s International Program for Labor, Climate, and Environment, said that “we have to be angry about it, we have to be passionate about it, and we have to be clear about what we’re after.”

The forum, moderated by the president of the Participatory Budget Project Professor Michael Menser, was co-sponsored by both the Brooklyn College Urban Sustainability Program and 350Brooklyn — a local chapter of the international climate change association 350.org, which combats climate change through education and organization. Notable attendees included New York State Assembly members Jo Anne Simon, William Colton, and Robert Carroll of the 52nd, 44th, and 47th districts, respectively, and a representative from the office of their Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz.

“We need to show leadership at the local and state level and we demand that that leadership starts right here in New York,” said Professor Menser, who emphasized the role of Brooklyn College as a public institution and “a university of the neighborhood” in leading the fight for environmental regulation. “And so this isn’t just about the science of climate change but it’s about the solutions.”

In that, the absence of the State Senators was telling. Both Savino and Hamilton are members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), an unofficial division of the Democratic Senators that have, for the last six years, refused to join their Democratic cohorts in the New York State Senate on important  legislatively progressive matters. According to “The Creative Resistance,” a digital media group of progressive activists, IDC members do this in return for “bigger salaries, nicer offices, and committee chairmanships.” By essentially turning the assembly from blue to red, any hopes for strong environmental safeguards on the State level are all but dashed.

A request for an explanation regarding their absence was returned by the offices of both Senators Savino and Hamilton. The former was apparently “behind schedule” and “regrets not being able to attend,” while the latter, who also had a scheduling conflict, reiterated his commitment to engage with “the broader community of environmental advocates.”

“We have to be careful that New York does not turn red,” said Blondel. “Public projects need equity, not equality. We have to learn that there is an intersectionality of taking care of our communities. There needs to be a just transition because people are dying from the heat. We have to think of how we are going to adapt to that.”

Seated next to her, Sweeney was distressed “by the level of comfort in the room,” adding that “we have to get away from double-speak. Establishing a target does not mean reaching it. We need a New Deal-type program; a public program. We need to be aggressive. We need to be ready.”

Their fellow panelist, Sherrell, was equally fiery. “We need to make all the corporate climate polluters pay for the pollution they dump in our air.” He urged the audience to support the Climate and Community Protection Act, which would make New York dependent on 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, and another unnamed law that would allow communities to invest in climate regulation, thus making the project owned by the public. “The money to get this done is in plain sight. It’s sitting in the pockets of fossil fuel companies. If we pass these two bills, New York would be the global leader on the climate.” 350Brooklyn also advocated for halting the Cuomo-supported, fracked-gas Williams Pipeline passing through New York Harbor and the establishment of a statewide carbon tax. Though ambitious, there remains many obstacles, including sufficient public engagement and red tape.

This worry about the current legislative reality was expressed by one member in the audience, Nancy Romer, a 350Brooklyn activist. “The thought that this is going to destroy my grandchildren and your grandchildren is frightening,” said Romer. “This is bigger than anything humanity has ever faced.”

“The problem here is the commitment and the will to change,” said Assemblyman Colton. The reality is that government bureaucracies are notorious for not meeting the needs of the people. So we have to demand; we have to organize. And then there will be the commitment and the will,” he said.“You have the power, not your elected officials.”

Michael Menser and Sean Sweeney at the Climate Solutions Town Hall. / Ahmed Aly

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