Our communities are at a crossroads. We are facing multiple, intersecting crises, both environmentally and economically.
The impacts of climate change are already here and growing. Left unchecked, the changing climate will produce ever more severe storms, heat waves, and droughts, threatening our infrastructure, our food supply, and all the natural resources we depend upon and enjoy. Globally, we could be seeing catastrophic sea level rise, flooding, and the displacement of millions of people by the end of the century.
At the same time, a legacy of structural economic injustice and increasing inequality have left nearly half of Ulster County households struggling just to get by in the present, let alone to plan for an increasingly uncertain future. The COVID pandemic has laid bare just how profoundly these inequalities impact our entire community, while further stressing families that already lived close to the edge.
We could continue to muddle on with incremental measures to address these generation-scale challenges. That would be the wrong approach, and we would continue to fall short. To meet the urgency of the climate challenge and redress decades of injustice, we need a national mobilization on the scale of the original New Deal.
Over a few short years in the 1930s, the New Deal created more than 20 million jobs, building more than 600,000 miles of highway, 124,000 bridges, and over 40,000 schools, as well as power plants, airports, and public buildings. Civilian Conservation Corps workers planted billions of trees and created 8,000 parks and thousands of miles of trails. The Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to homes and farms across seven states, spurring development in rural areas that had been left behind by a rapidly changing economy. The New Deal programs transformed American life and built infrastructure we still rely on today.
We have a similar chance now to translate all the work we need to do to stabilize the climate into opportunity and prosperity for all our residents. And the opportunities are massive.
Truly confronting the climate crisis will require a complete overhaul of the ways we produce and use energy. We need to install more than a million solar panels, upgrade our energy grid, and add battery storage to back it up. We need to improve our aging buildings and roll out carbon-free ways of moving people and goods. We also need to prepare for the impacts of climate change, ensuring that our roadways and landscapes are resilient to storms and flooding, helping our farmers adjust to changing conditions, and protecting all of our natural resources.
The needs are both high-tech and hands-on. And they can generate thousands of jobs here in Ulster County.
To take just one example, crucial to meeting our climate goals will be retrofitting our homes to high energy efficiency standards and replacing aging furnaces with carbon-free heat pumps that provide both heating and cooling. These upgrades will save the average homeowner, renter, or landlord around $200 each month or more on energy bills. They will also make homes more comfortable, less drafty in the winter and cooler in the summer, while improving the indoor air quality, in some cases even reducing emergency room visits and lost days of school or work to asthma attacks and respiratory illnesses. Completing this work on Ulster County’s 75,000 homes – most of which were built before any energy standards existed at all – will generate more than 2000 jobs per year over the next twenty years. It is a win-win-win solution that we must invest heavily in.
As we take on the work of this transformation, it is essential that we do not repeat the economic injustices of the past. Core to our work must be translating opportunity into prosperity for all our residents. That means centering and continually broadening education, job training, and small business development opportunities and ensuring that the jobs created in the green economy are high-quality ones, paying family-sustaining wages. We also need to redress the environmental injustice that has left low-income communities and communities of color struggling with the highest burdens and least access to our bounty of natural resources.
In 2019, New York’s nation-leading Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) put a stake in the ground for the transformation we need to make: 70 percent renewable energy by 2030, reaching 100 percent by 2040. Massive investments in clean energy and energy efficiency, resulting in an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2050. The CLCPA also centers environmental justice, requiring 35 percent of state clean energy funds to be invested in historically disadvantaged communities.
Those are big goals, and they are what’s needed. Now it’s up to communities on the ground everywhere to make it happen.
Next page: A Green New Deal for Ulster County