Several weeks ago, as climate-justice activists dispersed from Paris after the United Nations climate-change summit, a couple hundred people sat cheering in a Harlem church, its walls adorned with posters reading, “There can be no environmental justice without social justice.” Community leaders, directors of national environmental organizations, union members, a Hurricane Sandy survivor, the church’s pastor, the state attorney general—one at a time, each took the mic to rally the audience and attest to the urgent need for the evening’s gathering. Down in the pews, the crowd responded in agreement, applause interspersed with chants of “Sí se puede!”
Just days earlier, in Paris, 195 countries had reached a climate deal that was at once historic in its broad, multinational scope and modest in its purely voluntary aspirations. In its wake, Hans Schellnhuber, one of the world’s most renowned climate scientists and a top adviser to Pope Francis, had declared, “It will be the job of civil society…to finish the job that national governments have begun here in Paris.”
Now, part of civil society had gathered together to meet that challenge. Its vehicle of choice was NY Renews, a new statewide campaign that will attempt to make tangible what Paris made aspirational. Standing on the church stage, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman received the loudest ovation of the night when he pledged his support for the initiative, exclaiming, “I’ve never seen an event like this.”
While NY Renews has been in the works for months, the timing of its launch placed the campaign’s demands in direct comparison to the agreement reached at the Paris summit on December 12. What could be the agreement’s best parts, such as naming 1.5 degrees Celsius as a goal for the eventual maximum temperature rise, amount to loose aims with no enforcement—and still fall short of what science demands. If every country kept its promises, the earth would still warm by 3.5 degrees Celsius, putting the temperature far above preindustrial levels.
“Think of it as a starting gun in a race,” said Aaron Mair, president of the Sierra Club, at the NY Renews launch event.
NY Renews aims to build off the Paris agreement and fill in its gaps. The campaign comes from a coalition of at least 45 organizations throughout New York State that helped organize last fall’s People’s Climate March. It targets the state legislature in Albany with numerous demands: to create clean-energy jobs, make the state’s climate commitments legally enforceable, ensure accountability for meeting those commitments, and establish a just energy policy. More specifically, the campaign calls for the state to use 100 percent clean energy by 2050, with benchmark goals in the interim and every state agency oriented to helping meet those goals.
As Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, a member of the NY Renews coalition, explained before the event, “This will be an exciting and unprecedented moment for us to grapple with the policy at the state level, seeing as how we know how the Paris agreement is not going to protect the most vulnerable communities in the world.” In the wake of the agreement, he continued, “it becomes even more important for local action to drive how policy and how resiliency and adaptation get advanced.”