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Kathy Hochul Has Been a Climate Disaster

The New York governor is getting soundly roasted on congestion pricing. But it’s not her only policy failure this year.

Kathy Hochul, wearing red, gestures to her left while speaking at a podium.
Lauren Petracca/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Kathy Hochul, governor of New York, speaks during an event at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology on Thursday, April 25.

“If you don’t have air conditioning,” Governor Kathy Hochul warned New Yorkers ahead of a heat wave this week, “you probably need to get out of the house.” She told the citizenry to be aware of the signs of heat stroke and to make their way to an official cooling center—public indoor air-conditioned sites set up to offer relief during times of extreme heat.

Well, thanks a lot, Kathy! This sudden concern about extreme heat and uneven access to air conditioning was rich coming from a governor who this year has comprehensively failed to support—and has even blocked—policies that could help prevent even more severe heat waves in the future.

Not long ago, Hochul was poised to have a pretty good climate year as governor. Last year’s Build Public Renewables Act, or BPRA, empowered the state’s public sector to build renewable energy if the private sector isn’t on track to meet New York’s ambitious climate goals (70 percent clean energy by 2030). This year, an equally ambitious climate policy, congestion pricing (imposing a toll on drivers entering the busiest zones of the city), could have made New York a model state for climate policy. At a climate conference at the Vatican last month, Hochul even bragged to the pope that New York was on track to meet its climate goals.

Not even a month later, Governor Hochul canceled congestion pricing, after years of litigation and months of legislative negotiation. Even worse, half a billion dollars had already been spent on its implementation, and dozens of transit projects were underway based on the projected revenue congestion pricing would have raised. Every serious Albany observer seems to agree—both privately and publicly—that Hochul’s calculations here were political: Suburban voters hate tolls and, on Long Island, have been increasingly voting Republican (though Hochul’s fear that congestion pricing is a swing issue is not widely shared). Brooklyn  Assemblymembers Bobby Carroll and Emily Gallagher, in a joint op ed, called the decision “bad environmental and transportation policy, shortsighted politics and an usurpation of the legislative process,” as well as “deeply disappointing.” Not only the environmental left but the business class gasped in horror at Hochul’s about-face. The president of the Partnership for New York City, a business interest group that has supported the policy for two decades, told CNBC  that in addition to its environmental and health toll, Hochul’s reversal will cost New Yorkers billions in lost productivity and fuel.

But the problem with Kathy Hochul’s climate policy is even bigger. Weeks after that Vatican visit, she’s ending the legislative session with no meaningful climate advancement. While congestion pricing is the most publicized disaster, it’s not the only one.

Hochul and the legislature are also ending budget season without passing the HEAT Act, which would have required the state’s public service commission to decrease reliance on gas, ended the state’s legal obligation to supply gas to any ratepayer who wants it, and protected low-income consumers from paying more than 6 percent of their income in utility bills. HEAT passed the Senate, but while the governor talked big on its key points early this year, she ultimately did not pressure the Assembly to pass it, and her congestion pricing debacle is widely blamed for derailing talks on HEAT that could have brought all parties to an agreement.

Hochul is also moving too slowly on implementing BPRA. Three big offshore wind projects fell apart in April, threatening the state’s ability to meet its renewable energy goals. Wind and solar are not expanding in New York at scale. The New York Power Authority is minimizing the problem publicly and seems slow to use its legislatively given capacities to build renewables, advocates agree. At a rally in front of the governor’s midtown Manhattan office this week by the Public Power Coalition, speakers emphasized that Hochul must use BPRA’s powers to scale up the energy transition, rather than, as Assemblyman Zohran Kwame Mamdani said from the podium, treating “our climate mandates as suggestions.”

Finally, while both Houses passed a climate “superfund” bill, similar to Vermont’s, which would hold fossil fuel companies responsible for paying to mitigate damage from climate change and funding related infrastructure improvements, Hochul has not signed it yet. The superfund bill is expected to raise $3 billion a year.

It’s not as if New York has entirely squandered the ample public appetite for good climate policy. The New York Power Authority has been scaling up its administrative capacities. A gas ban in new construction—passed last year—will take effect over the next six years. The Champlain Hudson Power Express, a transmission line bringing hydropower from Canada to New York City, is expected to be operational by early 2026, and could provide about 20 percent of the city’s energy needs and a national model for adapting the grid for renewables. Two big offshore wind projects are supposed to come to fruition, also in 2026. New York City’s Local Law 154 continues to reduce building emissions, the city’s biggest source of carbon pollution. The governor has deployed some of the funding from past legislative achievements to fund numerous climate resiliency and decarbonization projects (all of which she talked up at the Vatican).

But none of that emerges from this year’s legislative and budget session, which concluded this week. Pete Sikora of New York Communities for Change called the sessions “total losses” when he spoke to me: “a disaster when we have negative time to waste.”

It’s not too late for the governor to change course. Hochul could walk back her obstruction of congestion pricing, though that is seen as unlikely given her recent, emphatic public remarks on the subject. A source of greater suspense is the climate “superfund,” which she has till the end of the year to sign. “Right now, New York is going backwards on climate change,” said Sikora. “So it’s my hope that she feels pressure to act on the issue and signs it.”

As a New York resident, I share the governor’s concern about this week’s heat wave—my phone also tells me there’s an air quality warning today, and I’m already worried that making outdoor plans for the weekend could be reckless. But I’m not just fretting about what might happen this week. I’m worried that we lack political leadership capable of planning ahead and protecting us from the worst impacts of climate change. If the governor is truly concerned about these crazy heat waves, she’ll cut the nonsense and throw her full support behind crucial policies that will keep them from getting worse.