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Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City, Part 3

The city's economic reality flipped 180 degrees. The budget deficit reached $4 billion. Bloomberg's climate plan would suffer, but only briefly.

Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci

Nov 20, 2013

Global warming experts around the world say New York City's plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and safeguard itself from the perils of climate change are a model for other cities. But most Americans, including New Yorkers, know little or nothing about this achievement, or that it was driven by Michael Bloomberg, who next month ends his third term as New York's mayor. Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City helps fill that gap.

It is being published in five installments on our website (read Part 1 and Part 2), but we encourage our readers to download our ICN Books App and purchase a full copy of the e-book. The ICN Books version is enhanced with video, audio and other extras, and 70 percent of the purchase price comes back to us to support our ongoing work.

Chapter Five: Accept it, Move On

The Plan Presses On

In his speech in Washington, D.C. on April 8, 2008, Bloomberg didn't hide his bitterness over his loss in Albany. Legislators "didn't even have the courage to vote on it—they just killed it in a back room. That's not leadership," he said.

Congestion pricing was important, he added, "but let me make something crystal clear this morning. The other 126 initiatives are important, too, many of which … require no approval by any other level or branch of government."

The mayor's sustainability team moved a little more slowly over the next couple months, exhausted and drained by the loss of one of their most ambitious projects. They had launched many smaller initiatives during the congestion-pricing fight. Now, with just 18 months remaining in Bloomberg's second term, they had to rally again and get more initiatives into place to preserve their environmental agenda under future mayors.

In the Bullpen, digital countdown clocks bore the message "Make Every Day Count" and flashed red numbers reminding them of their deadline.

In May the City Council made the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability a permanent fixture in the New York City bureaucracy. It also mandated that PlaNYC be updated every four years and codified the city's greenhouse gas reduction targets and water quality initiatives. 

That summer, the city assembled a Green Codes Task Force, a group of 200 experts in design and construction who pored over 4,000 pages of building codes to find ways to make it easier to build green in the city. The mayor had already added sustainability measures to the codes. Now they were taking a deeper dive.

In September, the PlaNYC team took one of its most important and innovative steps: It formed the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an independent organization modeled after the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York would be the first major city to produce its own climate projections—data that would inform policymakers about how climate change could impact the city's 520 miles of coastline.

At the same time, Bloomberg launched another group, the Climate Change Adaptation Task Force. It asked leaders from 40 city, state and federal agencies and private companies to figure out how to protect New York’s critical infrastructure from the effects of climate change.

Not all of the sustainability office's plans were falling into place.

New rules to convert the city's taxi fleet to hybrids, for instance, hit a major roadblock. A taxi industry group filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the plan, which delayed the rules from taking effect on October 1 as scheduled.

The PlaNYC agenda, now one year in, was also the subject of scrutiny.

Some complained of what they saw as a gaping hole in the mayor's agenda: social equity issues in low-income neighborhoods. PlaNYC included plans for 165,000 affordable housing units, but a well-rounded growth agenda should go further, they argued. It should also improve access to quality education and health care and address homelessness and unemployment. "If sustainability is not just and inclusive, is it sustainable?" asked Tom Angotti, a professor of planning at Hunter College.

Environmentalists argued that Bloomberg wasn't moving quickly enough to revitalize the waterfront, improve regional parks and redevelop abandoned industrial sites. "Much still needs to be done," said the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Panic on Wall Street

For most New Yorkers, however, PlaNYC and the city's sustainability push was the last thing on their minds. They weren't thinking about going green, they were thinking about whether they'd soon be out of a job because of the growing financial troubles on Wall Street.

In March 2008, JPMorgan Chase acquired Bear Stearns for a fraction of what the global investment bank was once worth. Housing prices throughout the nation were sliding fast, with millions of homeowners defaulting on their mortgages. Wall Street firms watched the value of subprime mortgage securities—now deemed "toxic" assets—plummet.

Nowhere was this frenzied period of financial chaos more acutely visible than on Wall Street, the storied maze of cobblestone streets where Bloomberg made a name for himself in the 1970s as a bond trader.

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