COMMENTARY

Only Democratic governors — not Joe Biden — can protect the U.S. at this point

Our entire recent history would be completely different if it weren't for our dependence on fossil fuels

By Heather Digby Parton

Published March 28, 2022 9:59AM (EDT)

New York Governor Kathy Hochul holds COVID-19 briefing and makes an announcement at State Executive office on 3rd Avenue, Manhattan, September 9, 2021. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
New York Governor Kathy Hochul holds COVID-19 briefing and makes an announcement at State Executive office on 3rd Avenue, Manhattan, September 9, 2021. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

MSNBC's Chris Hayes recently offered an astute analysis of our global state of affairs, suggesting that this war between Russia and Ukraine signifies a break with a recent past defined by the threat of terrorism — one that presents a more serious global authoritarian challenge to liberal democracy.

Yale Professor Timothy Snyder, an expert on democracy, agreed with Hayes about the challenges. He pointed out that there was one thru line from 9/11 to what's happening in Ukraine today: hydrocarbons.

Osama bin Laden would be unthinkable without Saudi Arabia and oil. And Vladimir Putin is unthinkable without Russian natural gas and oil. In 2001, I remember advising friends at the time that this is the time we should be aiming to solve climate change, because geopolitically we need to do that. 21 years later we are facing another threat.

It's as though our entire recent history would be completely different if it weren't for our dependence on fossil fuels.

Donald Trump, for his part, has a vague recognition of this, although he has no understanding of what it all means. In fact, he has everything backward. On a recent podcast, he was asked about the situation in Ukraine:

"Well, and I said this a long time ago, we are playing right into their hands with the green energy," Trump began. "The windmills. They don't work. They're too expensive. They kill all the birds. They ruin your landscapes. Yet, the environmentalists love the windmills. I've been preaching this for years. The windmills. I had them way down. The windmills are the most expensive energy you can have, and they don't work. They last a period of 10 years and by the time they start rusting and rotting all over the place nobody ever takes them down. They just go onto the next piece of prairie or land and destroy that. It's incredible."

Yes, that's Trump being Trump, and what he's saying is completely absurd, as usual. But the fact that his mind goes to green energy when he's asked about Ukraine shows that he's heard something about hydrocarbons being at the heart of the problem but doesn't really understand it so he digresses into a long disquisition on the hated windmills.

Renewable energy is actually our only way out of an already protracted fight over fossil fuels and the only solution to the increasingly dire prospect of irreversible climate change. This is an existential crisis and leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, as well as all the vastly wealthy gas and oil interests, are pushing us to the point of no return faster than anyone anticipated.

The good news is that there does seem to be some movement.

The man who decides what legislation we are allowed to have, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (who has made millions from coal interests), has indicated that he might be willing to tax some rich people and use some of the money for clean energy (but also require that domestic oil, gas and coal production be increased.) We're long past the time that we can afford to be promoting more fossil fuel development, but politically speaking that seems to be the only hope for movement with this Congress, as pathetic as that is.

Still, there is some action taking place on climate change at the state level that may lead the way to bigger solutions.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, for instance, has announced a comprehensive plan to get her state off of natural gas by making New York the first state to ban gas connections in new homes and office buildings starting in 2027. She has proposed that New York build 1 million electrified homes and an additional 1 million electrification-ready homes by 2030 and proposed legislation to ensure that all new construction across the Empire State is zero-emissions within the next five years.

According to Greenbiz, in New York about 70 percent of carbon emissions come from buildings, so Hochul has also announced the awarding of $20 million as part of the $50 million Empire Building Challenge, administered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority bringing together New York real estate partners and engineering consultants to figure out ways to decarbonize all those tall buildings.

There is precedent for doing this and it's very cost-efficient:

A decade ago, a deep retrofit of the Empire State Building reduced energy demand in the iconic skyscraper by more than a third. The now-archetypal project, which involved manufacturing 6,514 super-windows on-site, avoided costly upgrades to the central cooling system and achieved a shocking three-year simple payback.

I don't think the Trump Organization was asked to participate for many reasons, but most especially since Hochul plans to replace some of the energy lost from the natural gas ban with, you guessed it: windmill power. Construction has already started on a project off the coasts of Long Island and Rhode Island with more expected to come.

Hochul's agenda is very ambitious and it's unknown if she's going to be able to get all this through the legislature. Needless to say, it won't be easy. Real estate and energy interests have gone into overdrive lobbying against it and they have a whole lot of money and political clout in the state. Green jobs are good jobs and all of these infrastructure upgrades will be able to improve indoor air quality as well, something that must be done to protect public health as well. There's no good argument against it from the perspective of average people.

If this big program passes it's almost assured that California and a dozen other states will follow, many of which contain big population centers making it possible to have a real impact on climate change. With gridlock in Washington being so intractable this may be the only way to make any progress on these issues. 


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Climate Change Commentary Donald Trump Kathy Hochul Ukraine