Uncool New York

Illustration by Patrick Thomas

Maybe it was three days before Christmas, when I went shopping in midtown in my shirtsleeves. It might have been when I jogged in shorts because it was 70 degrees outside—on January 6. Or perhaps it was last Wednesday, when the sight of snow flurries outside my window left me more excited than my 4-year-old daughter. Regardless of the specific moment, the thought was clear: I’m sure glad this global-warming thing is a myth, or else I’d be very scared.

This winter the cultural recognition of global warming has reached a decisive point. When my falafel guy, working in an open-air booth, pauses while making a sandwich to remove his coat and say, with fear in his eyes, “We’ve messed up the planet,” then a broad and apolitical acceptance has sunk in.

So what do we do about it? Partly because there isn’t going to be any meaningful help from George Bush, and the U.S. isn’t going to be changing its mind and joining the Kyoto Protocol, we’re at the beginning of a movement to take responsibility at the local level. Whether it’s biking to work or unplugging cell-phone chargers when they’re not in use, individual action is rapidly accelerating. And the ripples from some individual New Yorkers affect thousands of other lives: James Hansen, the nasa scientist whom the White House tried to silence last year when he dared state the climate-change facts in public, is headquartered up at Columbia. The new offices of the New York Times will be an ecological marvel, with lights that dim or brighten according to the level of ambient sunlight. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs are finding ways to make money off the growing market in carbon-emissions credits. Larry Silverstein may have dragged his feet on building the Freedom Tower, but the developer was ahead of the curve when he rebuilt 7 World Trade, among the greenest skyscrapers in the country.

But there are limits to how much individuals, even powerful developers, can accomplish. Dramatic progress on the big, expensive issues, like cleaning up power plants, is only going to come with political will. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been cruising through his second term. At this point, with a gaudy approval rating, Bloomberg should be willing to risk his popularity on behalf of a life-and-death subject. But on global warming, Bloomberg has so far been more gesture than guts.

In some respects, New York deserves to do more boasting. The fact that we depend on mass transit is a huge advantage over car-addicted cities. New York is a model citizen when it comes to energy efficiency. In his first term, Bloomberg ordered that traffic lightbulbs be switched to higher-efficiency LEDs and agreed that when the city buys new vehicles, the cars and trucks must be the cleanest in their class. New city buildings must meet stringent low-emission standards.

Yet when environmental advocates list the most climate-conscious cities, they put New York behind London, Chicago, and even Portland, Oregon, for crying out loud. L.A. has boosted the use of solar power by giving subsidies to customers who install photovoltaic systems. Portland is requiring that computers use new energy-efficient power packs. However, London has made the biggest splash, cutting vehicle emissions by 20 percent through the use of congestion pricing.

It is only now, five years into his reign, that Bloomberg has started considering the broader changes that could bring striking improvements—and that might inflict short-term political pain. In December, he raised the stakes at a flashy press conference in Flushing Meadows, introducing his “sustainability” agenda for the city through 2030. The speech was long on meritorious goals and almost completely free of specifics. Those are supposed to arrive in March or April. (Eliot Spitzer, likewise, has to back up his environmentally enlightened rhetoric.)

The mayor’s sustainability brain trust is headed by Rohit Aggarwala, an academic expert in city history who was working as a management consultant at the ubiquitous McKinsey & Co. before being hired by Dan Doctoroff. The task force is mulling anti-car ideas that could stir serious rage—like shrinking the number of parking spaces in Manhattan. But Bloomberg punted on congestion pricing, which would have cut traffic and pollution, because he considers it politically impractical, and he’s far more likely to pursue technocratic and financial avenues. “Between 60 and 70 percent of all the carbon emissions in the city are generated by existing buildings,” Doctoroff says. “So a big chunk can be done by incentivizing owners of buildings to retrofit. And you can incentivize the cleaner generation of power. We’ll come up with some interesting financial structures to encourage people to clean up buildings and power plants.”

Encouragement is an excellent concept. And Bloomberg might be right to avoid getting bogged down in headline-generating attacks on drivers. Unfortunately, creating real movement sometimes requires a sharp whack on the butt, and Bloomberg’s record on stickier anti-pollution measures is decidedly mixed. In 2002, for instance, City Councilman David Yassky introduced a bill to require that the city’s vast army of yellow cabs go green—that all taxi owners be forced to switch from gas-burning Crown Victorias to cleaner gas-electric hybrids. Predictably, the fleet owners fought ferociously against the change—arguing that the hybrids were more expensive to buy, that the hybrids didn’t have a well-established repair network, and that hybrids provided two inches less legroom.

At this point, Bloomberg should be prepared to risk popularity on a life-and-death issue like global warming.

Yassky compromised, putting forth a plan that gradually phased in the hybrids and added an incentive. Taxi owners had been required to buy a new vehicle every three years. Yassky proposed extending the life cycle to five years for hybrid buyers and shortening it to eighteen months for those with gas-only machines.

The fleet owners pushed back for more than three years, finally accepting the carrot but defeating the stick, mostly thanks to the work of their lobbyists. But the cab companies had an unexpected ally: the Bloomberg administration, which backed only minor changes. There are now a mere 381 clean cabs on the road—out of 13,000, the majority of which get twelve miles per gallon as they prowl the streets 24 hours a day. “Encouragement” has failed. If Bloomberg thinks congestion pricing is too politically messy, and he is unwilling to force a couple of thousand cab owners to clean up their acts and our air, is he really going to muscle tens of thousands of property owners to retrofit their buildings?

Smoking and trans fats hardly make a legacy. But snow in the winter? That might be something to brag about.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

Uncool New York