Bill de Blasio is the 109th Mayor of New York City. You may follow him on Twitter @deBlasioNYC
I THINK it is fair to say that Pope Francis is the most powerful voice on Earth for those all over the world whose voices are not being heard. He has brought the issue of inequality to the fore of the international stage, and, in his path-breaking 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, has shown not only how it directly connects to issues of climate change and sustainable development, but also how it undermines the stability of all our societies.
In advocating that we upend the status quo, the Pope challenges us all: he challenges us, as citizens, not to be slavish to consumerism—rather to rise above it. He also challenges us not to be captives, as leaders, to powerful corporate interests. His encyclical is not a call to arms; it is a call to sanity.
We have to ask ourselves, who in their right mind skimps on the things that allow us to sustain life? How do we justify holding back on any effort that may meaningfully improve the economic, social, and environmental reality of our cities? Which political allies, or generous financial backers, or even vocal constituencies, are more important to us than preserving life for future generations? How could any version of business as usual make sense at this moment in history?
The Pope has made the depth of the challenge we all face together plainly obvious, putting to rest any impulse to incrementalism or partial solutions. The argument he has put forward demands urgent and larger solutions now—and has expanded the space within which we can put forward a platform to ensure we succeed in our work.
One New York
New York City has already taken a number of audacious steps in that regard. We have developed a plan that sets out what we need to do in order to improve our city, prepare our citizens for the twenty-first-century economy, make our government more responsive, confront the threat of climate change, and fulfill the promise of sustainable development.
Our plan very clearly integrates the notion that economic sustainability and environmental sustainability go hand in hand. The reason is simple: it has become virtually inconceivable to separate those notions anymore. An environmentalist who does not care about economic justice, or someone who fights for the rights of working people and the poor but does not think the environment matters—those two ends of the spectrum are missing the fact that these two pieces have now become inextricable.
We cannot create economic opportunity and fairness if we do not address climate change. We cannot address climate change if we do not create a world where there is actually true opportunity for all—and true leadership from the grassroots.
All of these pieces come together. In our plan, they are fully integrated. We call it One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City. OneNYC is an ambitious plan that addresses every aspect of life in our city. In it, we stated that we had to change the very concept of urban planning. Previously, my predecessor Michael Bloomberg had done a great thing. He created a plan—a much more comprehensive plan for New York City than ever had existed before—called PlaNYC. And it focused on population growth; the fact that New York City is well on its way to nine million people as a population—just within our city limits, even before one takes into consideration the greater metropolitan area. It focused on economic growth and diversification, as well as on resiliency and sustainability—all noble; all important; and a lot of great specifics that sparked action.
But we recognized the growing inequality crisis gripping our city and gripping our nation. So we updated the plan, and thought about how to put metrics into the equation that are bold and demand equality and fairness economically, while at the same time demanding sustainability.
One of the things I said when we announced this plan was to think about the fact that we all, as leaders, strive for environmental sustainability and for economic inclusion, but think about how incomplete society would be with just one rather than the other. A wonderfully environmentally-sustainable city or nation in which inequality was rampant—and there was no actual economic inclusion—would be considered a failure. Equally, the most economically prosperous city or nation that was slowly degrading environmentally would also be considered a failure.
We now have to raise both bars simultaneously—and, thank God, they intersect.
There are tremendous positive economic opportunities in truly reworking our environmental sensibility. Imagine how much employment will be created around renewable energy, around the restoration of our wetlands, and recycling, and so many other areas of economic endeavor that are specifically related to sustainability. There is so much potential that we have only begun to tap in marrying together environmental sustainability and economic sustainability.
In my view, it is obvious that we have no choice but to go down the road and find what’s possible. So, in the OneNYC plan, we borrowed from the example of California and set a goal of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions being 80 percent lower by 2050 than they were in 2005 (80x50). What we found in the process was that there were many artificial roadblocks we had to account for and overcome.
There was bureaucratic intransigence. We like to believe we have a fairly progressive and advanced governmental personnel cohort in New York City, but we immediately found in many meetings the classic formulation: “this is not the way we’ve done things before.” And I have a rule whenever I am in a meeting and someone from the civil service tells me that something hasn’t been done that way before: I immediately tell them that this is exactly why we are going to go in a different direction, and that we don’t really allow that sentence in our meetings. Simply put, it’s an automatic disqualifier.
The OneNYC plan also has financial obligations—fiscal challenges, but fiscal challenges related to survival. New York City is a coastal city, and so—especially after Hurricane Sandy—climate change is very personal for us. Fiscal investments related to survival seem rather justified. So, in terms of any sense of budgetary prioritization, it made sense to advance those investments and also look at what they could do for us economically—the job creation that could go with it.
In addition to having to overcome internal roadblocks, we came to face challenges from the private sector. What we said was very simple: the private sector had two choices in New York City; and this was particularly true vis-à-vis building retrofits—because we are so densely populated, our biggest pollution challenge comes from our buildings. So we said, let’s work on finding a cooperative model where the city government will sit down with our real estate community and our major business sectors to come up with a pathway to 80x50 together. Let’s try getting it done voluntarily. We think there are a lot of enlightened people in the business community who would be willing to embrace that notion and who also understand that this is good for their bottom lines. However, if after a year or so has passed we do not find sufficient progress with a voluntary model, we would go to a mandate model.
There is an important lesson to be taken away from this. We will constantly find people—business leaders and leaders of other constituencies—telling us why we need to go slower or keep our goals lower. And at this moment in history, we have passed the inflection point. That’s part of our past. We cannot talk about half-measures anymore.
So I believe fundamentally in the notion of giving our private sector friends an opportunity to come along peacefully; and if that is not going to work, to enact strong and clear mandates.
And I believe that such an approach has tremendous public support, because the change we have seen in public consciousness over the last few years around these issues really should put the wind in the sails of our more aggressive efforts to compel private sector action.
Similarly to how we developed the 80x50 goal, the OneNYC plan has also set a goal of having zero percent of our waste stream go to landfill over the next two decades. In a city like ours, such a goal seems to be an outrageous concept at first blush.
But we looked at each of the component parts and realized it was achievable if we were willing to truly break with past practice—if we were willing to do tremendous, extensive public education and make key investments. We also learned—as with so many of these areas—that those investments would not only be good for the environment, but that they will ultimately save us a lot of money. Once again, under OneNYC, short-term investment results in long-term gain—both environmentally and fiscally.
One of the most important aspects of OneNYC is that having gone through the environmental goals, we then asked the equality question. As we did so, it became clear that the level of inequality in our city was so rampant that we had to do something very different, because we found it simply unacceptable that almost two million New Yorkers live below our federal poverty level. And there are almost four million New Yorkers at or near our poverty level. This means that millions are barely able to make ends meet—particularly because we have some of the highest housing costs in the nation.
It is truly astounding that whereas New York is, on its face, a prosperous city with a great and diversified economy and so many other strengths, underneath it all one sees that a huge percentage of our population is either literally in poverty or barely getting by economically. We decided we had to address this issue very directly: through the prism of setting high goals, and that it had to connect to our sustainability goals. So we set a simple challenge for ourselves: to bring 800,000 people out of poverty over the next decade—that’s almost a tenth of our population.
OneNYC will do this through a variety of investments by the City in areas like affordable housing to lower people’s costs and improve their family economics. It will also be accomplished by increasing minimum wage and benefit levels—through what we could do as a city, and what other levels of government could do—as well as through pushing our private sector to compensate people better.
We decided to marry the poverty reduction goal to the 80x50 goal, because we found them equally necessary for a sustainable society, and we thought the same concept applied in both cases.
The very act of setting goals starts to change behavior. It tells the public that the aspiration is formalized and serious; it tells all other stakeholders that they will be held to account against this formal decision by the City of New York; it sends a message to our federal and state governments, as well as our private sector, that they too will be judged against the standards we have set; and, finally, setting goals makes us discipline ourselves—we force ourselves each day to take action related to the goals we have set.
Setting such high and ambitious goals forces our hand in a much deeper and, one hopes, more noble way. It harkens back to the New Deal era under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a high watermark for the United States in terms of audacious goals that shockingly came true.
There is power that comes with setting goals—many of which in the first instance seemed impossible to attain. Over time, they became so prevalent in the minds of Americans—taking shape and coming true over time.