Op-Ed: What labor thinks NYC should do to tackle climate change

climate change and ice ages concept
Climate change and ice ages concept.
Image from 123rf

The warning signs are clear: just this month, a group of world-renowned scientists reiterated their call for international leaders to immediately take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or risk going down the path of irreversible climate disaster.

This is not a faraway issue for everyday New Yorkers. We’ve witnessed in New York how Superstorms Sandy and Ida caused billions of dollars of damage and flooded our streets, homes, and schools.

As Council Members elected to look after the best interests of our constituents, we know we need to take immediate action to address the climate crisis and move New York towards a just green energy economy.

Through our work as Chairs of the Committee on Education and the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, we know our schools are an essential place for tackling the climate crisis and showing the world, once again, that New York is a leader. We’re rallying our constituents, our colleagues on the City Council, and Mayor Adams around a plan to transform our city through a major investment in Carbon Free and Healthy Schools.

Our public school system impacts nearly every New Yorker — us included. Together, as a former public elementary school teacher for over 20 years and a mother of a daughter attending public school, we both know firsthand the aging school infrastructure and the need for modern and green upgrades.

With the average school building having been built 70 years ago[1] . Our students and teachers are all too aware that schools have outdated HVAC systems, with 1 in 4 schools[2]  having no air conditioning system at all. As a result, the vast majority of our public schools rely on burning fossil fuels, contributing to ongoing pollution and costing the Department of Education $275 million[3]  annually in public money.

Crucially, our aging infrastructure doesn’t have equal impacts in every community. Black and Latino children in New York are more likely[4]  to attend schools in dire need of repairs and live in more heavily-polluted areas. In our districts, covering neighborhoods like Washington Heights, Inwood, Marble Hill, and Flatbush, we see higher rates[5]  of our youth being hospitalized due to asthma and other issues stemming from air pollution than in higher-income, less diverse neighborhoods.

Every child, no matter their race or their family’s income, deserves to live and learn in a neighborhood that won’t poison them. It’s unacceptable that our City has failed to maintain its school buildings and that the climate crisis threatens to make things even worse. But we refuse to give in to despair or hopelessness.

That’s why we fully support the campaign, organized by union workers across our city, to invest in Carbon Free and Healthy Schools, a bold plan to modernize all of our public school buildings with green infrastructure and cut 75,000 tons of carbon emissions – an amount equivalent to taking 141,000 cars off of the road.

The Carbon Free and Healthy Schools plan would be transformational: it would institute energy audits and retrofits of each school, repair and replace HVAC systems, invest in climate resiliency upgrades, and electrify our fleet of school buses. It would make use of schools’ large rooftops to generate solar power and increase school buildings’ overall energy efficiency.

In the process, it would create tens of thousands of new union jobs throughout the city, providing a pathway to union careers in industries like carpentry, solar panel, and HVAC installation, roofing, and plumbing for young New Yorkers in the communities that need them most.

By drawing on a mix of federal, state, and city funding sources, we can make Carbon Free and Healthy Schools a reality by the next decade. We can show other cities across the country a model for how to build a green, resilient school system for all students regardless of what neighborhood they live in.

When the leading international climate scientists give us a warning, we’re obligated to act. Carbon Free and Healthy Schools is the step we must take to finally begin to address the impending climate crisis while also creating union jobs across the city and addressing generations of racial injustice in our neighborhoods.

Now’s the time to get this done — with a strong coalition of climate groups and labor unions standing with us, and with a new Mayor ready to make his mark, we can build a sustainable, climate-resilient public school system for all New Yorkers.

Gary LaBarbera is the Building Trades President, and Vincent Alvarez is the NYC Central Labor Council President.

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