New York wastes a historic opportunity

Global warming is probably the most important and urgent issue we face - a problem that will increase inequality, disease, involuntary migration, warfare, and starvation as people try to adjust to shrinking resources and more frequent weather disasters. While the rich countries will spend massively to deal with climate problems that could have been prevented (and I guarantee those funds will come out of social spending rather than military spending), the poor countries - which are going to bear the brunt of climate fluctuations and are least equipped to deal with it - will mostly fail to adapt. Expect millions of people to die or be displaced in places like Bangladesh and Africa. Fighting global warming is not just an environmental issue, it's also a social justice issue. Global warming will also cause mass extinctions among other species, and impose a terrible cost on future generations.

The response of those who have caused the problem - overwhelmingly the rich countries - has fallen far short of what's needed. While Europe and Japan have made halting, if inadequate, progress, the United States has actually obstructed global efforts while doing almost nothing at home. The Bush administration has been the biggest obstacle, but given the terror among legislators of being seen to raise the price of electricity or gas, it's not clear that even a liberal president would have made much progress.

That's why Bloomberg's congestion pricing proposal for New York was so heartening. Here was a politician stepping up to do exactly what's needed: raising the cost of driving and devoting the revenues to public transit. A massive coalition of environmentalist, labor, and business groups came out in support of congestion pricing, the City Council voted to endorse the plan, the governor and leader of the state senate signed on. Even so, the plan is now dead, killed by the speaker of New York's lower house without even a vote.

This is bitterly disappointing. New York could have led the way for the rest of the country, but instead we face another setback - and it's far too late in the game to once again be moving backward. I hope New Yorkers will punish their legislators at the polls, but it seems increasingly unlikely that global warming is going to be addressed until a popular and militant mobilization forces both the politicians and the public to face what they're doing. After all, politicians aren't stupid - congestion pricing didn't fail because of big oil, it failed because of popular support for car culture.

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