Propaganda Wars and Hidden Lobbyists: What Is(n’t) Wrong with New York’s Climate Plans?

Why the fossil fuel industry has successfully transformed consumer opinion of green energy in New York, and what can be done about it.

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New York State has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. This is nothing new—the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) was passed in 2019 after California implemented a similar plan in 2018. This means New York has just seven years to hit this ambitious target. With a long history of the world failing to meet similar climate goals (think the Paris Accords), perhaps it is no surprise that New York has only reduced gross emissions by eight percent since 2019. But that is not all—nefarious actors preventing emission reduction are at play.

New York has been no stranger to the impacts of climate change. Wildfire smoke has clouded our skies orange. Invasive species have been prospering as the once-harsh New York winters mellow. Freak storms and prolonged sticky weather have soured the summers. One would think that with such evident proof of our changing climate, policymakers would be less hesitant to take action. However, recent pushes from the fossil fuel industry have further backtracked the CLCPA’s agenda to much admonition from climate action groups, such as NY Renews, that fought so hard to pass the legislation in the first place. The most recent target of lobbyists has been Governor Kathy Hochul’s new plan requiring new construction to use exclusively renewable energy starting in 2025, a key stepping stone to curbing the impacts of climate change and likely an incredible hit to the coffers of the fossil fuel industry. It is by no means a perfect plan, as few are. But it is a start, especially in contrast to what many other states across the United States have done, which is to ratify laws forbidding the government from mandating the type of electricity that home and business owners use in buildings.

Groups under innocuous names such as “Smarter NY Energy” and “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy” have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into propaganda campaigns denouncing any efforts to reach carbon neutrality. Online ads on social media platforms have been among the most favored of these campaigns, with Smarter NY Energy spending up to $116,000 on Facebook advertisements alone, targeting future New York home and business owners as well as construction companies. Senate housing chair Brian Kavanagh explained that such tactics effectively target the sense of attachment that people have to their gas stoves. However, the problem lies somewhat deeper than that. Fossil fuel lobbyists have campaigned an image of affordability to the working class, which is common rhetoric within right-leaning politics. This furthers the preconceived notion that many have today: green energy is simply too expensive, too futuristic, and too new.

Despite the fossil fuel industry’s success in proliferating this message, it simply isn’t true. In fact, electricity bills rose by an average of 9.1 percent last month as Consolidated Edison Inc. raced to keep up with the rising cost of electricity production, a fact that Better Buildings New York, a coalition of environmental activism groups, has spent up to $37,000 highlighting on Facebook. However, no amount of social media broadcasting can compete with the overbearing reach of the oil media, and besides, propaganda alone doesn’t win wars. If the problem is that consumers doubt the affordability of non-gas stoves, then the solution is to make them believe in it. In 2015, New York State subsidized the replacement of wood-burning pellet stoves and boilers to encourage consumers to find alternative sources of fuel. The same should be done to replace fossil fuel-powered stoves. Subsidies have been proven to be among the most useful economic mechanisms in controlling public consumption decisions. With both the financial benefits of electric power and subsidies facilitating the transition, the only obstacle still standing on the path to a greener future is the greed of fossil fuel companies.

Government policy should not cater to the demands of an industry insistent on ruining the quality of life of global citizens for the rest of time. It is undeniable that the fossil fuel industry has an uncertain future. Perhaps it is wishful thinking that as more consumers opt for subsidized renewable energy, the fossil fuel industry will recognize its changing consumer base and also begin producing renewable alternatives. But fuel companies such as BP have already begun the transition, with nearly 30 percent of their spending being allocated to investment into renewables. Much like with consumers and with every other problem in the world, the solution may be money. It is safe to say that in the short term, the propaganda campaigns will continue. But with the help of subsidies, consumers may realize the monetary and moral incentives of switching over to renewable energy, prompting the industry to do the same.