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Act Local, Think Global

Combatting NYC's L train-shutdown and beyond with renewable energy.
Rafael Espinal

This is an opinion piece by NYC city council member Rafael Espinal.

On one cold winter day in New York, I was thousands of miles away, swimming in a river on the tropical island of the Dominican Republic. Being away from the congested roads, concrete covered neighborhoods and trash filled enclaves helped put me in touch with the environment. Back home, my colleagues in the New York City Council were in the midst of a contentious fight on a bill that would impose a fee on consumers who use plastic bags for their groceries in order to curb the amount of bags that pollute our waterways and communities. I was not ready to vote in favor of the bill. The law would have negatively affected the plastic bag manufacturing businesses that would in-turn impact the jobs and livelihoods of their employees. Dozens of people from my own Brooklyn community depended on those jobs, not to mention the thousands of low-income residents, who would be disproportionately affected by the fee.


As I was wading in the clear waters of the Dominican river, I noticed countless plastic bags, styrofoam cups, and empty chip bags working their way downstream. I felt disgusted and helpless. How could the Dominican government not have tighter regulations to keep their natural environments clean? How could people just dump their shit into the river? There was nothing I could do about it there, but there was something I could do back home.

I had to vote in favor of the bag fee. My thinking was, reducing plastic bag consumption in NYC would ultimately protect our planet, and the jobs won't exist without a habitable environment.

The bill passed.

For 18-plus months, presidential candidates debated how to tackle climate change. I am proud to have been the first of the few elected officials from New York to endorse Senator Bernie Sanders. At the age of 31, I took a huge political risk by bucking the Democratic establishment. But it was important to me to represent my generation and back the most aggressive candidate on the issues that affect our planet and society's future. Unfortunately, we now have a federal administration that outwardly rejects scientific (and logical) reasoning of the very existence of climate change.

While we might not be able to influence nationwide policy under a Republican-controlled Congress or presidency, we can-- and must-- push our local leaders to resist the federal damage by looking to local solutions.


Our job is to channel that energy locally to our City Council members, state reps and mayors because cities tend to emulate progressive laws that are passed in other municipalities. Ideas for legislation can cause a ripple effect, and send a message across the country. Blips on a map begin to form a movement nationwide.

Believe me when I say this: laws that benefit you move swiftly through government not because one elected official wakes up in the morning and has an idea great enough to whip up votes, but because people build support around it.

Now more than ever, we have to rally and urge local governments to tackle climate change issues. A UN report shows that cities contribute 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that the fight against climate change begins with us.

Push your local legislators to fight for your neighborhoods to run on 100 percent renewable energy. Push them for an expansion of composting and recycling programs to decrease the amount of your waste going into landfills. Push them to require green roofs on all new buildings.
This week, I'm joining the Sierra Club to call on the New York MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) to make an expeditious transition from fossil fuel buses to an electric bus fleet, especially now while they plan to temporarily shutdown Brooklyn's beloved L train. Converting the entire fleet to renewable energy will result in a reduction of emissions in NYC of 575K metric tons of equivalent carbon dioxide, making it easier for us to breathe -- it'd even save New Yorker's $100 each on their yearly health care bills. How's that for local?

It starts with us, and it starts today. If you call your local city or state legislator, they'll answer the phone. If you tweet, they'll reply. If you mobilize, your city will take action, and that action will be heard across the country -- who knows, maybe even across the world.