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Betrayal, It’s Not the Sunrise Movement, It Is the Governor of New York

A plea not to be angry with the youth.

I had another piece planned for today, and I will get back to it soon—it will deliver a certain amount of good news. But events intervened. I try not to write out of anger, but on occasion it overtakes me, and yesterday’s actions by the governor of New York were so shockingly cynical that—fair warning—I’m indulging some of that fury.

But as I begin, a plea not to be angry with the youth. There was a mild kerfluffle on the climate interwebs yesterday, when the Sunrise Movement—the youthful progenitors of the Green New Deal—announced that they weren’t yet ready to endorse Joe Biden for president. The keyboard gladiators of the status quo—led as usual in their chivalrous charge by the reliable down-puncher Matt Yglesias—crackled with indignation at the young folks.

lmao — I hope everyone who gassed this institution up with money and coverage is proud of themselves

I am an unrepentant supporter of Sunrise, so let me explain. I knew many of their first generation of leaders, who had cut their teeth on the fossil fuel divestment campaign; wanting to fight on after college, they’d formed Sunrise, ginned up the Green New Deal, and used a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office, with AOC in attendance, to give it oxygen. Their tactics worked—they were a big reason that by the 2020 Democratic primaries ‘climate change’ was the number one issue for huge numbers of voters. They were obvious Sanders supporters, but when he lost they swallowed hard, and took part in the negotiations that produced a united Democratic front for Biden: indeed, Sunrise’s director, Varshini Prakash, was on the team that sat with a couple of key Biden aides to work out the essentials of Build Back Better. They didn’t endorse Biden, but they did work hard, and effectively, against Trump, as the youth vote in 2020 eventually demonstrated. And then they worked hard, and effectively, to pass Build Back Better, even as Joe Manchin cut it down into the Inflation Reduction Act—again they swallowed hard and backed a seriously imperfect bill. It was a rare display of political maturity and effectiveness among any progressives, let alone young ones.

Now a new generation of Sunrise volunteers is saying they can’t, yet, endorse Biden—but they’re also promising to fight hard against Donald Trump. Look, I’m fighting hard for Biden. I understand deep in my soul the existential risk Trump poses. But I also get why young people are having a hard time joining fully in—it’s because of Gaza, above all. And we do not want a world where young people would not be hideously upset by Israel’s endless bombing campaign, a campaign of immiseration clearly designed, as Biden said this week, to protect Netanyahu’s political future. Though the media has seized on every example of left obtuseness they can find (usually from middle-aged college professors), the young people I’ve watched have been clear in their condemnation both of Hamas’ repulsive violence, and of anti-Semitism. And in part because of their hard work, Biden has shown more willingness to stand up to the repugnant Netanyahu and try to end the fighting even as he works to head off a regional war. The invaluable Kate Aronoff has a fine account of the Sunrise news in the New Republic yesterday, and she even bothered to call up the head of the thing and ask what it meant.

“Do we want to be fighting for a Green New Deal under a Trump presidency or a Biden presidency? To me, the answer is pretty clear,” Stevie O’Hanlon told me earlier today. “Donald Trump winning a second term is an existential threat to our climate and our democracy and will set back the fight for a Green New Deal.”

So yes, Gaza is complicated and nuanced. But a society needs people for whom complication and nuance are not central, and these are usually young people. They offer useful clarity. And if Biden eventually loses, it will be less because young people don’t support him than because old people don’t: there are far more of us, and we are not reliably voting in defense of the values we grew up with (like, respect, decency, kindness, and not getting convicted of felonies). That’s why we at Third Act are backing Biden with all that we’ve got—we don’t like what’s happening in Gaza, but a job of older people is to bring to bear the somewhat wearying but valuable experience that simply living longer allows you to accumulate. We admire Biden for the good things he’s done, and we know that Trump can and will make the bad parts worse, beginning with his promise to radically accelerate the climate crisis. But I’m glad, for one, that the young are making the witness that they are.

Yesterday did offer a real betrayal, though, and it came from Democratic elders—most particularly New York governor Kathy Hochul. She—out of the clear blue—announced she would block New York City’s congestion pricing plan, due to go into effect January 30.

This is stupid policy—it’s the most aggressively anti-environmental stand I can recall a major Democratic governor taking, beating even Gavin Newsom’s recent demolition of rooftop and community solar in California. Congestion pricing meant that people who wanted to drive into the clogged streets of lower Manhattan would pay a $15 toll; the revenue would go to support the beleaguered transit system that actually allows New York to operate. This kind of system has been a huge success in the European cities that have tried it, like London and Milan; Manhattan (as advocates back to Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer have noted) would be an incredibly sweet place with many fewer cars. This is, as Robinson Meyer noted yesterday “tier one climate policy,” which with a success in Manhattan could quickly spread to other cities. And so there’s been a tremendous effort over decades to build out support for congestion pricing. An earlier version came close to passing years ago—lore has it that the opposition of parking garage owners carried the day in Albany. This time, though, everything was lined up: Governor Hochul had given a rousing defense of the plan in a speech just two weeks ago. I’m going to quote from it at some length, because I think it’s possible that no politician in American history has ever flip-flopped quite so thoroughly or so fast:

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Walk around many major cities and it won’t take long to encounter frustrated drivers caught in traffic jams, cars spewing exhaust on overpacked streets. We determined that the average New York City driver spends 102 hours a year stuck in traffic. Those hours add up to more than four days of your life – every year.

That’s four days sitting behind the wheel of a car instead of sitting by your kid’s bedside, reading them a book, sitting around the dinner table or reconnecting with a friend.

There has to be a better way. So, starting next month, New York City will become the first city in the U.S. to implement congestion pricing. We’ll charge people $15 every time they drive into New York’s Central Business District.

London, Milan, Stockholm, and Singapore have all implemented similar plans with great success. In New York City, the idea stalled for 60 years until we got it done earlier this year.

It took a long time because people feared backlash from drivers set in their ways. But, much like with housing, if we’re serious about making cities more livable, we must get over that.

We estimate congestion pricing will reduce the volume of vehicles in Manhattan’s central business district by 17 percent. Fewer cars mean less gridlock, traffic and pollution. Fewer cars means safer streets, cleaner air and more room to maneuver for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Congestion pricing will generate $1 billion every year, which will then fund large-scale projects that make public transit faster and more accessible. That’s key because we’ll never change people’s habits if we don’t offer safe, reliable alternatives to driving that work for everyone.

In her remarks blocking the plan yesterday, Hochul said something something pandemic—when work on the plan began in 2019, “workers were in the office five days a week, crime was at record lows and tourism was at record highs. Circumstances have changed and we must respond to the facts on the ground.”

But clearly none of those circumstances changed in the past two weeks. Who knows what caused this unreal shift. Speculation ranges from (the now fashionable) brain worm to lots of Hochul fundraising by local autodealers to the notion that House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries was worried that congestion pricing would hurt the prospects for regaining his majority in the fall elections. (A bad showing by New York Democrats in the suburbs cost him the speakership last time around; the same people are still in charge of the Empire State campaign this time around). If it’s really electoral fear that drove Hochul’s stab in the back, then this is political malpractice: you don’t wait until the last possible moment to jerk around the advocates who have spent years working with you to craft an agreement.

People on the outside underestimate, I think, the degree to which significant change comes from a long and controlled dance between activists and politicians—and one of the rules of that, on both sides, is that you don’t pull out the rug at the last minute. People like Charles Komanoff have spent most of their lives working up to this deal, jumping through every hoop to demonstrate the needed support, and now it’s been trashed. And trashed with the support of other parts of the progressive coalition. It was so sad to see the United Federation of Teachers gloating at the downfall of congestion pricing—the larger left has engaged in a generational effort to raise teacher pay, understanding it to be both right and a core concern of a partner; the UFT ignored the core concern of environmentalists in order to help teachers who wanted to keep driving. Public school teachers should be supporters of public transit; this, not Sunrise, is real-world malarkey.

If any possible good could come from Hochul’s cold-blooded betrayal, it’s that she, and Albany Democrats in general, might feel the need to give environmentalists some kind of win. The NY Heat act, and the climate superfund bill, are both up for action in this final week of the legislative session. It would be scant comfort to see them passed in the wake of this shocking schism, but it would be something.

Bill McKibben: author, educator, and environmental activist; a founder of and Third Act.