Where Progress Happens

By Rachel Neuburger

The West Wing sparked my interest in politics. This is unfortunate. According to Mark Leibovich, the West Wing caused a wave of millennials to study Political Science, move to Washington with dreams of affecting Bartlet-scale change, and suddenly realize just how hard it is to make progress on a federal scale. Former idealists become enmeshed in the glued-to-the-news-cycle, no-progress mess of revolving doors that is our nation’s capital.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to relocate to D.C. to figure this out. Once I moved from watching the television show to observing actual politics, I realized that the image of the federal government as a place to make bold changes is largely an illusion. No area is more affected by federal immobility than environmental policy.

It’s always an election year, so partisanship and science denial abound. Oil runs everything, meaning that no action to address climate change can be taken. High-profile conferences between world leaders pass by with no change – temperatures will increase, sea levels will rise, and millions will become climate refugees. For every small victory, there are endless setbacks.

These are the things that you learn when you turn off Netflix and go to college. These are the lessons that, combined with three quarters of Human Being & Citizen, might make you lose faith in federal government. All that’s left to do is abandon the hope of sudden, sweeping climate progress and narrow your focus onto the steps taken by local government.

This summer, I’m working at the New York League of Conservation Voters (ironically located a block from Wall Street). My job is to research candidates running for a variety of local offices, including town councils, county legislatures, and county executive seats. The candidates, who want an endorsement from NYLCV, fill out a questionnaire detailing their work in areas like renewable energy generation, sewer upgrades, and transportation connectivity. It’s not glamorous. Major election-year interns got to read about hydrofracking; I research small town plastic bag bans. A few days ago, however, my boss offered me some wisdom that eased my frustration with the mundanity of local government.

He did not deny that the dirty energy industry runs our country. It has enormous amounts of money to spend, preventing any efforts to reduce reliance on its antiquated technologies. The encouraging prospect of receiving industry money – and the petrifying prospect of losing it – incentivizes lawmakers to deny the existence of climate change. Environmental advocates and even our Democratic president can do little to change that. This is where local government begins to matter. Suffolk County, the fourth largest county in New York, is an excellent example. In 2010, Suffolk spent $125 million on solar panel installations in parking lots. Some of its municipalities provide financial incentives for homeowners and businesses looking to make similar energy transitions. These programs, which benefit the environment and reduce costs for taxpayers, are popular in blue and red areas alike. Clearly, the 45,000 Suffolk homes whose power could be solar-generated represent a minuscule fraction of America’s energy demand. But moving a county over to alternative energy sources sends a positive message to larger neighbors. Every step taken is a model for state legislators. Furthermore, a patchwork quilt of widely varying local laws hurts developers and regulators; if many counties enact independent legislation, the state as a whole is more likely to establish all-encompassing standards. New York State and its municipalities are to be taken seriously, with six percent of America’s population and an even larger reputation. Just look at gay marriage: SCOTUS wouldn’t have ruled the same way 20 years ago – it was the changing of public opinion, and individual state actions, that readied the Court for its decision. Change that starts at a local level and expands outward can be incredibly impactful.

It’s not just about solar. Suffolk, though battling a low budget and unreliable post-Hurricane Sandy federal funds, is planning to revamp its sewer system and remediate an enormous nitrogen pollution problem. Democrats in Westchester County, Suffolk’s neighbor, worked with a Republican County Executive with gubernatorial aspirations to establish an Energy Czar position, an administrator in charge of monitoring energy use and making recommendations for healthy development. Recently, I sat in on a City Council meeting in Yonkers in which lawmakers debated the merits of plastic bag fees versus bans. That’s not something you see every day: a table filled with old men in suits, Bronx accents abound, discussing the effect of plastic on local ecosystems and how a fee would impact low-income populations. Sewer districts, litter, waste management – no one runs for President on that sort of platform. But substantial things get done on a local level, action that impacts us as taxpayers and citizens of the world.

So no – this summer I won’t sit in a hotel bar with my tortured genius colleague and invent a brilliant idea to make college tuition tax deductible. No government works that way. Instead, I’ve come to appreciate the work that very local governments can do.

The New York state government is notoriously corrupt and inefficient. A bipartisan bill banning the sale of children’s toys containing toxic chemicals couldn’t pass the Legislature. Politicking goes on at every level of government, but municipal governments are kept accountable to their promises and actions. Only the cream of the crop can be a United States Senator; even if you disagree with your party’s candidate, there are few alternatives. On the local scale, that’s not the case. Small business owners run against fifteen-year incumbents. Neighborhood association leaders become mayor. Officials understand and prioritize their constituents’ needs – if they don’t, upstarts will boot them out.

Yes, local funding is tragically limited. No, a countywide pesticide ban doesn’t protect groundwater nationwide. But municipalities can be creative, work cohesively with private enterprise, and consult experts. Impactful steps can be taken on a local scale – that’s why I’m so excited to work at NYLCV. For the moment, this is where progress happens.

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