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New York City Identifies Inequality as an Environmental Issue

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently introduced an ambitious environmental program with an unexpected wrinkle. The program, called OneNYC, will include various policy prescriptions designed to address the growing gap between the rich and poor in an effort to ameliorate environmental degradation and climate change. Wealth inequality and environmental issues, de Blasio suggests, are inextricably linked. The program hopes to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty, expand better transportation to the more remote parts of Brooklyn, and create half a million housing units in the next 15 years.   

OneNYC is an update on former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC environmental program, which has sought significant reductions in carbon emissions (80% reduction by 2050) and upgraded building codes in preparation of the effects of climate change. Critics have charged that by adding proposals to tackle inequality, de Blasio’s OneNYC might distract from the original program’s more narrowly conceived environmental goals.

Mayor de Blasio responded to this critique by saying that, “Environmental sustainability and economic sustainability have to walk hand in hand. Some of my brothers and sisters in the environmental movement don’t get that yet… A beautifully sustainable city that is the playground of the rich doesn’t work for us.” De Blasio’s choice to include policies aimed at alleviating inequality in an environmental program is a deliberate one meant to highlight the connections between the two issues.

These connections might not be immediately obvious, but various scholars have investigated the link between wealth inequality and environmental degradation. Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson’s work has suggested that inequality drives, among other societal ills, status-driven consumption and, thus, resource depletion.

Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz has pointed out that since climate change will have disproportionate effects on the world’s poor, environmental damage is necessarily an equality issue. “Children born to less educated minority mothers are more likely to be exposed to pollution before they’re born,” Stieglitz said in a lecture given in 2012, “this exposure affects birth weight, with consequences that are life-long and reflected in lifetime earnings. And even more, the effects continue across generations; children of people who have been harmed by environmental pollutants, their children are also of lower birth weight, with lower lifetime prospects.”

Mayor de Blasio has also sought to expand the program’s influence. Earlier this month, Blasio traveled to Iowa, hoping to garner support among presidential hopefuls for similar programs on a national level. His appeals have been heard by least one candidate: former Secretary of State and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, whose campaign expressed support for some of de Blasio’s policy proposals aimed at combating inequality nationwide.

Some components of OneNYC will require support outside of the city. The minimum wage increase, for example, that the program calls for requires state action. Of course, the problems of environmental degradation and vast disparities in wealth are not confined to the city, or state, of New York. Both will require much larger action, and de Blasio hopes OneNYC can serve as a model for municipal, state, and national governments. The upshot is that addressing both problems in concert may produce greater results that if they are conceived as separate issues.

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