In February, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) presented their proposal for an overhaul of domestic climate policy, the “Green New Deal.” In June, the City of Ithaca responded by unanimously adopting their own Green New Deal.
A miniature version of its national namesake, Ithaca’s plan aims to create 100% renewable electricity by 2025 and reduce emissions from the municipal vehicle fleet by 50% by 2025 with the ultimate goal of “achiev[ing] carbon-neutrality community-wide by 2030.”
However, in the months following its passage, the city has been slow to act on those ambitions while “ensur[ing] benefits are shared among all local communities to reduce historical social and economic inequities.” The meandering budget approval process has momentarily halted progress on the plan, as lawmakers negotiate how much money to direct towards the plan, and whether a dedicated staff position be added to share in the task of realizing the policy.
The patience of local environmentalists has dwindled. Frustrated by what they see as “slow bureaucracy,” several members of the local Sunrise Movement chapter, a youth-led organization that promotes aggressive action on climate change, have decided to take matters into their own hands.
The organization drafted three Sunrise members — including two Cornell students — to toss their hats into the race for common council. Because the deadline to run a formal campaign had already passed, the environmentalists will have to convince voters to scribble their names on the ballot on Election Day today.
There are many players in the unchartered territory of Green New Deal implementation. The Sun sat down with three of them: Sustainability Planner Nick Goldsmith, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 and City Council hopeful and freshman Ellie Pfeffer to learn more about their visions for a more sustainable future for Ithaca.
The Plan – Nick Goldsmith
Nick Goldsmith, a former circus actor, now spends his days juggling the many moving parts of sustainable planning in Ithaca.
Goldsmith is employed by the Town of Ithaca, which includes Cornell’s campus. The distinction between the Town and City of Ithaca makes his job tricky: the City passed the Green New Deal, while the Town of Ithaca, which is made up of the City’s surroundings, is still considering the framework for their own version.
Goldsmith laid out a rough timeline for the next steps of the Deal. Once the 2020 budget is approved and passed in November, the ball can start rolling. As it currently stands, the budget proposes hiring an additional sustainability manager and $100,000 to go towards realizing the Green New Deal, although some activists criticize this for being too little. The city hopes to complete the updated Climate Action Plan by the end of 2020, which Goldsmith admits might be too “ambitious.” In the first quarter of 2020, he hopes to have the new green building requirements solidified.
The toughest goal to accomplish within the purview of the Green New Deal will be upgrading every single commercial and residential buildings to have net zero energy output. “I can’t wrap my head around how to do that in 10 years,” he said.
Goldsmith shared that from a staff perspective, he is overwhelmed by the goals of the plan and doesn’t believe that he alone will be able to see them through. Achieving the ambitious goals of the GND, he said, will only be possible with universal cooperation. “The sheer scale of the project will require commitment at a level I don’t think [Ithaca has] ever seen before.”
That collaboration includes Cornell — “We can’t do this without them,” Goldsmith said. The University has already proven to be an “exemplary” participant, establishing a carbon neutrality goal by 2035 and “constantly” renovating buildings to meet LEED Silver construction standards.
“There’s a lot of knowledge at Cornell. We’ll be looking to them for help and leadership,” said Goldsmith. A team of about 20 engineering and architecture students are already lending their expertise to the cause under the guidance of professors Al George and David Schneider.
Right now, Goldsmith encourages anyone interested in advancing sustainable practices in Ithaca to get involved by subscribing to for their monthly e-newsletter, attending city council meetings and beginning to brainstorm their vision for a pseudo-utopian sustainable Ithaca.
When asked about his ideal vision, Goldsmith shared that he had been pondering this for awhile, and was excited by the possibilities.
“When the council first passed this in June, I would walk around the city and think ‘what would this look like in 2035?’” He encourages all Ithaca residents to have the same mindset.
The Policy – Mayor Svante Myrick ’09
Myrick’s record shows that, alongside affordable housing, the environment has always been among his top priorities as an elected official. Under his leadership in 2013, Ithaca became the first east coast city to divest from fossil fuels.
The former editor at The Sun and undergraduate at Cornell remembers the beginning of the student fossil fuel divestment movement in response to the passage of the Kyoto Protocol. He expressed his support for the student activists still fighting the board of trustees to divest.
“It’s going to take a new generation of leadership; folks who were born and raised learning the science,” Myrick said. “We’re the grownups now, we can handle it.”
Climate change is an enormous threat to the City of Ithaca. This federal government won’t face reality, so we are acting. A carbon pollution fee will lower emissions and increase resilience. I’m joining like minded Mayors across three states to push this idea. https://t.co/00mrrFPCfV
— Mayor Svante Myrick (@SvanteMyrick) December 1, 2018
The activist community, Myrick said, has been the heat underneath the government’s feet; he credits the Sunrise movement and other groups for continuing to push for accountability. However, he said, unless Ithaca receives funding support from Cornell, the state or DC, the zeal of the community will be met with little action.
“With the backing with a federal government that knows that climate change is a real threat and takes steps to address it, we can meet our goals,” he said. However, given the current state of the Environmental Protection Agency, this will not likely happen under the Trump administration, he said.
Therefore, “we are seeking funding opportunities as aggressively as we can.” Myrick understands Ithacans’ concerns about budget increases and simultaneous tax increases, “we don’t want to raise taxes in the city; there’s only so much the residents can bear.”
Myrick hopes that other cities across the country will see Ithaca as a role model and follow suit with their own Green New Deal plans.
“It’s going to take activism, thinking, collaborative work to figure all of this out,” he said.
The Activists – Ellie Pfeffer ’23 and the Sunrise Movement
The night that freshman Ellie Pfeffer ’23 decided to run as a write-in candidate for common council, she turned to a Lil Wayne rap for the words to express her exasperation with the status quo and thrill at having the chance to make a difference.
The vegan New York native said that she is running to represent the Ithaca’s third ward — which includes the largely first-year students of North Campus — to enact “bold, visionary, and transformational stewardship on climate issues.”
Pfeffer is also a member of Climate Justice Cornell and assisted in organizing the campus climate strike and march in September. The environment and sustainability major said that she didn’t see running for elected office as a choice, but as an imperative.
“It’s not some political issue that ‘would be nice,’” said Pfeffer. “It’s about our future,” a common call-to-action among young climate activists.
While the Green New Deal is her number one priority, she dismisses claims that she is a one-trick-horse candidate. Reforming the criminal justice system, promoting the rights of the indigenous Cayuga Nation, and encouraging civic engagement among young people are also on her political to-do list.
The Sunrise Movement’s ideas for how to follow through on the plan are “to champion climate justice in all departments; to significantly increase the proposed additions for GND resources in Ithaca 2020 Budget; and uplift youth voices call for huge, transformational change to address the climate emergency and social injustice,” according to a press release statement. The Ithaca chapter of Sunrise currently supports about 50 active members.
The students said that they are not daunted by the incumbent candidates. Optimism prevails at Pfeffer’s dorm room headquarters in Clara Dickson Hall.
“Oh, I’m here to win,” she said, a week out from election day. However, if she doesn’t beat out incumbent Rob Gearhart, she said that running the campaign has been “a great learning experience.”