Brooklyn's Environment

The borough of Brooklyn, as is true all over the world, faces the accelerating climate crisis with both particular vulnerabilities and particular resources.  Some of our neighborhoods–often neighborhoods whose residents are predominantly people of color– have long-standing burdens of pollution from industrial infrastructure, burdens that are now exacerbated by climate burdens.

Brooklyn’s coastline is vulnerable to rising sea levels and some of its neighborhoods are so paved over and bare of tree cover that they are heat islands in summer. Our sewer system can’t cope with extreme downpours, and so streets and basements flood..  And yet, we also have parks, street trees, and salt marshes that mitigate extreme weather; farmers markets, thrift stores, and refill stores that are opportunities to lower consumption;  and a wealth of organizations and mutual aid groups working to make Brooklyn healthier, safer, and less productive of greenhouse gas emissions.  These are our communities, our families’ communities, and our neighbors’ communities, and we bear responsibility to continuously fight for climate justice and climate solutions for all.

If you want to learn more about the issues facing Brooklyn communities and the organizations helping to bring just and equitable solutions, take a look through the following resources.

  1. Brooklyn Environmental Issues
  2. Local Environmental & Climate Justice Organizations
  3. Government Organizational Approaches

Brooklyn Environmental Issues

Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal

The Gowanus Canal is a notoriously polluted 1.8-mile waterway extending from Gowanus to Red Hook. Since its creation in the nineteenth century, the canal has been a factory chemical dumping ground with an inherent history of pollution and neglect. Due to high levels of mercury, typhus, coal tar, and toxic black sludge deposits, it’s been earmarked as a Federal Superfund site. Work to clean up the canal began in 2020 and is expected to continue for some years. The Gowanus Canal Conservancy is a non-profit organization that monitors the cleanup as well as works to restore areas around the canal.  

Newtown Creek is a 3.8-mile waterway that marks a part of the border between Brooklyn and Queens. For over 100 years Newtown Creek had been used as a chemical and raw sewage dump site, including a notorious 30-million-gallon oil spill from nearby Greenpoint. Like the Gowanus, Newtown has been designated a superfund site, and  the Federal Environmental Protection Agency has been studying the site, with a final remediation plan expected in 2024. The Newtown Creek Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring and revitalizing the area around the creek. 

Pollution caused by fossil fuel-powered peaker plants—power plants that supplement the energy supply in “peak” consumption times, like summer—negatively affects the health of New Yorkers who live within a one-mile radius. In Brooklyn, the plants are sited in the historically working-class communities like Red Hook and Williamsburg.  Two of these plants–the Narrows and the Gowanus, both in Sunset Park, are slated to be closed in 2025. In New York City the Peak Coalition works to close these plants, substituting renewable energy and battery storage. 

Urban areas like New York City are more vulnerable to extreme heat than less-developed areas. This Urban Heat Island Effect is caused by cities’ building and infrastructure hardscape, limited vegetation, population density, and human movement patterns.  This can lead to temperatures that are far greater than rural and suburban areas—1.8°F to 5.4°F hotter annually, and up to 22°F hotter on a given night, due to heat retention.

Although fossil fuel use by buildings accounts for 70% of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, petroleum-fueled vehicular emissions are still significant.  Not only do they contribute to global warming, but the air pollution they cause are a significant cause of illnesses like asthma in children.  Some neighborhoods bear particular burdens.  Red Hook, for example, has become home to a number of giant last mile warehouses that has resulted in a huge surge in truck traffic.

Local Environmental & Climate Justice Organizations

NY Renews, with more than 300 member environmental, justice, faith, labor, and community groups state-wide, works in Albany to promote policies that promote the transition to a green economy,  stimulate good green jobs, protect vulnerable communities disproportionately hurt by the climate crisis, and protect workers and their families. 

New Yorkers for Clean Power is a statewide collaborative campaign to rapidly shift to a clean energy economy. Through education, advocacy and organizing, the campaign engages the public, local governments and businesses to advance a range of renewable energy, energy efficiency, heat pumps and clean transportation solutions. 

SANE Energy Project, founded in 2011, has a mission to push for a rapid and just transition to 100% community-controlled renewable energy in New York State. SANE Energy builds every campaign through a lens of racial, social, and economic justice.

GrowNYC was created in 1970, emerging from the spirit of the first Earth Day. Formerly the Council on the Environment of New York City, the organization originally focused on policy and writing comprehensive reports about quality of healthy lifestyle issues like air, traffic, and noise pollution. The organization now works to improve New York City’s quality of life through environmental programs that transform communities block by block and empower New Yorkers to secure a clean and healthy environment for future generations.

The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance is a nonprofit citywide membership network linking grassroots organizations from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in their struggle for environmental justice. NYC-EJA empowers its member organizations to advocate for improved environmental conditions, and against inequitable environmental burdens, through campaigns designed to inform city and state policies. 

The New York Energy Democracy Alliance is a statewide alliance of community-based organizations, grassroots groups, and policy experts working together to advance a just and participatory transition to a resilient, localized, and democratically controlled clean energy economy in New York State.

The Brooklyn Movement Center is a membership-led, direct-action, community organization based in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. BMC mobilizes community members to obtain concrete improvement in their lives by identifying social, economic, and environmental issues of critical importance, and acquiring the information and leadership skills necessary to transform their community’s local conditions. BMC operates The Central Brooklyn Food Co-op that is 100% member-owned and operated, with membership open to all. Their mission is to utilize collective strength to ensure access to affordable and fresh food within the mostly-of-color, low- and moderate-income communities of Central Brooklyn.

The Gowanus Canal Conservancy promotes the development of a resilient, vibrant, open space network through community stewardship of the Gowanus Watershed. Since 2006, GCC has led grassroots volunteer projects, educated students on environmental issues, and worked with agencies, elected officials, and the community to advocate for, build, and maintain innovative green infrastructure around the Gowanus Canal.

The Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund is a joint program between the New York State Office of the Attorney General and Department of Environmental Conservation working to enhance environmental conservation programs in Greenpoint. These projects are meant to build, improve and rehabilitate open space, waterfronts, green buildings, infrastructure, and neighborhoods, while promoting environmental education and stewardship. This grant program was created by monies obtained through a settlement with ExxonMobil over its Greenpoint oil spill.

UPROSE is Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, promoting sustainability and resiliency in Sunset Park through organizing, education, indigenous and youth leadership development, and cultural and artistic expression. Since 2009, they have been spearheading a Vision Plan for Sunset Park’s waterfront district, already a major contributor to NYC’s industrial sector, to be redeveloped as a prime destination for environmentally-sustainable industry. Plus, they’ve developed Sunset Park Solar, the city’s first cooperatively-owned community solar project built on the Brooklyn Army Terminal rooftop!

350Brooklyn is among the many organizations in New York City and New York State working on solutions to the climate crisis that can be done right here. We are volunteer-driven, mobilizing hundreds of Brooklynites to take effective action that will lead to a more just and equitable world where all beings can thrive.  We proudly partner with many of the organizations on this list.  

Local Government and the Climate Crisis

New York City

Members of the New York City Council draft legislation and work with the Mayor to fund climate projects.  The Mayor signs legislation and negotiates with the City Council over the budget.  The Mayor also oversees the many city agencies whose work directly or tangentially affects our progress towards reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, shifting to renewable energy and building resilience..  Among the most important of these are the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice. This office offers a number of initiatives towards these ends.  

Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law tracks NYC’s implementation of its various climate laws. The independent NYC Panel on Climate Change produces regular reports on the state of progress towards climate goals along with recommendations for action based on the latest scientific information. This body is required to produce an integrated assessment of such progress every three years. 

The New York City Council has passed a number of laws intended to reduce GHG emissions and make NYC more climate resilient. New York City offers a tax abatement for those who install green roofs on existing buildings, and the Department of Buildings now requires all new construction to include a green roof. This might come in the form of installed solar panels or a planted roof, as we see at Barclays or Javits Center. 

Under Local Law 97, large buildings in the city must meet increasingly stringent energy efficiency standards. In addition, construction of new buildings under seven stories must be all-electric beginning at the end of 2023, with taller buildings following in 2027.

In 2022 NYC mandated that all school buses must be electric by 2035.

These are just some examples of recent legislation intended to achieve New York City’s climate goals. 

New York State

A number of New York State agencies bear responsibility for carrying out a variety of climate initiatives under the direction of the Governor. The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA) funds research into emerging climate-related strategies and offers grants and other assistance to New Yorkers seeking to reduce emissions and build resilience.  The Public Service Commission regulates gas and electric utilities and plays a role in the transition to renewable energy statewide.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has primary responsibility for regulating the siting of fossil fuel infrastructure and the renewal of their permits, as well as working to protect and restore natural areas like salt marshes and forests. 

In 2019 the New York State Legislature passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), a historic climate law that puts the state on a path to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The law has three important aims—reducing GHG emissions, scaling up clean energy, and directing 35-40% of the program’s benefits to historically disadvantaged communities. An appointed Climate Action Council lays out recommendations for actions across all sectors of the economy that will achieve these aims, recommendations that will then need to be adopted by state agencies or enacted into law by the legislature. The first report is due on December 31, 2022 and then every five years thereafter. 

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI or “Reggie”) is a cooperative effort between nine northeast and mid-Atlantic states to cut carbon dioxide emissions through a market-based cap and trade initiative, which sets a regional cap on carbon dioxide emissions. The states sell emission allowances through auctions and re-invest that money in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other programs that benefit consumers. A de facto carbon tax is created by a set reserve price, below which the allowances are not able to be sold. Whether this initiative actually reduces carbon or not has been reviewed.