Recommendations for Creating a Department of Sustainability and Climate Change in NYC

by |October 23, 2019

By Daniella Simari

students strike in front of columbia university low library

A group of students from Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program attend the Youth Climate Strike on Friday, September 20, 2019.

In our second semester as graduate students in the Environmental Science and Policy program, we had the opportunity to explore a proposed bill that sets out to create a Department of Sustainability and Climate Change within New York City. The bill would mandate that a commissioner, advisory board, and interagency green team be established within the department, and address all facets of sustainability, recovery, and resiliency for New York City. Currently, there is an Office of Sustainability, an Office of Resiliency, and an Office of Environmental Coordination within the mayor’s office, but this bill would move the functions of these offices under one department overseen by a commissioner rather than the mayor. The department would hold itself more accountable to working directly with citizen stakeholders and would receive a larger budget to carry out its many functions.

In our policy analysis workshop, overseen by program director Steven Cohen, I was on a team that explored the bill’s political feasibility, programming, and implementation.

Climate change is an imminent threat to New York City. Ever since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the city has had to re-shift its focus toward resiliency efforts to better protect against increased precipitation, heat waves, and sea level rise. With plans like OneNYC 2050 and Roadmap to 80 x 50, a stronger department appears to be a necessity rather than a luxury. Cementing such a department would also help to meet the goals of New York’s “Green New Deal.”

Our workshop over the summer focused on the science behind the bill, and decided that the most relevant resiliency issues for New York City are sea level rise, heavier precipitation, and extreme heat. As for solutions to these issues, our team zeroed in on climate change adaptation strategies, and recommends that the department prioritize policies related to green and white roofs, storm walls and natural coastline infrastructure, and expanded sewer systems and rain gardens.

Creating a new department is no small task, but the department’s benefits may outweigh its costs. We are exploring the potential benefits if the department were to include not only a commissioner, sustainability advisory board, and interagency green team, but also interagency working groups focused on monitoring and evaluation, environmental sustainability, and the climate emergency. The climate emergency group would emphasize projects that build climate adaptation strategies for the city. A permanent department would be more inclined to continue ramping up efforts toward decarbonization for the city, which is currently pursued by the Office of Sustainability.

Citizens have asked during hearings that this department be held accountable for the projects it undertakes, and remain transparent about its progress. Currently, the mayor’s Offices of Sustainability and Resiliency only disseminate information from the department outward to the public. Our workshop team proposes that the new department could instead disseminate information two ways — one, from the department to citizens, and the other from citizens to the department. A citizen portal could be created via website or hotline for increased communication. This would better protect residents living in front-line communities vulnerable to sea level rise and health risks from heat waves and sewer system overflows.

Our workshop team chose to write about this bill to gain more political support for what could be an invaluable department for the city in the years to come.

New York City has the unique opportunity to trailblaze a path toward establishing urban centers as hubs for climate strategy. A department like the one being proposed would be the first of its kind in any city in the world. It would send a message to current federal administration that local governments and their citizens will not sit idly by while the country is forced to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The bill is currently awaiting its final vote in the New York City Council. Councilman Costa Constantinides, the chairperson for the Committee of Environmental Protection within New York City’s Council, introduced it in an effort to permanently establish a department that would combat climate change for years to come. It is the hope of our team that our academic analysis of the department’s programs and functions will help to accomplish this. Residents can find more information regarding the bill, including the bill’s full text, here.

Daniella Simari is a graduate student in the MPA- Environmental Science and Policy program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She will graduate in May 2020.

If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Stephanie Hoyt (sah2239@columbia.edu) with any questions or to schedule a campus visit. MPA-ESP is currently accepting applications for summer 2020 with a fellowship funding consideration deadline of January 15, 2020.

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