State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Student Spotlight: Two Undergrads Interning to Advance NY State’s Climate Policy

This summer, two students from the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, Arianna Menzelos (CC’21) and Sylvie Binder (CC’22), interned at New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, NYSERDA. They shared their summer internship experiences and reflections with State of the Planet. 

two students

Tell us more about your internship and specific team you are working with. What does the internship entail and what do you enjoy most?

Arianna: I work on the policy and regulatory affairs team at NYSERDA. Our efforts pursue the goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), a landmark law passed last year in New York that calls for ambitious emissions reductions and renewable energy targets. Along with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), my team coordinates the drafting of the CLCPA’s prescribed scoping plan, a policy roadmap that will provide for achieving the targets of the law. At NYSERDA, the central mission of clean energy development is relentlessly upheld. As this summer marks my first public sector job, experiencing this truth at work has been reassuring.

Sylvie: This summer I am working in NYSERDA‘s innovation department, specifically conducting research that makes market insights. Projects I worked on include researching carbon reduction innovations in building materials and new solutions to extreme heat stress and urban microclimates. I helped to develop existing and new incentive programs and funding opportunities and worked across teams not only in the innovation department, but in other departments across NYSERDA on smaller research tasks in a supportive role. To that end, I really enjoyed how this internship strikes a balance between independent research and cross-group collaboration towards a common goal — not only the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, but even the more ambitious aspirational goal of achieving a completely greenhouse gas emissions-free future.  

How does your work at NYSERDA contribute to advancing NY State’s climate policy?

Arianna: I focused on researching literature and policies pertaining to a ‘just transition’ from a fossil fuel economy. Particularly, I am exploring research questions such as: How do governments and other organizations define a ‘just transition,’ and what are its foundational principles? What are some case studies at local and national governmental levels? I have also contributed to our team’s conversations with other states on this policy topic through the U.S. Climate Alliance. I have learned that a just transition means far more than a replacement of jobs — in regions that have long depended on carbon-intensive industries, the success of the process demands economic revitalization of impacted regions and reversal of structural inequalities through stakeholder-centered planning and consultation.

Sylvie: I’d like to think that my work as an innovation intern helps to change narratives around perceived “best solutions” and enables innovators who expand what is seen to be the realm of possibility. It’s been very interesting to learn about the various NYSERDA programs and funding that are available for innovation companies or research institutions and to learn about the unique position that NYSERDA has as a state authority with the unique power to really drive technological innovation.

What skills/knowledge are you using from the sustainable development program for your internship?

Arianna: The interdisciplinary lens of sustainable development has encouraged a dimensionality in my understanding of state climate goals. Though these targets are often expressed numerically, they should never be siloed from their sociocultural impacts. I’m pushed to think, for example, what does energy storage expansion mean on not just a technical level, but also in a human space? What does it mean to take a stakeholder-forward approach in meeting these goals? More specifically, I am grateful for the opportunity to have taken Climate Change Law and Policy with Professor Michael Gerrard. I read through a lot of legislation as part of my internship work, and this course prepared me with the literacy to digest these far-from-colloquial government documents.

Sylvie: I feel very lucky to have taken Professor Lisa Dale’s Environmental Policy and Governance class this past fall. Particularly, I see how the concept of nested layers of governance between local, state, federal, public and private entities all interact in tandem. Sometimes they work in synchrony and sometimes adversarially. Looking back, I see that class has given me a lot of context about governance systems, which is useful as an employee at a government authority.

How does the internship relate to your studies and what you plan to do post-graduation?

 Arianna: My internship at NYSERDA has solidified my interest in climate-centered public policy. It has also better crystallized the levers and efforts required to enact the types of ambitious legislation that I so admire. Planning is a challenging concept in the era of COVID-19, but I definitely hope to continue working in progressive climate policy post-graduation.

Sylvie: I’m very lucky to be able to continue this internship as I take a semester off of college due to COVID-19. Even though I won’t be learning in a formal academic setting, I’ll be learning so much from this real world experience at NYSERDA in the fall. While I don’t know exactly what I want to do post-graduation, it is such a blessing to be able to experience working in clean energy governance in an exploratory capacity right now. I’ve learned from this internship that I want to work on the cutting edge of the climate-related sector, expanding existing knowledge and understanding. 

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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