State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Reflections on Centering Racial Equity at the NYC Panel on Climate Change

person holding sign that says 'end racism'
Photo: Tim Pierce

The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) is a unique institution. Convened by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in August 2008, it works to synthesize climate science and advise policymakers on local resilience and adaptation strategies to protect the city against future environmental hazards. Composed of 20 volunteer members with a wide variety of academic and occupational expertise, the panel is broken down into six working groups, each of which tackles a climate change challenge unique to New York City, from flooding and health to projections and future visioning. Ultimately, the NPCC aims to approach climate science from an interdisciplinary perspective so as to better prepare the city for future climate impacts.

More recently, NPCC members have committed to addressing “justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion” in their work and are making strides to actively engage with anti-racism. With support from the Environmental Justice and Climate Just Cities Network at the Climate School, I became the first ever Columbia University NPCC fellow to work as a racial equity intern. My mandate was to support this work and engage the NPCC in moving forward.

Last spring, the panel asked its members to personally reflect on equity and racism, both individually and within the NPCC. During that same time, panel members also completed training with BLACKSPACE, an interdisciplinary collective of Black urbanists committed to acknowledging, affirming, and amplifying Black presence in the built environment. Following up on these activities, in the fall of 2021, each working group completed an interim report outlining the status of their work as it related to racial equity, and completed a second workshop with BLACKSPACE.

Building upon this, the NPCC sought to create a framework to evaluate its own work in anti-racism. My job as a racial equity intern was to help revise and implement a racial equity rubric. The goal of the rubric was to allow workgroups to collectively assess their commitment to racial equity. At the same time, the groups were engaging in the process of researching and drafting the upcoming NPCC 4 report, which aims to further embed justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion while building on NPCC 3.

To help with the revision of the rubric, I first sought out other examples of internal racial equity assessments conducted by government advisory boards. Thinking this type of work had been done by other municipalities and aiming to build upon their justice initiatives, I searched high and low for some sort of government-based assessment strategy that I could use as an example in the development of my own, but came up with nothing. Evidently, there weren’t many examples of climate change advisory boards in local governments, let alone racial equity rubrics to be used internally by those boards. That meant that our work this summer, if successful, could be an example to other organizations and intragovernmental institutions. Of course, this work by the NPCC is progressive, but the potential of its impact didn’t hit me until that moment.

So, because of the apparent lack of example rubrics, I turned instead to current research and methodologies on anti-racist evaluation assessments and techniques. I read over ways different academic departments could contribute to racial equity, reviewed articles on the importance of language in anti-racist work, examined the white superiority and white fragility complexes (with the help of Robin DiAngelo), and consulted corporate racial equity impact assessments. Ultimately, I learned about ways to translate the concept of anti-racism into action — a process I felt needed to be incorporated into the NPCC.

After two months of reading, researching, writing, note-taking, and attending NPCC meetings, my main takeaway was the importance of action over verbal commitment. Tangibly, this could look like the continuation of yearly racial equity trainings, chapter draft reviews conducted externally by nongovernmental experts and community members, or the creation of a more publicly digestible, less formal version of the report. For all the important and, truthfully, pioneering work the NPCC is doing related to racial equity as a municipal advisory board, there is still significant space for the panel and its members to acknowledge complicity within the systems of oppression that sustain it and internally reflect on the racism inherent in its processes and procedures.

Moving forward, the NPCC intends to bring on additional racial equity fellows to complete two additional external assessments based on the NPCC working groups’ upcoming chapter drafts. This is a necessary and important next step in the panel’s racial equity journey, but it is by no means the end. Racial equity is not a short-term commitment. It requires unlearning, growth, acknowledgement, accountability, time and, importantly, action. It won’t be a simple journey, but the NPCC is certainly on its way. I hope Columbia Climate School can continue to support the NPCC with this and other work through a continued NPCC Fellows Program, as well as learn lessons for its own anti-racism work on campus.

Editor’s note: Columbia Climate School is dedicated to incorporating diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism into all aspects of our work — including by hiring an associate dean to work across the Climate School to ensure a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive culture. Read more about our DEIA plans and commitments.

Georgia Grzywacz is a graduate student in Columbia Climate School’s MA in Climate and Society program.

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