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My Experience as a Fellow With the New York City Panel on Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is familiar to most people in the climate, governance, and policy spheres, but not everyone knows about the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC). After completing a fellowship in their Health Working Group, I hope that everyone becomes aware of the NPCC, the incredibly tenacious and brilliant panelists serving on it, and the impactful work they do to build climate resilience in New York City.

emily torem photo
Emily Torem is a graduate of the M.A. in Climate and Society program at the Columbia Climate School and currently works for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene developing content for their environment and health data portal.

In a similar vein to the IPCC, the NPCC—convened in 2008 by then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg—is an interdisciplinary panel of experts that draws upon their expertise to prepare holistic climate impact assessment reports every 4 to 5 years. These evidence-based assessments allow New York City policymakers to better understand the scope of the myriad risks the city is facing from the climate crisis, and to take action in response.

The NPCC as a whole is composed of working groups dealing with climate risks from different disciplinary perspectives and expert lenses. Among these are the Climate Science Working Group, which presents projections and predictions for how the physical aspects of climate change will impact New York City; as well as working groups dedicated to Flooding, Equity, Futures & Transitions, and Health. Climate change touches nearly every aspect of life and governance in some way: be it the housing we live in, the way we interact with the natural environment, the health threats we are exposed to, and the way all of these impacts are filtered through unequal access to resources due to discriminatory practices and policies that have shaped the world around us.

As a fellow funded by the Environmental Justice and Climate Just Cities Network at the Columbia Climate School, I was part of the NPCC’s Health Working Group, co-led by Janice Barnes, the founder of Climate Adaptation Partners, and Thomas Matte, senior lecturer at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. In this position, I had the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with experts working in the intersections of climate science and public health, epidemiology, planning, adaptation, spatial demography, water resources, mapping, heat and energy justice, and so much more. This array of specializations within a panel that met biweekly led to some of the most critical and rich discussions on climate risks and solutions I’ve had the opportunity to participate in. One of the most salient messages from these conversations was that in 2023 and beyond, access to energy—whether to cool a dangerously hot apartment during a heat wave, power a medical device during a power outage, or retain access to crucial emergency updates and communication during a disaster—is a key element of building equitable health resilience in New York City.

As the Health Working Group prepared draft documents for the upcoming NPCC4 (the fourth assessment since the NPCC was convened), fellows were given the chance to contribute writing, research, and citation organization, as well as categorize and address peer review comments to the three main briefs on the health impacts of flooding, power outages, and heat waves. There was also a suite of annexes and shorter briefs on a variety of topics, including the interaction of health, climate change, allergens, vector-borne and water-borne illnesses, climate risk communication, and aging. I contributec research support to our flooding brief on how different building types, placements, and material structure affect the health outcomes of populations depending upon their type of dwelling. For instance, those living in basement apartments are vulnerable to the worst effects of cloudburst flooding as we saw during Hurricane Ida. I drafted a mini brief on the health impacts of vector-borne diseases and climate change in New York City, including Lyme disease and West Nile virus.

One of my main contributions during my fellowship was on a risk and communications brief that looked at the options available to people during a major weather disaster, the effectiveness of how those options were communicated to them, and their actual behavior — for example, if there was an evacuation warning during a storm, did people receive the warning, and if so, did they have a place to evacuate to? Along with my co-author Jenna Tipaldo, another Health Working Group fellow and a PhD student in Environmental & Planetary Health Sciences at the CUNY School of Public Health, I worked to synthesize research on communication methods (including social media) and outcomes of disaster information and evacuation behavior, particularly concerning public housing residents, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations. I learned about how a seemingly simple command to evacuate during an emergency actually merits a more layered approach that considers how resource access, physical environment, familial responsibilities, and so much more must be addressed to prevent the worst health impacts from befalling vulnerable populations during weather emergencies.

I have always been interested in writing about and researching the cross-disciplinary aspects of the effects of climate change. The opportunity to participate in this fellowship helped me gain deeper insight into a number of them—especially public health. The mentorship and advice of the NPCC contributors and chairs was invaluable to me while I applied for jobs and researched how I could best transfer the skills and concepts I had learned in my degree to a writing, policy, and governmental capacity. Each and every person on the panel took time to meet with me to discuss career opportunities and options.

My experience with NPCC ultimately spurred me to continue in this area after my fellowship, which is how I decided to pursue a position at the New York City Health Department examining the data on, and writing about, environmental and climatic health impacts across the city’s many neighborhoods. In my position as a health content manager, I will be overseeing the development of data-based stories about these health impacts and working directly with environmental justice and community organizations to draw attention to the ways in which inequitable access to resources can determine how resilient different communities are to climate change, environmental health issues, and other threats to public health.

The academic rigor and cross-disciplinary framework of the NPCC fellowship undoubtedly prepared me to not only pursue this new role, but also to bring in strategic thinking and holistic understanding of public health and climate issues to my new team.

The NPCC fellowship is an incredible opportunity to add dimension and depth to each fellow’s career in climate; interface with knowledgeable, generous, and dedicated experts across a variety of disciplines; and contribute to a process that helps New York City adapt to the climate crisis in a tangible way.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024