Jan 13, 2014

This blog post was originally featured on the Health and Environmental Funders Network Blog, "Giving Insight". This post was authored by Franny Chiles Canfield, Senior Manager of Program and Knowledge at the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

Finding opportunities to discuss, share and collaborate on grantmaking strategies with other funders goes a long way in ensuring portfolios remain effective and relevant. But funder gatherings are not the only way to learn from other grantmakers that are interested in combating the same issues. Do funders’ approaches differ depending on the issues they tackle? Where is funding being focused – or leaving gaps?

The Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) has made it a priority to answer these questions through our Tracking the Field project. This project includes a semi-annual report, a searchable Tracking the Field database, and an interactive trending grant heat map. Tracking the Field Volume 4: Analyzing Trends in Environmental Philanthropy was published in September 2013. The new EGA report analyzes over 40,000 grants by approximately 200 EGA member foundations from 2007-2011, as well a birds-eye analysis of environmental philanthropy with data provided by the Foundation Center.

Our report uncovers many interesting connections and key correlations between strategies, geographic regions and issue area concentrations. In 2011, estimated funding to environmental issues by all U.S. foundations reached an all-time high of $2.8 billion. In the same year, the total environmental giving by EGA Members equaled $1.13 billion (40% of all environmental giving). Environmental giving by EGA members dropped 17% in 2009 but experienced gains of 28% and 2% in 2010 and 2011. As the following graph illustrates, environmental philanthropy spans many issues.

Because Health and Justice grants (“Environmental Heath”, “Toxics”, and “Environmental Justice”) are so crosscutting, it is especially important to consider all grants that identify Health and Justice issues as primary or secondary issue areas. When using these metrics, we find that $100 million (9%) of EGA members’ grants in 2011 were targeted at Health and Justice issues. EGA and HEFN staff, comparing membership lists, noted that the EGA database includes just over half of HEFN members’ grants.

Where are Health and Justice Grants Geographically Focused?

EGA members’ Health and Justice grants are largely given to organizations that focus domestically. There are proportionally far fewer grant dollars going to Health and Justice abroad than members’ other environmental philanthropic giving. Only 12% of Health and Justice grant dollars went outside of North America compared to 23% overall.

Our members’ Health and Justice funding is also more local than environmental funding overall. This is demonstrated by far less “Federal Level” and cross-regional funding for Health and Justice issues. Only 21% percent of domestic funding went to the “Federal Level” compared to 27% overall.

So Where are Environmental Health and Justice Grants Going?

The Health and Justice funders we track fund the Pacific Coast and Southeast more than overall environmental grantmaking. Twenty-four percent of domestic funding goes to the Pacific Coast compared to 19% for all environmental issue areas. Eighteen percent of domestic funding to Health and Justices went to the Southeast compared to 11% overall.

What are the Strategies Behind These Grants?

“Advocacy / Organizing / Movement Building” is the most common strategy behind EGA members’ grantmaking, but it is especially common within Health and Justice grantmaking. Fifty-three percent of Health and Justice grants used the strategy “Advocacy / Organizing / Movement Building” compared to 30% of all environmental funding. This correlates with the more local focus of “Advocacy / Organizing / Movement Building” grants.

Within EGA members’ environmental funding overall, only 1% of grants were for litigation as the primary strategy. However, we found that 25% of “Environmental Justice” grants used litigation as the primary strategy behind the grant.

How Does Tracking the Field Connect us?

With over 40,000 grants tagged, Tracking the Field allows foundations to not only make strategic decisions based on data - it also helps find colleagues in the field. With the complexity of environmental issues, it is key that funders are aware of their colleagues’ related grants. All foundations, regardless of size or type, can learn valuable lessons from each other’s giving. Check out the Summary of Tracking the Field to learn more about the landscape and where you can have the greatest impact.


Franny Chiles Canfield is the Senior Manager of Program and Knowledge at the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA). Starting at EGA in 2008, she served as the Research and Data Coordinator for Tracking the Field Volume 2 and the Author and Tracking the Field Project Manager for Tracking the Field Volume 3 and 4. She was the Project Manager for EGA’s new website, searchable Tracking the Field database, and the interactive Tracking the Field heat map. 

Nov 12, 2013

This year’s Health and Environmental Funders Network’s Annual Meeting focused on recent trends in policy and demographics, and also featured lessons learned from prominent voices involved in recent breakthroughs in science, social movements and democracy. Being relatively new to the world of environmental philanthropy myself, it was a great opportunity to gain an even clearer grasp on the pulse of environmental funders, especially while still reflecting upon some of the major themes and discussions drawn from the EGA’s Fall Retreat. The tone of the meeting was refreshingly upbeat and solutions-oriented, and almost every session left us with implementable, strategic takeaways.

EGA Members at HEFN: Amy Solomon of the Bullitt Foundation, Ruth Hennig of the John Merck Fund and Anita Nager of the Jenifer Altman Foundation (Photo Credit: Andrea Levinson)

Tuesday’s “Tools and Technology” session especially stood out to me, as it served as a response to many of the issues we covered on the first day. The presentation was solutions in action, and showcased the ingenuity of the experts that make them happen. The panel featured the bright minds of Heinz Endowment grantees Shannon Dosemagen from Public Lab and Illah Nourbakhsh from the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Department.

I was already familiar with some of the amazing work Public Lab has been funded for from our Fall Retreat in New Orleans, and Shannon’s presentation was spot on. Following was Prof. Nourbakhsh’s fascinating presentation about the evolving utility of satellite imagery. Employing practical applications of many different platforms, including Google’s Earth Engine, Time Magazine’s Timelapse, and NASA’s Landsat, the room was impressed to see how changes in geography, oceans, natural disasters, etc. actually occur over time. These different types of tangible tools and software are designed to be not only enlightening but widely accessible. Using these resources, Prof. Nourbakhsh’s team seeks to employ hard data to create a visible, digestible narrative that can change public thinking on many of the critical issues we discussed in the other sessions.

In a similar “solution-based” vein, during the final session, HEFN Director Kathy Sessions shared a graphic showing a breakdown of EGA member foundations’ “Secondary Issue Areas for Toxics”, which was derived from EGA’s newest installment of Tracking the Field.











The graphic shows how funders that work on toxicology issues prioritize and fund other issue areas. This is just one example of how the Tracking the Field report, and its accompanying online tools, can be used to hone in on a specific metric and provide robust conclusions. (Check out the Tracking the Field report and the new interactive heatmap to make some data sets and conclusions of your own!)

As tools and technologies become increasingly accessible, it’s important that the philanthropic community continues to pursue and invest in new ways to monitor the changing field. After seeing several presentations that discussed the problems of public perception and misconception about environmental issues, it was inspiring to also see how those ideas were being transformed into action.

May 7, 2013



May 4, 2013

Thank you, Dean Miranda.

SNRE faculty, administrators, staff, students, parents, family and friends, it’s a honor to give this commencement address. Although I’m not an alum, I’ve been closely associated with the school for thirty years and feel part of the SNRE family. I’ve also had the opportunity through my career to observe a disproportionate number of SNRE grads in critical policy making positions in and out of government. As we say on the Visiting Committee, SNRE definitely punches above its weight class!

Let me begin by congratulating you and your families on your graduation. It’s a major accomplishment worthy of celebration … and also reflection. And that’s what I would like to do in the next few minutes – reflect on the significance of this event.

Knowing SNRE and its faculty as well as I do, I know you’ve received a superb education. As a result of this education, you have joined a distinct minority in the United States – you are environmentally literate!

A few years ago the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation summarized a decade of public opinion surveys by the Roper Organization, and found “a persistent pattern of environmental ignorance [in the United States], even among the most educated and influential members of society.” The report estimated that only 1% to 2% of American adults could be considered environmentally literate and found little difference between the average American and government and business leaders.

And, never have we needed to know more.

We face global environmental threats such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and interference with fundamental ecological processes such as the nitrogen cycle. Yet, today, most Americans don’t understand such simple concepts about nature as these:

First, water runs downhill. Most people live their lives unaware of the watershed they inhabit. They have no sense of the impacts of what runs off their lawn, what they pour down their drains or flush down their toilets.

Second, animals need homes too. Many people, even those who enjoy viewing birds in their backyards or other wildlife in cities or suburbs, don’t understand the concepts of an animal’s habitat, range and migratory patterns. They don’t understand that healthy habitats are required across ecologically meaningful landscapes or those birds and animals will disappear.

Third, animals and people share the same homes. In our high-tech society of modern conveniences most people do not understand that their fate is tied to the health of the environment. Many believe that protecting natural landscapes and functioning ecosystems is a luxury.

And, finally, there is no such thing as away. Most people don’t understand the basics of energy and materials flows or the fundamentals of total life cycle analysis. They have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward the wastes they produce.

Our collective ignorance will be very costly.

A few years ago Scientific American published an article that identified nine “planetary boundaries” or thresholds for our planet’s biophysical processes on which our future wellbeing depends. As I alluded to a few moments ago, it concluded we’ve already exceeded these thresholds for three of them: climate change, biodiversity loss and interference with the nitrogen cycle.

Similarly, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment involved over 1300 experts and evaluated 24 ecosystem services essential to human well-being. It found that, notwithstanding technological progress, people today depend for survival and well-being on a healthy environment as much as in the past. And it concluded that most of the ecosystem services on which people depend are declining rapidly, stating:

At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.

But, you know this.

You know it thanks to your education at SNRE. You know this because you are among the 1-2% of environmentally literate Americans. And, with this knowledge comes responsibility and that’s the message I hope to leave you with today.

Fifty years ago, the noted scientist, author and activist Aldo Leopold wrote: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives [thereafter] in a world of wounds.”

So, welcome to the world of wounds.

You will never again be able to walk in the woods, canoe a lake or stream, take a drink of water or even look at a sunset without knowing in the back of your mind the grievous illness of our planet. And there’s no turning back. You cannot unlearn what you know about humans’ impact on natural systems. You cannot insulate yourself in ignorance from the consequences of knowledge. And you cannot – at least, not ethically – shirk the responsibilities that come with this knowledge.

Now, you have a choice to make.

As Leopold put it, having learned of our world of wounds, one must act “as a doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” The alternative, according to Leopold, is to harden one’s shell and become – as he put it – an “undertaker of the mysteries at which [you] officiate.”

Each of you graduating today – and each faculty member here today – faces a simple choice: will you be an undertaker or will you be a healer of the Earth?

What must you do to become a healer? Each of you will find your own path, but here are some general benchmarks by which to navigate your journey.

First, use your special knowledge to say what the science means.

You cannot sit on the sidelines watching public policy, unguided by science, go off the rails. Scientists are often uncomfortable with the policy process and fear sacrificing their objectivity if they engage in it. A few years ago Science magazine asked eminent scientists if advocacy diminished their credibility. Stuart Pimm, an ecologist involved in Everglades restoration, summed up the sentiments of many of the respondents by saying, “I have a moral responsibility as a citizen to make people aware of what the science means.” With the interdisciplinary focus of SNRE, you are especially well trained to become the essential translators of science to public policy and business practices.

Second, keep the forest in mind even when you’re studying the trees.

To be a healer you must diagnose and cure the illness, not just treat symptoms. Your specialized knowledge equips you to identify early symptoms of underlying harm to natural ecosystems – the consequences of our modern lifestyles – and to prescribe solutions to treat the disease. As Wendell Berry points out in his book, Life is a Miracle, the biggest drawback of science is its inherent reductionism. By reducing the scale of what we study to make it small enough to understand, we ignore most of everything. As Berry said, “an explanation is a bucket, not a well.” And the most dangerous reductionism, he warns, is “thoughtlessness of consequences.”

Third, once you have the big picture, make it happen on the ground – and, love the ground on which you make it happen.

Wendell Berry also points out the futility of trying to heal the entire planet; no one can love a planet; it’s an abstract concept. One can only love – and heal – specific places. But, through many people healing their special places we will heal the planet. Aldo Leopold was not content just to be an esteemed scientist, writer and policy maker. He and his family also worked weekends over a lifetime to heal their special place in Sand County, Wisconsin, now known now as “The Shack.”

Fourth, plan on spending your time with people, not with wildlife.

If you’re pursuing a career in natural resources management because you’d rather spend time with wildlife instead of people, you’re in the wrong line of work. The real challenges in natural resources management are managing all the people whose unsustainable behavior determines our planet’s future. Making natural resources policy is a messy business because it involves people. You need to be prepared to explain, explain and explain again why sound science-based management matters to an ever-more ecologically illiterate populace.

And, my final guidepost for becoming a healer instead of an undertaker, share the outdoors with someone you love.

Better yet, share it with someone you don’t love, someone you don’t know very well, someone of a different background, race or gender. Don’t just teach others your knowledge of the natural world, but also instill in them your passion to heal it.

I’m confident that all of you leave her today determined to be healers of Planet Earth. I hope these few guideposts help you as you embark on your unique journey.

So, welcome to the world of wounds and congratulations on your graduation!

May 6, 2013

This blog post originally appeared on the Health and Environmental Funders Network blog, Giving InSight, on April 29, 2013 and is reprinted with permission

It seems much longer than six months ago that Hurricane Sandy turned into Superstorm Sandy and devastated parts of New York and New Jersey. In the aftermath of the storm, philanthropy responded with millions of dollars for relief, recovery, and rebuilding.

Not surprisingly, funders based in New Jersey and New York have invested heavily in these efforts. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in partnership with the Community Foundation of New Jersey quickly established a New Jersey Recovery Fund to address intermediate and long-range impacts from Sandy (See Margaret Waldock of the Dodge Foundation’s guest post). Within two weeks of the storm, the New York Community Trust made $500,000 in grants to disaster relief and has made $965,000 in grants since then for ongoing recovery and resiliency planning.

As philanthropy looks back at the last six months, and forward to what’s next for impacted communities, NGOs and experts have been sharing their lessons learned from Sandy. Here are some highlights of challenges, opportunities, and advice offered by groups in the field on recent calls hosted by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers.


Mold. Public officials have warned that mold in houses flooded by Sandy’s storm surge is a growing threat to public health, especially as temperatures rise this spring. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has provided advanced training for responders and is working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to evaluate exposure patterns since the storm. However, groups like the New Jersey Work Environment Council have requested funding for additional intensive trainings from the NIEHS for volunteers, workers, and homeowners.

Toxic exposures. Residents near some of New Jersey’s most contaminated places have expressed concern about toxic chemicals in storm water that flooded homes and parks. In Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, community members worry that flood water laced with toxic sediment from the Passaic River Superfund site and chemicals from industrial zones could pose long-term health hazards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested soil in Riverside Park, next to the Passaic River, for dioxin, mercury and PCBs. The agency concluded the soil had been contaminated during flooding, but that levels were not high enough to be considered a public health threat. The EPA plans to move forward with the Superfund site cleanup in beginning July 1, yet residents are concerned the plan will not prevent future contamination.

Permit waivers. Environmental and public health advocates in New Jersey are raising red flags about changes to the state’s permitting process. A new waiver allows homeowners and business owners planning to rebuild on waterfront or shoreline properties to skip a step of the permitting process requiring plan approval by state regulators. Opponents say the ruling reduces oversight and encourages development in flood- and storm surge-prone areas.

Flood maps and buyouts. For some homeowners and businesses, recovery and rebuilding have been put on hold as policymakers evaluate plans for updated flood maps and buyouts. New Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps, which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s, will be used to set flood insurance requirements that will likely mean many homes in New Jersey will have to be elevated, with costs depending on the zone in which the house is located. Some residents have suspended rebuilding efforts until the new maps are finalized. Others are lobbying FEMA to re-zone their properties to avoid costly elevation projects. Conversely, New York Governor Cuomo is offering incentives for homeowners to accept buyout offers from the state rather than wait for revised flood maps or insurance claims. In New Jersey, homeowners are still waiting for more details about buyout offers.


Strengthening overburdened populations. Many families on the road to recovery were some of the most overburdened populations before the storm. As funders help communities rebuild, Ana Baptista of the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark notes it’s important to not exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. In the short-term, Ironbound and community groups are helping impacted residents get back on their feet with case management support to help families apply for FEMA assistance, weigh buyout options, and process insurance claims. Over the long-term, NGOs are advocating for these communities to be included in crafting climate change adaptation plans.

Convening and research. Ronna Brown, President of Philanthropy NY, and Nina Stack, President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, agree that the philanthropic and NGO communities could play a key role in conversations around rebuilding. Brown suggested funders could act either as the convener or as a supporter of a convening, and she reported that some funders are supporting research into innovative ways to support communities in recovery and rebuilding.


Resist urge to get money out the door as quickly as possible. After a disaster there is usually an influx of funding and support that floods into foundations and organizations. Some groups working with Sandy funders are advising groups to think strategically about timing their support as recovery and rebuilding efforts may take years. They encourage foundations to take a measured approach to post-disaster giving to better identify gaps in support that might otherwise have gone unnoticed or addressed.

Invest in communication infrastructure. Funder affinity groups in New York and New Jersey cite existing regional networks of NGOs and foundations as key to communicating in the storm’s aftermath. They credit this type of infrastructure with making it possible for funders to set up conference calls quickly to coordinate relief efforts and share information. Groups also advise funders and NGOs to build connections with community members before a natural disaster or event happens.

Discuss disaster planning with your board. Does your board know what it would do if your community or region was struck by tragedy? Groups suggest funders discuss with their boards about disaster planning and response. Some questions they suggest for board consideration are: How would the foundation respond operationally? At what level (geographically and financially) would the foundation support relief efforts? What will happen to groups the foundation has supported for a long time, especially if they are not involved in disaster-related work? Funder affinity groups have also recommended that foundations not plan too much in advance of a disaster as conditions and needs evolve quickly.

Jan 23, 2013

Written by Mariella Puerto, Senior Program Officer, Barr Foundation

Nearly two years ago, I started hearing about a professor doing research like I had never heard of anyone doing on greenhouse gas emissions. Professor Nathan Philips teaches in the Earth and Environment Department at Boston University (BU). He had put sensors on the roof of his office building to measure what he calls Boston’s “urban metabolism.” This is the ebbs and flows of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane in a city’s atmosphere. Phillips had also driven nearly every street in Boston with a methane sensor in his trunk, taking readings of gas that leaks from natural gas pipelines that run under our streets.

I had read that methane is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of climate impacts (see the EPA’s analysis for more on this). But I couldn’t find any good information on how big a problem this actually was. Meanwhile, advances in hydraulic fracking were triggering huge increase in our reliance on natural gas – which was being aggressively touted as a “clean energy” breakthrough.

I called Professor Phillips and asked for a meeting. What I wanted to know was: how big was this problem? And why was no one was talking about it?

That initial conversation led to others and, in mid-2012, Barr provided support to Boston University and to the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) to investigate the extent of natural gas leakage in Boston and Massachusetts and to explore potential policy solutions.

Both BU and CLF produced reports on their work at the end of November. Some of the major findings are below, though the most surprising and alarming takeaway is evident in this info graphic – we may be losing more ground than we’re gaining:

Major Findings from the BU and CLF reports:

  • Natural gas is escaping from more than 3,300 leaks in Boston
  • Most leaks are tiny ¬ although six had gas levels higher than the threshold at which explosions can occur.
  • In 2010, Massachusetts saved 1,097 million cubic feet of natural gas through energy efficiency programs. But in the same time period, Massachusetts lost more gas through leaks than it saved.
  • The costs of these leaks – about $38.8 million a year – are passed on to gas customers in Massachusetts.
  • Current state and federal policies provide disincentives for pipeline owners to find and fix leaks unless they are considered hazardous.
  • Building new transmission lines and new gas generation would be costly. Reducing leaks and increasing the efficiency of the existing infrastructure (including gas storage) could provide a more cost-effective, environmentally beneficial means of meeting energy needs.
  • There are a number of policy solutions that can be pursued cost-effectively and expeditiously, solutions that are outlined in CLF’s report.

Almost one-third of the natural gas pipelines in Massachusetts are made of cast iron or unprotected steel, materials that are highly prone to leaks. Fifty percent of the cast iron pipelines in the U.S. are concentrated in Massachusetts and only three other states: New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, where this issue deserves a much closer look as well.

For more information, visit:

Conservation Law Foundation – “New Report Shows Lost Natural Gas Emissions Costing Millions To Massachusetts’s Gas Customers And Harming Environment”

Boston University – “Boston’s Street-Level Gas Leaks: 3,300-Plus”

Living on Earth, Public Radio International – “Rampant City Gas Leaks”

In a related report issued by the Analysis Group, Paul Hibbard – former Chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities – and Craig Aubuchon describe a benefit-cost model they used to quantify the benefits of reducing gas leaks through expanded utility pipe replacement programs. Reducing leaks generates economic benefits by (1) reducing the amount of gas that utilities buy and charge ratepayers for, and (2) reducing the social impact of higher greenhouse gas emissions. The authors quantify significant benefits under a wide range of assumptions, and compare them to the cost of utility pipe replacement programs.


Jan 4, 2013

by Pat Brandes, Executive Director, Barr Foundation

This piece appeared earlier under the title, “Why Building Resilient Networks Matters,” as a guest post on Beth Kanter’s blog at: and can be found on the Barr Foundation's website here.

As Hurricane Sandy was barreling up the Atlantic coast of the United States, a husband and wife in their early 90s, frail of body and mind though resolute (some would say stubborn) of spirit, finally gave in to the pleadings of their family. The couple left their home on a barrier island off Long Island and evacuated inland. But given the size of the storm, even their safe haven was not without damage. They lost power, heat, and light. They could not cook. They had no internet access and – most distressingly for me – no phone service at all. This couple is my parents.

After two days I was driven to distraction with worry about their ability to deal with the cold. I wanted to get them to safety. But major obstacles were in my way. First, no trains, buses, or planes moved to or from New York City. The only way to travel was by car. But even if my parents could drive (they can’t), and even if they had anyone nearby to drive them (they didn’t), traffic lights weren’t working. Many roads were closed. None of the bridges on or off Long Island were open. When they evacuated from their small island, I reminded them to take their cell phones and chargers. I assumed that would be our safety net. But when that system failed too, I realized I had not bothered to get the street address of where they would be.

Yet even despite these obstacles, on the night of the third day after the storm, I welcomed these two climate refugees into my home north of Boston.

How did it happen?

A network of grandchildren was activated. Aided by technology, they gathered and shared and used data to figure out where my parents were and how to get them out. Tweeting and texting various clues to each another, one cluster of grandchildren figured out the street address. Another cluster evaluated the alternatives and determined that my son (who was also without power on the 23rd floor of his apartment in lower Manhattan) had the best shot of making his way to them. So, he biked uptown and rented a car. Then, one of his cousins texted directions based on a new smartphone application called “Waze,” which crowdsources data from nearby drivers to create real-time traffic and road reports and find the best routes. This cousin spent hours assisting my son via text, despite intermittent cell coverage and a dizzying maze of hazards – many streets and bridges closed, while others were a tangle of gridlock – until my son made his way out of the city and to my parents on Long Island. Crowdsourcing also provided information on gas stations that were still open (and where lines were actually moving). This was vital intelligence for an escape route that included a long drive to a ferry terminal at the eastern-most point of Long Island. From there they traversed Long Island Sound to New London, Connecticut, and then drove to Boston.

Upon arrival at my front door, my father’s first words to me were, “I feel like I’m waking up from a nightmare.” I led him and my mother to the sofa in my living room – complete with modern comforts like heat and light. We turned on CNN and watched together as scenes from New Jersey and New York flashed across the screen. “It’s not a nightmare,” I said, “It’s for real.”

Hurricane Sandy caused over 100 deaths in 10 states and left more people in the dark than any other storm in United States history. Up and down the nation’s most densely populated corridor it caused damage currently estimated at $50 billion. Somewhere during the frenzied media coverage of Hurricane Sandy, the press stopped using the word “hurricane.” It no longer seemed adequate to describe this phenomenon of unprecedented power. And so Sandy became the “megastorm” or, fittingly for its occurrence so near Halloween, “Frankenstorm.”

Sandy exposed our vulnerability to climate change. And while our climate is no respecter of race or class or ethnicity – the winds blow and the rains fall on everyone – this storm also exposed the deep inequities between our haves and our have-nots. Manhattan’s wealthiest 20% have incomes that are, on average, 40 times those of the poorest 20% ($400,000 vs. $10,000). This puts New York City’s economic disparity on par with places like Sierra Leone or Namibia. What that means in the face of a storm like Sandy is that, as the subways and trains started running again, and as much of Manhattan was getting back to some sense of normalcy, thousands of people in public housing were still without heat, water, electricity, or food. The homeless population in the city doubled to 80,000. Those with the fewest resources found themselves most vulnerable to the infrastructure failures.

Undoubtedly, the inequities in who bears the brunt of climate change will play out in similar ways on the larger global stage. Indeed they already are. In Haiti, for example, which was not even in the storm’s direct path, Sandy wiped out 40% of the autumn crop. According to a report by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 450,000 people (including at least 4,000 children under five) are now at risk of severe acute malnutrition (for more, see: “Haiti faces hunger catastrophe after hurricane Sandy destroys harvests”).

Regardless of economic status, however, some are always quicker than others to absorb disruptions like Sandy and bounce back. And it isn’t unusual for the most resilient among us to bounce back even stronger than before. Meanwhile, when their peers are knocked down, they stay down for a long time. Some never regain their former footing. What distinguishes the two groups? My family’s experience in the wake of Sandy underscores for me at least two essential ingredients for this kind of resilience – namely, robust networks and a sense of agency.

For weeks after the storm, the same network that helped rescue my parents has remained active on text, email, and social media. They have taken and posted pictures of the damage to my parents’ home (including three feet of flooding in their first floor), registered them with FEMA, and helped them begin the recovery process. I had hoped this experience might convince these two nonagenarians it was finally time to give up living alone on an isolated island, but… no chance. Right away, my father, an avid striped bass fisherman, was on the phone with the Coast Guard to launch a search for his beloved 17-foot Whaler. It doesn’t seem to matter that his short-term memory is going or that there are days when he loses track of where he is. He is a man on a mission.

In similar fashion, my mother has been directing clean-up crews by email via her iPad even though her fingers are so arthritic she has to use a stylus. She doesn’t see well and can barely hear any more. But her mind is keen and she is making sure she gets estimates in advance. Each morning this old couple huddles together to plot the day and to scan the news for indications they can return to their home.

Their resilience is a result of both their supportive network and their own agency. Without the network to help them navigate the maelstrom of plumbers, electricians, demolition crews, oil burner replacements, insurance companies, and FEMA (to say nothing of their daily needs), they would be lost. But just as critical is their ability to shift their thinking – to see themselves not as helpless victims of great trauma, but as agents of their own destiny. With the elderly, it is all too easy to do things for them or just tell them what to do. Left to their own devices, they are often agonizingly slow. They get things mixed up. Their inefficiency tries our patience. It is hard to favor their agency over their fragility. Yet, that agency, that frame of mind is paramount if they are to weather whatever disruptions lie ahead.

This kind of resilience for absorbing and reacting to disruption is as important for individuals as it is for cities and communities. Sandy has added urgency to debates over how best to prepare New York City for a future of rising seas and storm surges that are more frequent and more severe. While “hard engineering” solutions like barrier walls and dikes have their champions, the “soft infrastructure” (sometimes called “ecological”) approach is getting a lot of attention as well.

Architect Stephen Cassell, for example, proposed protecting New York’s financial district with a ring of tidal salt marshes and wetlands around lower Manhattan. Rather than try to shield the city from storm surges, such barriers would literally absorb them. Cassell says, “Our goal is to design a more resilient city. We may not always be able to keep the water out, so we wanted to improve the edges and the streets of the city to deal with flooding in a more robust way.” Another architect, Kate Orff, has proposed oyster-encrusted barrier islands to mitigate surges off Brooklyn. As Orff explains, oysters “agglomerate to make rich reef mosaics, and reefs are the most effective way of attenuating waves, because they go deep into the water column, stopping the velocity flow, where it starts to do damage.” What both of these proposals have in common is a focus on enhancing the city’s natural resilience by increasing its ability to absorb the disruption of surges.

In order to adapt to climate change we will need to learn another lesson from Sandy – in the face of major disruptions, centralization can be a major weakness, whereas networks are a source of strength.

Two weeks after Sandy hit, 300,000 people in New York and New Jersey were still without power. In addition, the recovery was slowed by gas rationing. Even where there was ample supply, gas terminals and a significant number of gas stations had no power to pump gas. Conceived in the 19th century, our power grids are simply too centralized. And in the face of a storm like Sandy, our system is actually too big not to fail. This vulnerability places the health and safety of our population at great risk, and it can obviously be enormously disruptive to our economy. So what will replace our centralized power grids?

Once again, networks emerge as part of the solution. Micro-grids that can both be coupled and decoupled from larger grids are within technological reach. Photovoltaics, fuel cells, appliances that generate their own electricity, and ideas yet to be imagined will form decentralized component parts that can be networked together with distributed intelligence. The transition from a centralized grid to locally-generated power systems that can operate independently is not unlike the transition from mainframe to cloud computing. Local agency arranged in networks that can decouple to operate independently is essential to resilience.

As we reflect on Sandy and its implications for the future of our country, we also need to consider the impacts of climate change on poor nations. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were severely damaged and the statue has only just been illuminated again for the first time since the storm. Through our nation’s history, this light has served as a beacon to millions looking for a better life. In the next century, as millions more the world over are displaced by climate change, we can be sure that the pull of that beacon will remain strong.

This is all the more reason to understand and invest in resilience.


Nov 13, 2012

At the EGA Retreat this year, MTA Sustainability Initiatives Director Projjal Dutta discussed the New York Subway and transit trends. He mentioned many potential problems the subway could face with the increasing frequency and intensity of storms from Climate Change. Less than one month later, many of his projections became a reality as Hurricane Sandy landed on the East Coast. Tracy Austin, Executive Director of the Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas, speaks on the topic:

“Scenes from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy had an eerie déjà vu effect. I was immediately reminded of Projjal Dutta’s presentation at the 2012 EGA Retreat. Projjal’s overview of how the MTA is trying to address climate risks that threaten the subway system that so many New Yorkers depend upon, but that we also tend to take for granted, focused mainly on the amount of public expenditure that would be needed to protect the system from climate-related risks. But Hurricane Sandy has shown us in much graphic terms what’s at stake: the toll that climate change will have on human beings and our way of life here in the Big Apple. If there is a silver lining at all in this cloud, it is that ‘Sandy’ is a wake-up call about the urgency of the need to address climate change, through adaption as well as through mitigation. “

Related to Tracy’s notation of a potential ‘silver lining,’ New York politicians are at last openly acknowledging the presence and impacts of Climate Change, which will hopefully lead to protective measures for infrastructure like the New York Subway. As a start, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo have both announced the need for new protective measures of the city and state in high-profile interviews and press conferences. Hopefully this change in the conversation will lead to new policies for adaptation and mitigation not only in New York and the region affected by Sandy, but in the U.S. as a whole. Right now, many dedicated organizations are responding to the immediate aftermath of the storm, providing aid and assistance to those greatly affected, including a noteworthy response by the Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas. If you are interested in providing immediate aid for those impacted, please contact us.