With dozens of world leaders and representatives from 192 countries negotiating in Copenhagen over the fate of the planet, many climate-conscious New York City activists have taken matters into their own hands. Through non-profit work, faith-based action or other creative means, they have helped raise awareness of the issue and are helping keep the metropolitan region a powerhouse in the fight against global warming. Here are profiles of five local activists working to make a difference in their communities both on, and off, campus.
Julie Caracino, East Harlem, HOPE Community
Environmental degradation especially hits home for people living in East Harlem. For decades, some of the worst fossil fuel pollution in the city has made life intolerable for residents in less-affluent communities, which often do not have the political capital to fight the placement of new highways, power plants, factories and refuge transfer stations in their neighborhoods—which all bring more air pollution.
Environmental justice residents like Julie Caracino have stepped up to help clean the air. Caracino works with HOPE Community, a non-profit housing developer based in East Harlem that motivates residents to green their city blocks.
“We know climate change will affect the poorest communities,” Caracino said. Originally from Philadelphia and a New School graduate student, she has trained adult and youth volunteers to plant trees, which decrease the levels of carbon dioxide. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, East Harlem has the highest hospitalization rate for asthma in young children in Manhattan.
Caracino’s efforts also help to build community pride as neighbors connect to reclaim their blocks. Studies have shown that a reduction in crime can be achieved through improving a street’s environmental design.
“Making these greening improvements takes a lot of community involvement, and I feel that’s what the climate movement is all about,” she said.
Maggie Craig, New York University, Green House
New York University student Maggie Craig is not waiting until graduation to make a difference. Along with other students, Craig co-founded NYU’s Green House, an environmentally friendly dormitory that provides 80 students with a sustainable living option.
The Green House is “a place that surrounds you, shapes how you act; makes you think about the climate,” Craig said.
Craig, who hails from Scranton, Pa., said she was inspired by eco-villages and the idea that urban design can help solve ecological problems. The Green House uses low-flow shower heads, non-toxic paint and motion-detector lighting.
Craig, a senior studying environmental studies and journalism, helped spearhead the project as co-facilitator of NYU’s environmental group, Earth Matters, with a grant from the school’s Sustainability Task Force. Craig describes The Green House as a “living community.”
“The world is a canvass for our imaginations,” she said, quoting Henry David Thoreau.
Rachel Loebl, Barnard College, Hillel
Using faith as her inspiration, Rachel Loebl wants to save the planet. A Barnard College senior majoring in History, Loebel helped spearhead a week of climate mitigation advocacy with Columbia University’s Hillel chapter ahead of the International Day of Climate Action Oct. 24.
Galvanized by her volunteer work with an environmental non-profit, she helped organize various campus events including a “study breaker” to learn about the Jewish Climate Change Campaign, a chevruta (shared text and discussion) about the science behind global warming, a discussion to examine the Jewish principles on being stewards of the Earth, and specially themed Shabbats with sermons on environmentalism (the Jewish day of rest where one “contemplates the spiritual aspects of life”).
All in all, Hillel’s week of actions “reached out to more than 200 students” at Columbia, Loebl said. Loebl, who is from Little Rock, Ar., says she was inspired by her work with the NYC-based Jewish environmental organization, Hazon (“vision” in Hebrew).
Hazon’s mission is to “create a healthier and sustainable Jewish community as a step towards a healthier and more sustainable world for all” and coordinates bike rides and other sustainability initiatives around the city with Jewish congregations.
Helene Wasserman, New School, ReNew School
With colleges and universities contributing 2 to 3 percent of the United States’ carbon footprint, students like Helene Wasserman are working hard to curb carbon dioxide emissions within schools. Wasserman, a self-described “ex-patriate” from Switzerland and an environmental studies senior at the New School, is the co-chair of ReNew School, the college’s environmental student organization.
Wasserman has helped organize a number of sustainability initiatives on her campus, including a school-wide ban on disposable water bottles, an item she feels is wasteful and environmentally destructive. Also under Wasserman’s leadership, the New School went from a D-minus to a C-plus in Sustainable Endowments Institute’s 2010 College Sustainability Report Card, a report that compares 322 schools across the United States on their green credentials.
While these are substantial improvements, Wasserman believes more should be done.
“Our actions are not significantly reflected in the Sustainability Report Card as student organizations account for only 35 percent of the student involvement grade,” she said. “The other 65 percent is related to offering sustainability-themed housing options, integrating sustainability into new student orientation, offering sustainability internships opportunities and sustainability challenges and competitions within campus.”
Wasserman is also helping coordinate the school’s Dec. 11 “Vigil for Survival,” an event where students will light candles in strategic locations to express solidarity with the citizens of the nations whose survival is threatened by the climate crisis.
“Hopefully 2010 will be the year of a strong international climate agreement,” she said.
Eva Erbskorn, Fort Greene Greenpeace
Some 5,200 demonstrations were held in 181 countries on the International Day of Climate Action Oct. 24, including in New York City. More than 400 climate activists marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, demanding that all countries lower carbon emissions.
One of the main organizers behind the scenes of this action was Greenpeace NYC field coordinator Eva Erbskorn, who led the rally and march despite the hard rains that fell that day. Erbskorn says she got help from Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both the North and South Poles, and “hopefully not the last!” she said.
A 2007 University of North Carolina-Greensboro nursing graduate, Erbskorn says she grew up in “suburbia” and was inspired to become an environmentalist through her “time with nature,” which helped her realize how everything was interconnected. Since her upbringing and education in North Carolina, Erbskorn moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and has subsequently taken up organizing full-time with Greenpeace, one of the largest environmental organizations in the world.
With a wealth of knowledge on environmental policy, Erbskorn has called for greater leadership from President Barack Obama in combating climate change. She slammed the climate bill debated in Congress as “too weak” and urged activists to keep up the grassroots pressure on leaders in Copenhagen to force them to make solid political commitments, especially in regard to deforestation.
“We need to continue to be motivated and optimistic,” she said.