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OPINION: As labour shortages hamper climate action, NYC proposes a solution

by Jesse M. Keenan | Tulane University
Tuesday, 13 July 2021 11:39 GMT

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team pass Governors Island on their approach to Manhattan, New York City, U.S. April 28, 2020. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush/Handout via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Could a new Center for Climate Solutions in New York City help close the talent gap - and inspire a new generation?

Jesse M. Keenan is an associate professor and social scientist at Tulane University’s School of Architecture, whose research focuses on climate change adaptation and the built environment.

Most of the people running climate change policy and action in the U.S. government are longstanding federal employees who have been reassigned from their normal day jobs. The upside is that the federal government benefits from seasoned public servants who know the ins and outs of government.

But, it also leaves home agencies short-staffed to do the ground work necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

Part of the problem is that the Trump administration pushed out many senior public servants with expertise in environmental and climate issues. However, the more immediate challenge is a lack of job candidates with the training and skills necessary to do the work necessary to push forward the U.S.’s renewed commitment for climate action. 

The government needs experts—in dozens of job categories—with a working knowledge of climate science, policy, and technology. We are not talking about the jobs that come with maintaining wind turbines and building electric vehicles—we are talking about accountants, nurses and vehicle mechanics. 

The private sector is even more constrained when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent. There simply are not enough people with the requisite training to fill the jobs that the private sector needs.

As public companies increasingly feel the pressure to disclose and address climate risks and carbon emissions, they are in a race to build entire climate units in operations, governance and investor relations.

Higher education institutions have been slow to address this labor shortage. Columbia University might be the exception—they launched an entire Climate School.

Here at Tulane University, we offer university-wide courses for any undergraduate major to study climate mitigation and adaptation. This simply won’t cut it.

What the economy really needs are new degree programs and continuing education certifications to bring the workforce up to speed. For more advanced research and development investments on the horizon, the U.S. will need thousands of new PhDs, researchers and professors to maintain a global innovation advantage.

New York City sees the writing on the wall and local leaders believe that the city’s knowledge economy is primed to accelerate the emergence of a new climate services sector.

The city recently released a public request to solicit global institutions who might be interested in building a flagship center for climate education and research. To sweeten the deal, the city is offering up to $150 million in capital investments and a prime location on Governor’s Island—an island just feet off of the shoreline of Wall Street.

The Center for Climate Solutions is one part convening center with classrooms and laboratories and one part accelerator for commercializing good ideas in the public interest.

The challenge is attract world’s top talent and give them the platform to work with the local labor force to co-create new products and services. NYC’s labor force is one of the most diverse in the world and there is specialized expertise in the city that exists in few other places.

There is also an opportunity to develop new types of jobs that offer opportunities for technical training that is more accessible for low-to-moderate income communities.

This is exactly what they did at RDM in the old dry dock facilities in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The institute provided technical training for local youth that was matched with start-ups to drive manufacturing innovation in a variety of eco-products from electric bikes to materials for floating architecture. The match making worked.

NYC hopes to build off of their successful launch of a similar technology institute on Roosevelt Island that attracted a partnership of Cornell University and Israel’s Technion. This institute has been viewed as critical for providing the local talent necessary to support local workforce investments by Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.    

The ambition for Governors Island goes well beyond technology and talent development. The idea is to bring the public closer to connecting with the monumental task of educating ourselves about what comes next. As a cultural center, the island is positioned to redefine science communications and to stimulate a public conversation about the transformative power of science.

It has been a full generation since NASA crafted their public relations strategy to inspire a new generation of young astronauts. America desperately needs climate role models and Governors Island wants to be America’s new Cape Canaveral—one part science, one par inspiration.

Before kids can grow up to be climate adaptation managers, they need to be inspired and empowered to see themselves making a difference in the world.

The irony should not be lost of what it means to build a climate “solutions” center on an island in the middle of the one world’s most vulnerable cities to sea level rise.

NYC will have to build and innovate its way out of hole. But, it is people that will do the building—not Wall Street banks or federal policymakers.

The Center for Climate Solutions is a monumental step for recruiting the next generation of builders whose labor will define our collective failure or success in addressing the climate crisis.