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Sustainable Action lectures address flooding, environmental justice

Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of flood risk in many densely populated parts of the United States: high-tide flooding is now four to ten times more frequent than it was 50 years ago, and the number of major floods causing over $1 billion in damages has skyrocketed in the past decade.

Climate-related flooding and environmental justice are the central topics this spring in a new lecture series sponsored by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. The inaugural Sustainable Action Lecture series will begin April 12 and April 25, and will host two sets of collaborators: each led by one Cornell faculty member and one partner with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

“The goal of these lectures is to highlight the role of transdisciplinary work in bringing research to impact,” said Beth Fox, director of student and postdoctoral programs at Cornell Atkinson. “These lectures provide a unique opportunity for Cornell faculty and their collaborators to discuss how research is designed and conducted. It's also a great opportunity for students and postdocs to learn by example as they prepare to have an impact in the next phase of their careers.”

The lecture series stems from Cornell Atkinson’s partnership with EDF, which supports EDF-Cornell faculty collaborative research, provides professional development opportunities for Cornell and EDF postdoctoral researchers, and enables summer internships at EDF for Cornell students. Atkinson supports more than twenty joint research partnerships, addressing topics from emissions reduction to biodiversity.

EDF partners who are co-presenting this spring will be brought to campus for three-day residencies. The first two Sustainable Action Lectures are:

April 12: Integrating Equity into Benefit-Cost Analysis of Flood Risk Management

Government agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are required to make cost-benefit calculations about how to spend their funds mitigating and responding to disasters. Many of those calculations are based on factors like home value and replacement costs, which means that homeowners in working-class and minority neighborhoods end up receiving less flood protection and recovery support than wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

“We already know, because of a variety of historic government policy choices and social and cultural reasons, that there are racial differences in home values,” said Todd Gerarden, assistant professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and a Cornell Atkinson scholar. “When those numbers are fed into this process that decides which homes to protect and which not, that bias carries through.”

Gerarden and Dave McLaughlin, an economist with EDF, and their teams have scoured Army Corps documentation to understand how cost-benefit decisions are made, and how they could be adjusted to be more equitable. McLaughlin credited Gerarden with bringing a thoroughness and rigor typical of academia to the partnership, while Gerarden praised McLaughlin’s capacity to follow legislation and regulatory action in a way that can make their research immediately relevant. For example, the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 calls on the Army Corps to consider environmental justice in its disbursement of funds, McLaughlin said. The Army Corps has put out a request for information on how to comply with that mandate, and the recommendations he and Gerarden are developing will address it directly, he said.

The Atkinson grant to support this research has also acted as seed funding, McLaughlin said: EDF has since earned two other grants to continue this work. They will present April 12 at 4 p.m. in 401 Warren Hall.

April 25: Cooperative Adaptation Strategies for Affordable Housing in New York City

Because of rising sea levels and more-frequent major storms, New York City already experiences and faces growing flood risks: the number of New Yorkers directly threatened by flooding could double by 2080, and lower-income housing is particularly threatened.

Linda Shi, an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and an Atkinson scholar, and Kate Boicourt, director of EDF’s New York-New Jersey Climate Resilient Coasts and Watersheds program, are exploring how cooperative-owned housing in New York City can adapt to and mitigate flood risks. A major housing type – in Manhattan alone, approximately 75% of all residential units are co-ops – the legislation governing FEMA funds has historically limited flood insurance and disaster support for co-op and condominium building spaces compared to single family homes.

“If you have a co-op building and your particular unit is damaged, it can support the recovery of the things inside your four walls. But if the lobby or the basement and the boiler are damaged, they have not been eligible for recovery funds,” Shi said.

Boicourt and Shi have partnered with a New York co-op housing organization, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and are preparing to send surveys to 1,200 co-ops located in flood plains to ask about their experiences with flooding, heatwaves and other environmental harms, and to ask how they’ve addressed previous disasters.

Because of recent federal legislation supporting climate adaptation, particularly the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, there are funds available, but advocates and policymakers must be thoughtful about spending them in ways that can address both greenhouse gas reductions and flood protection, Boicourt said.

“In New York, the biggest land-use challenges we have are growing and adapting our communities to meet the dual crises of housing availability and affordability and climate change, and we need to be thinking about how we address both at the same time. And yet, the coalitions and organizations that work on these issues are largely siloed,” Boicourt said, praising the Atkinson model of funding partnership-based projects. “We need more of these types of projects that bring together environmental experts, housing experts, finance experts and think about all these things at once, because if we don’t, the solutions will get a lot harder.”

Their lecture is scheduled for April 25 at 4 p.m. in 102 Mann Library.


Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.

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