Cities produce most of the carbon pollution heating up the planet. It makes sense they would be key to reducing it. Katherine “Kerry” Constabile ’01, SIPA’06 has bet her career on it.
In a variety of jobs straddling science and policy, environmental advocacy and economic development, Constabile has stuck to her belief that cities, home to more than half of the world’s population, are the building blocks of a sustainable future.
“In cities, citizens are close to where decisions are made,” she says. “Cities are also hotbeds of innovation.”
Constabile is the lead cities adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s climate change team, the group that quietly orchestrated last December’s climate deal in Paris. After nearly 25 years of inaction, 195 countries agreed to set voluntary goals to limit warming, phase out carbon emissions by mid-century and help poor countries adapt to climate change and develop clean-energy technology.The stalemate appeared to end suddenly but the groundwork had been painstakingly laid for nearly two years in an office that works hard to stay in the background. Faced with long odds that national leaders would agree to a binding climate treaty, Ban shifted tacks just as Constabile joined his office. The problem would be approached from the bottom up.
In March 2014, Constabile and the climate team began to meet weekly with a group of 10 organizations, from Bloomberg Philanthropies to The World Bank. Their goal: to talk cities and companies into cutting emissions and investing in clean energy solutions, prodding national governments to act. “Cities, CEOs and citizens — these are the levers to make national governments more ambitious,” says Constabile.
The momentum shifted at the UN Climate Summit in New York that September. Several coalitions that Constabile and her team helped bring about were announced, among them the Compact of Mayors, a forum for cities to pledge to reduce emissions. A group of institutional investors promised to decarbonize $100 billion in assets. And the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance was announced to help governments line up financing to adapt to rising seas and warmer temperatures, and to lower emissions by improving energy efficiency in buildings, expanding public transit and investing in renewable energy, among other tactics.
The summit paved the way for the critical United States-China climate deal two months later, along with pledges from a growing number of cities (now up to 420) to cut emissions. Much of what Constabile and the climate team did behind the scenes is confidential, but she is able to say that they wrote speeches, traveled extensively to meet officials and organized calls, emails and events to advance the cause.
Her persistence has impressed those who have worked with her. “Kerry is smart, determined, pragmatic and not least, charming,” says John Tidmarsh, CIO for R20 Regions of Climate Action, a public-private consortium founded by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to accelerate the shift to a low-carbon economy. “She manages to get what she wants while making others think it was their idea.”
Constabile carries a small camera with her to document historic moments, a hobby she picked up at Columbia in Thomas Roma’s “Intro to Photography” class. Her photos of Bloomberg and Ban have run in news outlets across the globe.
Raised in suburban Larchmont, N.Y., Constabile is equally at home in rural and urban settings. She spent a year at Reed College in Oregon before New York’s arts and culture scene called her back.
Transferring to Columbia as a sophomore, she worked part-time at the Whitney Museum of American Art while studying political science and art history. She co-founded a student group, Urban Roots, to expose city kids to the outdoors, and in a work-study job with UNESCO helped organize the first global conference on biodiversity in cities.
Constabile’s studies at SIPA convinced her that economic incentives work best to change behavior.
Constabile spent a year in Costa Rica studying the effects of deforestation on climate before joining Grist, a startup environmental news magazine in Seattle. There, she researched answers for “Ask Umbra,” an Ann Landers-style column for environmentalists that she still reads.
Returning to New York in 2004 to study at SIPA, Constabile analyzed the success of fisheries quotas in Namibia and Chile. It convinced her that economic incentives work best to change behavior. Not long after the European Union launched a carbon market to address climate change, she moved to London to work in sustainable investing.
While Constabile was away, a charismatic senator emerged on the national stage. She volunteered for Barack Obama ’83’s campaign from abroad and when he clinched the Presidential nomination, she moved to New Hampshire to help campaign leadership there.
After Obama was elected, Constabile became lead adviser on urban planning for UNICEF, where she dove deeply into countryspecific data on water quality, sanitation, health care and education. Separating city indicators from rural ones, she was able to show that relatively little aid was going to the urban poor. Her analysis opened a debate that continues today on shifting aid to slums, home to an anticipated 1.6 billion people by 2050. “Data makes the invisible visible,” she says.
Most of the world’s great cities sit beside water, and rich and poor alike are at risk of being swamped by rising seas. A warmer climate also spells trouble for agriculture, biodiversity, human health and attempts to reduce poverty and inequality. “It’s the most pressing issue of our time,” Constabile says. “If we don’t get this right we don’t get anything right. The key now is to capitalize on the momentum and do more, quickly, at the most local of levels.”
Kim Martineau JRN’97 leads communications at Columbia’s Data Science Institute.
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