Ben Furnas ’06 was appointed director of the New York Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability — the organization responsible for reducing carbon emissions and physical waste by managing roadways, rethinking public transportation and optimizing the electrical grid.
“Our office is charged with working closely with other agencies, such as the Office of Climate Resiliency, to both fight climate change and improve quality of our air, the quality of our water and correct inequities associated with [water quality, pollution and air quality],” Furnas said.
According to Furnas, New York City government operations use entirely renewable energy and he hopes to extend that to power the five boroughs completely with renewable energy.
“New York is a city of islands, so we are going to see many effects associated with climate change,” Furnas said. “From rising sea levels, increased heat, to increased precipitation, on some fundamental level you know New York needs to be doing its part to reduce human contribution to climate change.”
While Furnas said he hopes to stave off some of the effects of climate change in New York, he also aspires to create a model that other cities can follow.
“If we can show the way that cities and people who live in cities can reduce [their] contributions to climate change, hopefully that can be replicated in communities all over the world,” Furnas said. “[Sustainable living is a] big part of how we’re going to be reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.”
Furnas also said he believes that mitigating the effects of climate change is an opportunity to address inequities in the city through environmental justice initiatives.
Furnas’ office, for example, worked to develop a renewable energy bus system aimed to serve more than 60,000 riders a day in Washington Heights.
Furnas began his career in local politics in 2013, when he worked on the 2013 Bill de Blasio campaign for mayor, and spearheaded a street safety agenda called Vision Zero.
Vision Zero aimed to bring down the level of traffic fatalities and serious injuries associated with people making their way around New York. A significant change that paid dividends was making the city more pleasant to walk and bike, in part by creating more bike lanes.
During the past year, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability built more bike lanes than it had in any other year in history previously.
Before his time in New York, Furnas worked at the Center for American Progress, which sparked his interest in developing and implementing climate policy measures to benefit the D.C. community.
Eventually, Furnas moved to New York City to attend law school at New York University, where his interest his interest in city government grew.
According to Furnas, working in D.C. made him feel less connected to the effects of his climate action initiatives, as he said he didn’t see the immediate impact of his work. This disconnect fueled his decision to pivot towards city government, where he could experience the effects of policy making throughout the community.
While Furnas has lived in some of the country’s largest cities, he said he partially attributes his interest in sustainability and his environmental values to his upbringing in Ithaca, and his undergraduate government and economic professors.
“Sustainability is definitely in the bloodstream of folks who grew up in Ithaca,” he said, “along with thinking holistically about our impacts on the planet and also how to create a better future for our societies and communities.”