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governors island

Taking the Helm

The new chief of The Exchange shares his outlook as the
Center for Climate Solutions begins to take shape
 

Stephen Hammer

Stephen Hammer, outside his Governors Island office, was named founding CEO of The Exchange on November 9, 2023 and began his new role on December 1.

A year ago this April, The New York Climate Exchange — a nonprofit organization anchored by Stony Brook University — was selected by New York City to create the Center for Climate Solutions on Governors Island. This first-of-its-kind collaborative center will bring together academic, business and community partners to develop and deploy dynamic solutions to our global climate crisis with the ultimate goal of creating a brighter, more sustainable future.  

As one of the world’s leading experts on global climate policy with more than 30 years experience, Stephen Hammer, PhD, is ideally suited to guide the building of the Center and foster connections as the founding chief executive of The Exchange.

Recently, President Maurie McInnis, chair of the board of directors of The Exchange, talked with Hammer about his new role.



With your background, it’s almost as if you were born to take on this role. How will your past experience help guide you as you work to build The Exchange?

I’ve worked on environmental issues for virtually my entire professional and academic career, dating back to college. My first job after graduation was working for New York City’s Department of Sanitation, which was quite eye-opening for a kid from California. But I had family here, and although I thought I’d only stay east for a few years, that’s turned into several decades! There were twists and turns along the way, shifting from solid waste and resource management issues to renewables and then to climate policy. I started teaching during this time as well, first at The New School, then at Columbia University and Pratt Institute, and finally at MIT. My teaching and research was very focused on urban energy systems and policy, and then on urban climate resilience. That focus led to active engagement with the Bloomberg team working on PlaNYC, and then with mayors in China. I was rather surprised when the World Bank reached out, but it was an extraordinary experience to be their first Global Lead on Cities and Climate, and ultimately shift to the global climate team where I represented the Bank internationally in global climate discussions. All of this means I have familiarity with many things central to our operating model: how to engage university faculty in our work; our focus on New York City, both at the city and neighborhood levels; our engagement with the U.N. and Wall Street; our work with community-level partners; my knowledge of the most pressing mitigation and adaptation topics, etc. I’m finding this incredibly helpful as we build out the team and think about our year 1 programming.

With an endeavor of this scope, where do you start? Can you talk about some of your long- and short-range plans for getting The Exchange up and running?  

President McInnis with Stephen Hammer

President Maurie McInnis and Stephen Hammer during a tour of the OceanX research vessel, which was in port during COP28, the United Nation’s annual conference on climate change.

I’m quite fortunate that the board and our partner organizations did an extraordinary amount of work in 2023 that gave us a solid foundation on which to build this year. Work is advancing rapidly on the engineering and design of the new campus on Governors Island. We just had our first public programming event of the year last week at NYU; we’re starting to recruit our new team…it’s a lot of balls to have in the air, I will admit. A lot of this winter has involved simply meeting with partners, to understand why they joined The Exchange and the wide array of expertise and ideas they bring to the table. 

One of the biggest needs we have is to come to a collective understanding of what it means to create an Exchange activity. Each of our partners is doing so much, but our goal is to pursue activities that result in something that is far greater than the sum of our individual parts. So we’ll be convening several workshops in the coming months to bring together partners and other key stakeholders to brainstorm what Exchange activities might look like that are related to adaptation and resilience, the push for a net-zero energy transition, climate and health, climate justice, workforce development, AI and climate, and the like. These will be critical to understand what’s already going on, what are some of the key challenges that a partnership like ours is well-suited to address, and which ones we move forward on first.

But in terms of quick wins, be on the lookout for some Earth Week programming in April, a summer internship program this summer and the opening of conference space on Governors Island that will allow us to hold programming there by New York Climate Week in September. We’ll also make some announcements in the coming month or so on key strategic partnerships linked to specific programming activities.

What excites you most about taking on this role?

That’s easy — how supportive and excited people are about the vision that the partners have for The Exchange. Huge credit goes to you, Maurie, and to your colleagues here at Stony Brook, for pulling together the diverse coalition and having the strategy to bring so many different, yet interrelated elements together in a single place — research, education, tech incubation and convening.

The domestic and international policymakers and practitioners I’m talking to have never heard of an undertaking of this type and scale. And to do this on an island in the middle of New York City? There is broad consensus that such an audacious idea is a perfect fit for New York, and can leverage so many of the assets that the city itself brings to the table: renowned climate policy leadership; the city’s role as a financial, arts, culture and media capital…its growing role as an incubator of climate tech. How could one NOT be excited by this?

Khadeeja Naseem, Stephen Hammer, Jimena Leiva

During COP28, Hammer met with Khadeeja Naseem (now former) Minister of State for Environment, Climate Change and Technology of the Maldives and (right) Jimena Leiva Roesch, Director of Global Initiatives and Head of Peace, Climate and Sustainable Development at the International Peace Institute.

Partnership will be key to The Exchange. What is your vision for collaboration between our academic, business and nonprofit partners?

We need to do things differently. The essential premise is that different voices are needed to craft viable solutions that work at speed and scale.  

That doesn’t make it easy, however. We have over 45 partner organizations, institutions and firms coming together in The Exchange. The bandwidth of each partner varies, areas of specialization vary, and resource levels vary. We’re going to be very creative to ensure that we engage partners in ways that navigate but embrace these differences.

We’re also going to engage with partners outside of this group. These may include city or state agencies, international networks of cities, sector-specific trade groups, financial institutions, or elements of the climate negotiations process. Each has compelling issues they are trying to address, and they are approaching us because they see the assets our partners bring to the table — and indeed our partnership model itself — as extraordinarily compelling.

This past December, I attended my first U.N. Conference on Climate Change. I found it incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by so many people dedicated to finding solutions. Who have you met that continues to inspire you?

I’ve long found that youth groups and students are among the most inspirational groups I’ve dealt with. Because of their clear vested interest, their commitment level is off the charts, as is their interest in understanding the institutional environment in which policy and financial decisions are made. A friend of mine has framed this as an attempt to figure out how to “hack” the system…in a good way, bringing new approaches and ideas to bear on old, intractable problems.

This is one of the reasons I’m very excited about our goal of having climate literacy as a core tenet of our work. Working with school-age children is one component, but we’re also committed to hosting courses on Governors Island targeting undergrads and grad students.  Some of the partners have some very exciting ideas that link to climate literacy, and I’m hopeful we can make some announcements on that in the next several months.

Given how temperatures have continued to set records each year, is there still time to make an impact through education and programming within the next five or 10 years?

Do we have a choice? We need to work on both fronts, figuring out how to help accelerate and scale the shift to a lower-carbon lifestyle and economy, but we also need to seriously ramp up our understanding and efforts focused on climate adaptation and resilience. The Canadian fires last summer were a wake-up call for many New Yorkers…people were stunned that climate impacts emanating 1,000-plus miles away would affect us locally, turning the sky orange and causing asthma attack levels to skyrocket. That was one thing that many people — me included — didn’t have on our bingo card for how climate change would affect New York City.

An important part of our approach will be emphasizing that challenges can also equal opportunities. The City of New York has released the new Green Economy Action Plan, which reinforces the potential for new and different types of jobs that will be created as we navigate this transition. Whether it’s supporting the offshore wind industry, the city’s new local law targeting building-related emissions or folks trying to reintroduce oysters to New York Harbor, there are new jobs being created and jobs that will change to embrace the use of both old and new technologies.

How can our community be part of the solution to stop climate change?

Vote for politicians who are serious about tackling climate change! That’s critical. Markets won’t change if they don’t see consistent policy signals. Resources won’t flow to improve our public transport options or create incentives for a transition to electric vehicles or heat pumps.

As much as we can, families should embrace less carbon-intensive transport options. There was a story in the press a few weeks ago noting that most kids are now driven to school rather than riding a school bus. Unless everyone is driving an electric vehicle, emission levels and traffic congestion are likely increasing as a result.

What are one or two things every person could or should do to help mitigate climate change?

Greta Thunberg with Steve Hammer

Greta Thunberg with Steve Hammer. During his career, Stephen Hammer has met the world’s leading climate scientists and activists and has been attending the United Nation’s annual conference on climate change for many years.

I’ll double down on my previous answer: Vote for people who want to embrace climate action. Vote for people who favor teaching climate change in our schools. Vote for people who want to invest in public transportation and a less carbon-intensive grid. I could keep going…because the reality is that our ability as individuals to change is partly predicated upon our having the right policy and market-enabling environment in place. That requires having folks in office who understand what lies ahead and aren’t fixated on continuing to lock in the same technology, policy and economic structure that has brought us to the point we’re at today. 

And then I hope folks will be excited and come participate in Exchange programming. We should have activities that engage everyone, through arts programming, to lectures, to online classes, to visiting the Island to learn from our buildings, which will be a living lab. The Exchange wants to reach people of all ages, backgrounds and levels of interest. Let us know what we can do to make The Exchange speak to YOU!

 

To learn more about The Exchange and how you can get involved, please visit nyclimateexchange.org