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We, the People, Demand Green Buildings

Marianne Schaefer in Green Ideas on September 19, 2019

New York City

Russell Unger

Russell Unger, former executive director of the Urban Green Council.

Sept. 19, 2019

New York City’s ambitious Climate Mobilization Act has inspired a lot of head-scratching – and some raw terror – among co-op and condo boards. How, many are wondering, can we possibly pay for the retrofits that will reduce our building’s carbon emissions by the mandated 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050? 

Russell Unger, the former executive director of the nonprofit Urban Green Council and a driving force behind the Climate Mobilization Act, points that the law grew out of eight months of discussions among 70 individuals from more than 40 organizations in the worlds of real estate, labor, energy efficiency, and the nonprofit and government sectors. It is, in other words, what people want. 

“If you had told me 15 years ago that community groups would be the driving force for greener buildings, I would not have believed it,” Unger says. “These groups are what will sustain the momentum of the environmental movement over the long term.” 

How times have changed. When Unger became executive director of the Urban Green Council in 2007, he was the only staff member. He had no office. From there he built up the staff and the infrastructure of the organization. “Eventually we had as many as 20 people on staff,” he says. “But an enormous amount of what the organization does is through pro-bono committees. Urban Green has had at any given time anywhere from 50 to several hundred people working on an initiative. The staff ended up managing a large group of pro-bono experts, interns, and volunteers, all working for greener buildings.” 

At the end of August, Unger stepped down from the Urban Green Council and is now a consultant working with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the Public Service Commission. “My job is to generate new ideas on how we can reduce energy consumption in existing multifamily buildings,” Unger says. Again, he is not doing this in a vacuum, he is listening to people who are involved with buildings – the owners, managing agents, architects, contractors, and engineers. “Policy works only if you understand your audience,” he says. “What issues drive them to more energy efficiency, and what issues are getting in the way?  If it doesn’t make sense on a business level, then we will not see the desired results.” 

The city has come a long way. Carbon emissions have been reduced even as the city has continued to grow. Unger believes that the widespread desire for a cleaner environment means few people blink anymore when setting goals for 2030 or even 2050. “Since I had kids, I’ve started to think much more in decades than in years,” Unger says. “You have to think about their future and their college funds and all that many years in advance. I believe all parents think that way. We all want our kids to have that future.” 

Kids want it too, it turns out. On Friday, New York City public school students will be allowed to skip class without penalty to join the Global Climate Strike, including a march from Foley Square to Battery Park to demand climate action from elected officials. At least 800 such events are planned in all 50 states, which will be the largest demonstration on climate in the nation’s history. Millions are expected to participate in similar events in 150 countries worldwide. Then, on September 23, the United Nations Climate Action Summit takes place here. 

Even in a country where the president is a climate-change denier, it’s hard to argue with Unger’s assertion that the demand for action is pervasive, and it’s coming from the grass roots. “I think our work is all the more important when there is a federal push in the other direction,” Unger says.

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