A portrait of Ben Furnas in a sport jacket

Fresh from Sustainability Success in NYC, Alum Leads Cornell’s ‘2030 Project’ on Climate Change

Environmental advocate Ben Furnas ’06 directs a new University initiative to marshal its resources to protect the planet

By Beth Saulnier

In late December, then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law that will eventually ban the use of natural gas in new buildings in the five boroughs. Among the supporters at the event—held outdoors despite the chill, like so many during COVID—was a prominent staffer who’d helped spearhead it.

As Ben Furnas ’06, then director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability, told the crowd: “This is a historic step toward reaching our carbon neutrality goals and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.”

The achievement capped Furnas’s eight years in various roles in the de Blasio administration, which also included work on such issues as immigration and traffic safety. But promoting environmental sustainability and staving off climate change are his passions—and now, he’s pursuing those goals at his alma mater.

This semester, he became executive director of the 2030 Project, a new Big Red climate initiative; while he’ll remain based in NYC—he lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with his wife and young daughter—he’ll return to the Hill regularly.

Ben Furnas in his 2006 Cornell yearbook portrait
Furnas in the 2006 Cornellian yearbook

An Ithaca native, Furnas double-majored in government and economics; he was active with the student sketch comedy group the Skits and studied abroad at the University of Singapore.

While he holds a law degree from NYU, he has spent the bulk of his career in government policy roles.

Furnas traces his progressive activism, in large part, to his years at an Ithaca alternative public school that stresses self-governance and community involvement.

He also cites the influence of his parents: his mom, an elementary school music teacher, was involved in opposing the natural gas extraction technique known as fracking, while his dad, a longtime staffer at Cornell’s Mathematics Support Center, instilled a love of nature through regular hikes in the region’s parks and gorges.

How do you answer someone who says, “I believe climate change is real—but as one person, what can I do?”

The problem can feel really large, but there are ways to shift away from fossil fuels toward cleaner alternatives—like electric cars, or switching from a furnace to a heat pump. But a big thing is to support politicians who are dedicated to real change on climate. There’s a temptation to think we can all make our tiny choices and that’ll be enough, but it’s going to take major systemic changes as well.

What are some ways in which you incorporate green practices into your own life?

I have a bike that I like using to get around New York City, and I take the subway and mass transit whenever I can. I try to eat vegetarian and reduce the climate consequences of my food. I’ve been talking to my landlord about shifting away from fossil fuels, but that’s a complicated conversation.

What are you most proud of from your time in NYC government?

One thing is that we entered into an agreement to purchase 100% of the city government’s electricity—about as much as the entire state of Vermont uses each year—from clean and renewable sources. Right now, a lot of the city’s electricity comes from natural gas power plants in the five boroughs—so in addition to helping fight climate change, this will improve air quality, particularly in neighborhoods that have suffered from dirty air for too long.

Ben Furnas standing at a podium in front of a crowd in NYC
Furnas speaking at a December 2021 event in which then-NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law that will eventually ban fossil fuel combustion in newly constructed buildings, among other provisions. (Photo by Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

You also helped pass a law banning new gas hookups. Since people often worry that greener practices will mean lifestyle sacrifices, how can you reassure despondent home chefs?

Cooking is shifting away from natural gas to advanced induction stoves, which are as different from the old electric coils as a flip phone is from an iPhone—more reliable, clean, efficient, and easy to use. Also, there has been a good amount of research on the indoor air quality consequences of gas stoves. This is exactly the type of technological change we’re looking to embrace as we shift away from fossil fuels, and a great example of how taking action on climate can mean other important benefits for human lives.

Your successes in NYC could have propelled you to a position at the federal level. What made you want to head up this new Big Red initiative?

Cornell is uniquely situated to speak to important questions in climate change—whether it’s advancing battery technology or managing dairy farming across Upstate New York. And the University has set some ambitious, thoughtful goals for its own campus; it has been out in front with Lake Source Cooling and Earth Source Heat. Ithaca has similarly ambitious goals, so I think of Cornell as part of the broader community of climate action.

Could you describe the 2030 Project?

It will support climate work across the University, and make it clear that Cornell is mobilizing to support climate action at the local, state, and federal levels, with all the tools of an advanced research university. We’ll be thinking about new technologies we can help develop, new ways of approaching policy—collaborating with faculty and deans to accelerate efforts to put Cornell’s world-class minds, labs, and fields to work to address climate change.

Cornell is uniquely situated to speak to important questions in climate change.

What’s the significance of its name?

At the most recent U.N. conference of global leaders on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland, President Biden and many others referred to 2020–30 as a decisive decade; also, a lot of national and state goals have a 2030 deadline. It represents that this is a limited, but important, stretch of time to mobilize on this issue.

As an undergrad, you did a lot of sketch comedy. Does a sense of humor come in handy when you’re dealing with something so grave?

When I think about the role of humor, it’s part of thinking about, “What are we saving humans for?” It’s so we can live meaningful lives, full of joy and happiness. Also, there are many absurd things across politics and government; sometimes, it’s calming to relish the absurdity.

Overall, how does working in this field inform how you walk through the world?

It gives me a sobering sense of how much work there is to do. Fossil fuels are core aspects of almost every human system. Look at all the cars that have internal combustion engines, every building that has a boiler in it, all the concrete and steel, every piece of plastic, the food we eat—all these things that make a modern, healthy, prosperous life.

The way you describe it sounds so overwhelming.

The great challenge of our time is to maintain these amazing benefits and continue to expand them to more people around the world, while reducing their negative climate consequences. And if it’s done thoughtfully, it can improve other aspects of our lives—cleaning our air, increasing biodiversity, reducing inequity, expanding justice, empowering communities, creating high-quality jobs. It’s exciting, but it’s daunting to think about the work we have to do in the time we have.

On a philosophical level, did your thinking around this intensify when you became a dad?

It’s a cheesy cliché, but it’s genuine. In 2050, my daughter will be 30. It would be totally lovely if, by then, climate change is not something she’s concerned with, because we’ve laid the groundwork for safer, more sustainable systems for her to live in. The universe is vast, but humans have this infinitesimally small amount of space where we can live and flourish. It just makes sense that we’d protect it.

Top image: Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University

Published February 15, 2022


Comments

  1. Alan Alexandroff, Class of 1972

    But it is interesting that ‘Agenda 2030’ is concerned with systemic change well beyond just climate – Goals, 14 15 and 16. Should there not be some recognition of the wider transformation being urged with Agenda 2030.

  2. Neal F Jordan, Class of 1955

    Does Cornell still teach thermodynamics? It is a waste of energy to convert natural gas into electricity and then to use that electricity for heating or cooking for which the gas might have been used directly and more efficiently. And, it is an illusion to think that the electricity will all come from solar or wind energy thus obviating the need for fossil fuel power generation.

  3. Great point Neal! See below for the impact of electrifying New York from energy research firm IHS (link attached below):

    “For example, electricity delivered by wire is less well suited for meeting the need to produce heat, either for industrial processes or for heating buildings, the study notes. The IHS Markit case study of New York—whose current power system is sized at 31 GW—would require a system sized to over 150 GW for the full electrification of heating (and even with the full deployment of air-sourced heat pumps, the system would need to be 133 GW).”

    It would very expensive and difficult to increase NY’s over 4x, while minimizing the impact on the less fortunate.

    News Release | IHS Markit Online Newsroom

    https://news.ihsmarkit.com/prviewer/release_only/slug/bizwire-2021-8-3-ihs-markit-ability-of-natural-gas-infrastructure-to-be-converted-to-carry-low-carbon-fuels-will-enable-gas-to-become-a-second-pillar-of-decarbonization-alongside-renewables?hsid=b073c1a1-4cf3-4c20-82b9-9239abd4d3fc

  4. Robert G. Morrison, Class of 1973

    In the last 20 years alone, China has increased its carbon dioxide emissions by more than the entire US annual output, and continues to climb. China and India emit more CO2 than the US, EU, UK, Japan, Russia, and Canada combined, and will build more coal generation plants by 2030 than exist in all of those countries combined. China, India and the rest of the world emit about 65% of world emissions, and climbing.

    To my point: NYC could entirety disappear and it would have no effect whatsoever on worldwide CO2 emissions. For that matter, all of NY State could disappear and not register even a temporary blip in rising atmospheric carbon dioxide. None of these efforts can, nor will, have any effect on our climate. In the immortal words of Dean Wormer, “Zero point Zero”.
    The 2017 National Climate Assessment states:
    “The Dust Bowl era of the 1930s remains the peak period for extreme heat.”
    And:
    “Paleo-temperature evidence shows that recent decades are the warmest of the past 1,500 years.”

    Cornell’s own excellent, long running weather station data confirms that temperatures in Ithaca are no higher now than during the 1930’s. This is true for most of the contiguous US, where the decade of the 1930’s remains the warmest on record. The “paleo-temperature evidence” means Earth was warmer in the days of King Arthur and when the Vikings settled Greenland. It was warmer yet during the Roman Warm Period. Funny, I never heard my grandparents remark about the terrible “climate crisis” of the 30’s. They seemed fixated on the troubles of some Great Depression thing, and a second world war.
    I have a close friend on the Board of a Queens co-op, about a thousand families. The NYC and NY state “climate” regulations, forced by unknowing, innumerate and scientifically illiterate politicians acting oh so bravely to fight “climate change”, will cost those mostly elderly co-op residents about $65M in the next couple of years alone, and perhaps another $30M thereafter, to conform to completely worthless emission reduction targets. Complete and total waste of money. Why not have a go at China instead? Ha.
    A modern society cannot run on non-dispatchable power, meaning random wind and sunlight. Wait for it, as what happened in Texas during the two week freeze last year is coming to NY some day under the current law…
    “While there are hundreds of projects in the NYISO interconnection queue, there are none that would be capable of providing dispatchable emission-free resources that could perform on a multi-day period to maintain bulk power system reliability. Such resources are not yet widely commercially available.”
    Page 48 of the 2021-2030 Comprehensive Reliability Plan –

    Classic caveat, the last sentence nicely stating the obvious that “you people have no idea what you’re doing”.

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