Climate Change Fellow | From NYC to Bogota

By Irene Boland Nielson 

Have you ever wondered what your job would be like in another country?

For two weeks, I worked as a Climate Change Fellow in Bogota, Colombia part of a program funded by the Partnership of the Americas. My desk in the office of the Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies in downtown Bogota overlooked a busy street with crowded bus lanes not unlike rush hour on Broadway. If I squinted, the street could easily be mistaken for the old Bowery. My assignment was to develop strategies to address the already observed and predicted changes in climate for the Bogota regional integrated plan.  The plan will encompass not only the city, but also the surrounding Cudinmarca region’s vital food production, agricultural products and watershed. We discussed protecting the pristine watershed for the drinking water of a city of eight million people. No, I’m not talking about the Catskills reservoir, but rather the Chingaza páramo, an Andean tundra that sponges rainfall to slake the thirst of Bogoteños.  We discussed the city’s “lungs” (no, not Central Park, but the National Park) as a respite from the city’s dirty air and traffic. Our office windows in Bogota were operable and let in clouds of particulates from the diesel buses lurching below.  Most days, I crammed into the Transmillenio, a modern transit system already under expansion to meet growing crowds. The multitudes of private diesel commuter buses provided a vital option for Bogoteños who face limited driving days based on their license plate number.

Colombia is directly impacted by the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Driven by unusually high water surface temperatures in the Pacific, the El Niño phenomenom and it’s opposing condition of unusually cool water surface temperatures,La Niña, have alternately yielded periods of drought and extreme rainfall. According to the World Bank, Colombia is one of the Latin American countries most impacted by climate. I learned about the 72% loss of Santa Isabel glacier (yes, Colombia has six glaciers) and the thousands who have lost their homes in devastating landslides, caused by weeks of intense rainfall on sloping neighborhoods.  Climate disruptions have depleted coffee crops and the important flower export yields, not unlike the maple syrup industry shocks this season in the Northeast U.S. and concerns about how to cool New York’s cattle from blistering summers that stifle milk production.  Colombians are very aware of the climate change problem due in part because of widespread impacts and a broad national educational initiative, creating a student journalism corps and investing in press education on climate science. One Saturday, I survived the furor of local soccer fanaticos to see famous musicians deliver climate change PSAs on the “jumbotron.”

Can we learn from Bogota? We already have. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg borrowed the idea for NYC’s Summer Streets from Bogota’s Ciclovia which I saw en route to a street market.  What if NYC uncovered one of its many buried streams? I can think of an underground stream in McCarren Park that rises above groundbrims after heavy rainstorms. And what if Bogota’s red fleet of Transmillenio buses and private buses were hybrid electric instead of diesel?  What if American high school student’s joined a journalist corps to write about climate change and the Yankees or Mets’ jumbotrons featured messages about saving water, preventing flooding and stopping climate change?

About the Author: Irene Boland Nielson is the Climate Change Coordinator for EPA Region 2 based in lower Manhattan.

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