Katie Walsh helps cities manage their climate risks—and champions environmental advocates for office
By Lara Ehrlich / June 26, 2023
Original article from TuftsNow.
At 17, Katie Walsh helped lead a project in the working-class immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park in South Brooklyn, New York, where she grew up. She engaged her neighbors in designing a mural that reflected the diversity of their community, featuring imagery like a Chinese dragon, palm trees, and the neighborhood’s many churches in bright oranges and greens. The mural is still there—on the side of a bank building near where Walsh, F14, AG14, now lives in her childhood home—and Walsh’s strong connection to her community has guided her career.
Sunset Park is classified as an environmental justice community, meaning it’s a neighborhood impacted by environmental and socioeconomic hazards that cause health disparities. “I had the experience of growing up in this very vibrant neighborhood, but from a public health and environmental standpoint it was bad for my health,” Walsh says. Now, she helps reduce the impacts of climate change on cities like hers through her work at the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), and through the Climate Candidates accelerator program she founded to support environmental advocates running for office.
According to CDP, cities are responsible for more than 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions, the primary driver of climate change, and China, the United States, and India are the worst offenders. With these facts top of mind, Walsh early on decided to devote her career to developing new environmental policies, adjusting established ones, and planning sustainable infrastructure.
Achieving these goals required an education in city planning on both a local and global scale. She earned a global outlook through a master’s in international business and environmental policy at The Fletcher School and practical experience at a local level through a master’s in urban and environmental policy and planning, a program she chose for its focus on equity and social justice.
The Tufts alumni network led Walsh to her current position, as head of cities, states, regions, and public authorities, North America, at CDP. There, Walsh measures the climate risks for cities, governments, investors, and the world’s largest companies and hosts their self-reported data on the nonprofit’s website.
Throughout the 10 years Walsh has been with CDP, she has benchmarked the environmental impact of more than 500 cities, states, and other entities such as airports. She works with governments, organizations, and individual leaders to reduce those entities’ carbon footprints by following best practices, such as planting trees and switching to renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
As an example of a large-scale environmental effort, Walsh points to the cities and towns along the Mississippi River, which are working with CDP to advance sustainable infrastructure. Their nature-based solutions to the impact of flooding, drought, and extreme heat include protecting and establishing floodplains to absorb water that breaches the river’s banks.
“Communities that have seen voter suppression and the erosion of their democratic rights are the same communities disproportionately affected by the climate crisis.”– Katie Walsh, F14, AG14
In the course of her work with CDP, Walsh became more determined to play an active role in creating and enforcing policy in her own region. In 2020, she ran for the New York State Assembly on a platform of ensuring the Sunset Park waterfront is developed sustainably, protecting immigrant communities, funding public schools, and creating affordable housing, among other objectives. While she didn’t win, she received 24% of the vote and was inspired to cofound Climate Candidates, an accelerator program that prepares “climate champions” to run for local and state office.
Launched in 2021, Climate Candidates is a volunteer-run organization that supports candidates vying for positions from school boards to state assembly offices. “Communities that have seen voter suppression and the erosion of their democratic rights are the same communities disproportionately affected by the climate crisis,” Walsh says. “Climate change exacerbates centuries of systemic racism, a broken healthcare system, and rampant economic insecurity.” The goal is to “empower people to take ownership over their democracy.”
Walsh would consider running for office again if it gave her the chance to push for more urgent environmental action. Her work at CDP shows that global emissions must be cut in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to keep Earth inhabitable. She says, “Working on climate is literally a race against time.”