Richard Cherry of the CEC on confronting climate change with better buildings
Richard Cherry’s organization, the Community Environmental Center (CEC) bridges climate and low-income issues by focusing on the building sector. Using seemingly simple tools like weatherization, the CEC is able to have a sizable environmental and economic impact. The organization helps New York City lower its greenhouse gas emissions with a multifaceted approach: green building consulting, green jobs training programs, education services and a building material surplus store. Below, Cherry talks about his personal transition from Wall Street lawyer to environmental innovator, the CEC’s transformation into a climate crisis-fighting organization, and why he thinks this work is essential for the globe.
Dowser: Low- and middle-income families could use assistance in a variety of areas — from education to health care. Why did you originally feel compelled to get involved in this way? Why weatherization?
Cherry: I had a growing interest in environmental issues, not a huge one, but a growing one. One of the programs we ran at Urban Coalition [Cherry’s previous organization] was the weatherization program. I had a young staffer who encouraged me to see the weatherization program as the bridge between urban, community and environmental issues.
I gave that some thought and it seemed to me that there was a need in New York City to have a city-wide organization that really focused on environmental issues. We took the weatherization program and made that the core of what we were doing at the time with a focus on environmental issues as they affect low-income people.
I am very glad to have done that. Yes it does deal with choices, whether or not to help people with their other poverty issues, but that was where my expertise was — I knew about housing and I knew about how to do energy work in a home so it seemed like the best place for me to apply my energies.
You were a lawyer for much of your life. What caused you to switch career paths?
I was with a major Wall Street law firm and the Urban Coalition came to that law firm to ask for legal services. I became interested in what they were doing; they offered me a job. I said I would leave the legal profession for a year or two, and go see what it was like to go work for a not-for-profit, and I haven’t found my way back. It was a temporary choice, and then it became a permanent one because I found that I cared more about helping people than the ‘big deal,’ which the lawyer works on in putting lease papers together or contracts.
It was the way my drum beat and I’m glad I found it.
Your organization has evolved from a weatherization program to a robust company offering consulting services, job training programs, and reclaimed building supplies. Did you envision this happening, or has it been an unplanned, successful venture?
I say this about CEC, I say this about life: One has to lean in the direction one thinks one is interested in, and then be ready for fate to come along and knock you off your course and teach you something new and maybe enter into a different world.
No, we didn’t know exactly what we would get involved with. But we looked for opportunities that gave us the funding and ability to demonstrate something that was needed to bring down the cost of housing for low-income people or to help the city’s environment.
How did the CEC’s mission come to focus more heavily on climate crisis issues?
I saw An Inconvenient Truth, and saw that the work we were doing to reduce emissions was even more important with regard to climate change, than the work to reduce people’s bills.
For every one of the homes [we weatherize], we reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by a ton for each year, for years and years after that. That really makes a significant contribution to the problems of climate change.
In New York City, about 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from already existing buildings. Energy efficiency becomes the most important thing one can do in New York to deal with greenhouse gases. We’ve evolved our focus to reduce emissions from buildings in every way we can. There is no more essential issue than keeping the earth so we can live on it. And to me that is the most important thing to be working on.
The Obama Administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $5 billion for weatherization. In July, the CEC and other agencies received $12.9 million from the New York state to retrofit a 2,700-unit apartment complex. How do you feel about the level of government funding you receive? Is it enough for the work that needs to be done?
The amount of money we have to spend on each of the buildings we work on is in some programs adequate in some programs not so adequate. But we need a lot more of that money; there’s a lot more work to be done out there.
I’m very concerned about funding going forward. Even though for each apartment or each home we have enough money, we just don’t have enough money to do the work fast enough to deal with the crisis we’re dealing with.
We had a president call a war on poverty years ago. We need a war to deal with greenhouse gases the way we spend money on our other wars.
How do efforts to reduce building emissions in the United States compare to what they are doing in other countries?
I was pleased to be treated, about a year or so ago, to a trip to London to see how energy efficiency work is done there. To them, they are in the war on climate change. There’s no hesitation. They know that that’s what they have to do and they’re doing everything they can afford to do.
They approach a house not just physically but socially in terms of dealing with the people as well as the building. They’re approaching a lifestyle and not just the physical building. I think that’s a lesson that I learned and hopefully this country learns. They’re certainly, as a percentage of their dollars, putting a great deal more into this war than we are here.
What advice do you have for people in other cities who might want to follow in your footsteps?
Everything takes money to start. I was fortunate in that we had a government contract to do low-income energy efficiency work. And so I started the company around that. I’ve watched smaller community organizations start with bake sales, and work until they could get funding from some source, and I’ve seen them succeed, so I would encourage anybody who has the time, the determination, and some opportunity to live without money for awhile to really go at this. And that could be whether you’re young and have inherited money or whether you’ve made a lot of money working and you’re now 60 and ready to go on and do something socially responsible.
I hope we see more of that latter group entering the field with their knowledge and monetary resources to try and do things.
One of the other things I would say is that one should think very carefully about where there’s a niche where one can get started, and not try to be too grandiose and try to do everything. But start from a base where you’re successful at doing one thing and then grow from there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.