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On a Saturday this past July, Professor Christian Braneon and a team from Columbia set out via car and bike to collect air temperature and humidity data in and around the South Bronx, East Inwood, and Harlem. Their goal? To create a heat map of the neighborhoods to illustrate how air temperature varies in different parts of the city. “What you find is that the temperature near Columbia is not as high as it is in the South Bronx at the same time of day,” says Braneon.
Braneon has partnered with South Bronx Unite for the project, which is part of a larger, multiyear initiative sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to record urban heat islands in cities across 11 states. He hopes that the temperature data will help community stakeholders advocate for more green space in neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by extreme heat.
For Braneon, this heat mapping project is an extension of the work he’s been doing for over 14 years as a climate scientist and civil engineer. In his early 20s, he became both fascinated and perturbed by the fact that while the wealthiest nations are responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions, low-income nations are often more adversely impacted by climate change. “I was interested in helping people in low-income countries that would be affected by climate change and that lacked access to water,” he says. Environmental justice would soon become one of the driving forces in Braneon’s career. And climate change, he discovered, is at its heart a social justice issue.
He followed this passion to graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology. There, he researched how climate change affects farmers’ irrigation demands and water use. While still in grad school, Braneon found a job at a civil engineering firm in Austin, Texas, where he helped cities prepare drought contingency plans. He then moved to Atlanta to work as a physical scientist in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice and Sustainability and later served as the assistant director of the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain at Georgia Tech.
In 2017, Braneon joined Barnard’s Environmental Science Department and, in 2020, he started as co-director of the Environmental Justice and Climate Just Cities Network at the Earth Institute of Columbia University. In his Barnard courses, students learn everything from how to collect and analyze environmental data — like water samples from the Hudson River — to how to examine issues around urban land use and the distribution of water. Teaching the material is one piece of the pie for Braneon; he also wants to help students get “better at thinking outside the box,” he explains. “The most important thing we do as faculty is help students think more critically and see things from different perspectives.”
Outside of the classroom, Braneon is busy working as a remote sensing specialist for the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where he helps integrate the agency’s satellite imagery and climate science into urban and regional planning. And his work is getting recognition: Braneon was recently awarded the 2021 AXA Award for Climate Science.
Despite everything Braneon has accomplished, he still asks himself, “What can I do to make a bigger difference?” His ultimate goal is to see his work manifest itself in systemic change. This means starting at the ground level rather than taking a top-down approach. “Often I’m working with stakeholders side by side as I do the research so that they’re informing the questions I ask and the way I approach the research,” he says. “I think by taking that approach, the work I produce is more likely to be adopted and influence decision-making.”