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Rising from Destruction: Carlos Claussell’s Tireless Efforts for Climate Equity
Philly

Rising from Destruction: Carlos Claussell’s Tireless Efforts for Climate Equity

From Puerto Rico to Philly, Carlos Claussell is Advancing Climate Justice

“Green veneer,” a term coined by climate activist and professor of climate justice Naomi Klein, refers to superficial “green” fixes of climate change’s impacts for the privileged but neglect the inequalities that drive both the climate crisis and systemic racism.

Carlos Claussell, a Puerto Rico native who now calls Philly home, has dedicated the past decade of his career to initiatives that shatter these veneers.

I spoke with Claussell about his time working on United Nations World Habitat award-winning redevelopment projects in PR to implement green stormwater infrastructure projects for the Green City Clean Waters plan.

When war games ruin the environment and people’s health

Carlos Claussell, a Puerto Rico native who now calls Philadelphia home, has spent the past decade dedicating his career to advancing climate justice.

When Claussell was 15 years old, he witnessed the destruction from the U.S. Navy’s using Vieques, Puerto Rico, for military exercises. Target bombing practices were frequent.

The result? People living in Vieques had five times the cancer rate than the rest of the Puerto Ricans.

”Imagine one of the most beautiful, amazing landscapes that any human can ever experience and know that it’s filled with bombs; it’s insane,” said Claussell.  

He recalled a tipping point in 1999 due to the accidental death of a civil servant employee David Sanes. He watched the island’s small communities mobilize to stand up for their right to uncompromised health and was inspired by this pursuit of justice in the face of a behemoth like the U.S. armed forces.

“Seeing the fishermen and local communities using civil disobedience to stop that was the first time I fully engaged in environmental justice advocacy,” said Claussell.  

In May 2003, the Navy withdrew from Vieques, and the island was largely designated as a National Wildlife Refuge by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. It was also placed on the National Priorities List, a list of highly hazardous waste sites that are eligible for long-term cleanup under the EPA’s Superfund program.

He credits this experience, combined with being the son of a civil rights and labor lawyer and a psychologist, to catalyze an impactful career in climate justice work.

Aligning Passions with Mission-Driven Work From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia

After pursuing studies in civil engineering and architecture, Claussell found himself disenchanted with conventional urban design practices.

“There’s a developer, engineers, builder…but there’s no real societal value aside from the economic opportunity for a developer or business stakeholder,” explained Claussell.

However, an opportunity to work on the Cano Martín Peña redevelopment project in San brought him back to his passion for environmental justice in 2016. This community-led initiative recognized winner of the 2016 United Nations World Habitat Award, allowed use his technical skills to support an environmentally conscious project driven by the community’s needs.

As the Urbanism & Infrastructure Project Manager, Claussell was responsible for managing the development of critical stormwater, sewer, and transportation infrastructure projects to help meet the infrastructure needs that would allow the communities to thrive. “It’s a really great example of when communities lead and provide solutions, things are definitely better,” said Claussell.

Not long after the project, category 5 Hurricane Maria largely devastated Puerto Rico. Claussell co-led over 400 volunteers in a community-driven response, where the legacies of environmental injustice compounded grueling recovery efforts.

According to Claussell, “It was an eye-opening experience of the impacts of climate change, and it led me to make a personal decision to move to Philadelphia.”

Inspired to make a difference, Claussell moved to Philadelphia and joined The Nature Conservancy, where he focused on nature-based solutions to enhance climate resilience.  As the Urban Conservation Project Manager at The Nature Conservancy, he supports projects for the Green City Clean Waters plan. This work focused on closely collaborating with community stakeholders to align GSI improvements with local neighborhood plans and goals.

But his past experience was never forgotten. “When I moved, I brought a lot of my intention from that experience [Caño Martin Peña].”

Power of Persistence: Lessons from Community Advocacy

For Claussell, a prerequisite for any equitable green development is building relationships with community stakeholders and aligning goals. He believes that meaningful change requires time, persistence, and a deep understanding of community needs. “To engage communities in any sort of process, it takes time, and you need to dedicate that time. It’s not a fast-paced process, but the results are far better”.

While navigating the challenges of implementing innovative solutions within conventionally bureaucratic systems, Claussell draws inspiration from the quote, “The biggest mistake we can make is to assume that we have no power to change things.”

Another unexpected challenge in Philadelphia was the language barrier. “This is very human-driven work, and that feeling comfortable with technical language doesn’t translate into the kind of communication necessary to build trust among stakeholders.”

Continuing to integrate Environmental Justice in work

Currently, Claussell serves as the Climate, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), and Environmental Justice Manager at the World Wildlife Fund, focusing on advancing equitable strategies for WWF’s  America is All In and Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC) Initiatives, which aim to reduce carbon emissions by 2050 significantly. He also currently serves as an inaugural commissioner on the Philadelphia Environmental Justice Advisory Commission.

As a Climate Justice Design Fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science in 2022, he investigated the emerging “Bluelining,” which he described as ‘when financial institutions assess climate risk like flooding and develop new policies around financial tools like loans to minimize risk. They also can identify certain areas or neighborhoods as “too risky” because of climate impacts.

In his free time, Claussell enjoys spending time with his family, reconnecting with his Puerto Rican culture, traveling, and exploring Philadelphia’s diverse food scene.

Featured photo: The Nature Conservancy, Marc Steiner


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Jada is a West Philly native passionate about environmental justice and climate adaptation in the city. Currently she is a Program Coordinator for the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, but in her spare time she enjoys spending time in nature, mixing music and tending to her plants. View all posts by Jada Ackley
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