NYU alumnus leaves inspiring legacy for environmental advocacy

A recent study released by 20 governments around the world estimates that climate change, drought increases, desertification, higher sea levels, extreme storms and other disruptions will lead to 100 million deaths by 2030. The study also predicts a 3.2 percent drop in global GDP unless there are dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and investments in resilient infrastructure.

Michael Sandmel, a 2012 Gallatin graduate, is working to prevent this from happening. For Sandmel, the statistics represent a world he does not want himself nor his children to grow up in.

“As young people in the world’s richest country, it’s our moral obligation to stand up to the political power of the fossil fuel industry and to the stubbornness of those who would sell out our futures for a quick fix,” Sandmel said.

After graduating last May, Sandmel went to Brazil with SustainUS to attend the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. It was his first experience in the world of international negotiations.

SustainUS is a grassroots, nonprofit organization of young people that encourages people to recognize the interdependence of social, economic and environmental sustainability.  They send young people from all the over the country to U.N. summits on sustainable development to lobby U.S. negotiators and educate the world about sustainability.

Sandmel said studying ecology and economics at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study helped him understand the interaction between the economy and the environment. While attending NYU, he worked in the NYU Office of Sustainability. Sandmel also founded and managed the NYU Bike Share program.

“I was so lucky to be a part of a community that included so many brilliant researchers, activists and social entrepreneurs working so hard to find solutions to the climate challenge,” Sandmel said.

Although he commends many of NYU’s efforts on sustainability and going green, Sandmel stated that there is room for improvement.

“I also think that NYU undermines its mission of being a private university in the public service when it fails to consider the hidden climate costs involved in how the school’s endowment gets invested,” Sandmel said.

Kayla Santosuosso, coordinator of Communications Conservation and Engagement in the NYU Office of Sustainability,  encouraged students to gauge their academics toward sustainability efforts.

“The first step for students at NYU can be fusing their academic study with sustainability, whether in research or practice,” Santosuosso said. “If we’re going to combat climate change on a global scale, we’re going to need an all-hands-on-deck effort that involves all businesses and occupations.”

Next week, Sandmel will attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where he will try to amplify the voices of young people. Sandmel said this year’s summit is building toward the goal of a binding treaty by 2015.

“We don’t have a choice between growth and conservation,” Sandmel said. “We have a choice between following the status quo and thereby accepting increased vulnerability, destabilization and misery, or transitioning to a model of sustainable prosperity and thriving in a green global age.”

Sandmel also stressed the importance of a strong stance from President Obama.

“This is a critical moment for the president to show us whether his allegiances are to big oil or to the long-term interests of the American people and people all over the world,” Sandmel said.

Although Sandmel has graduated, he left a model of sustainability for current students to follow and is remembered fondly for his efforts
at NYU.

“Most young organizers and activists struggle with how to be radically committed to systemic change and yet still pursue a professional career,” said David Seaward, coordinator of the Green Grants Program at the NYU Office of Sustainability. “[Sandmel] handled that with the grace of someone twice as experienced.”

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 28 print edition. Lesley Greenburg is a staff writer. Email her at university@nyunews.com.

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