Stepinac High School Honors Academy Symposium Addresses NYC-Area Climate Change Solutions

Stepinac High School Honors Academy Health Sciences Group

Lower Manhattan and other areas of New York City are not prepared for a catastrophic storm surge and wide- scale damage on a scale far worse than what occurred during superstorm Sandy in 2012. Nor will the city and the northeast region for that matter be safe from the spread of West Nile Virus and other life-threatening mosquito-borne diseases.

Those are some of the dire predictions in the not-too distant- future that Stepinac High school Honors Academy students recently presented at the Academy’s second annual Symposium on Climate Change held at the school.  The students not only laid out a disturbing fact-based accounting that climate change is real and poses a mounting threat to the health and safety of populations around the world but presented and explored potential solutions with a panel of experts.

The group of academically top students applied their analytical research skills and creative talents to recommend ways that would help halt the continued warming of the earth that is contributing to increased sea-levels and the spread of insect habitats. And, at the same time, they investigated best practices around the world and explored the creation of a large barrier across New York Harbor to help protect the Big Apple from massive flooding resulting from a powerful coastal storm.

The Symposium was the first-of-its-kind-in-the-region high school forum on Climate Change and may very well have been unique nationally.

The annual Symposium showcases the college-like level of academic research by Stepinac’s Honors Academy students. It is a three-year personalized learning program for academically top students pursuing advanced studies in four academic disciplines—finance and economics, health sciences, law and engineering.

The Health Sciences Academy students started the session by defining global warming and what causes it. In addition, they explained how climate change can impact the health of populations around the world in a variety of ways–breathing, mental health and allergies.  The students also examined how climate change spreads vector (insect and other organism)-borne infectious diseases such as yellow fever, West Nile and Lyme.

The students also explored the use of terrace farming and solar window to help reduce the carbon footprint that contributes to global warming.

The Finance and Economics Academy students shared the results of their analysis of two approaches to help reduce the “greenhouse effect” warming of the planet—either a carbon tax or cap and trade. The carbon tax, endorse by a bipartisan group of 45 renowned economists, is a levy on companies that produce emissions and serves as an incentive for them to invest in renewable sources of energy and discontinue being penalized with the levy. The cap and trade is a government-mandated, market-based approach that provides economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants via a marketplace whereby companies that cut their emissions below the limit can either sell allowances to other companies whose emissions are over the limit or bank them for future use.

The Law Academy students demonstrated how changes in building and zoning codes can help mitigate the effects of climate change in vulnerable areas, particularly coastal communities that are threatened with rising sea levels and flooding. They cited specific examples of how changes in the codes were instituted in the aftermath of such natural disasters as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.  In addition to exploring the feasibility and effectiveness of proposed building and zoning changes, they researched the practices of other countries such as Japan’s sea wall to determine if they can be adopted in the U.S.

The Engineering Academy presented potential solutions to climate change on multiple fronts including: 1) arresting and reversing carbon levels in the atmosphere by creating  an affordable and easily reproducible commercial filter that can remove ambient carbon dioxide from the air and then re-direct direct it to plants growing in a sealed environment; 2) creating a model for a passive home insulated with bio-composite Hempcrete that requires little energy to heat or cool and which gets its energy from renewable sources and 3) developing a model of the long barrier that stretches across New York Harbor to protect low-lying Manhattan, Queens including JFK International Airport and Staten Island against devastating storm surges with anticipated increased sea levels in the years, 2050 and 2100.

The engineering students noted that if nothing is done, the predicted one-degree Celsius increase in this century will continue to melt the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. That melting will raise the sea levels worldwide and many low- lying coasts areas including large portions of Florida will be completely underwater and threatened by the increased frequency and ferocity of coastal storms.  They pointed out that the five most destructive and costly hurricanes in the U.S. occurred since 2005.

The distinguished panelists, who are experts in the Honors Academy’s four disciplines of economics and finance, health sciences, law and engineering, included:

Andrew Ratzkin, Esq. is senior vice president and general counsel for Burns and Roe Group, Inc., a provider of engineering, procurement, construction and maintenance services to power and water utilities. He has extensive experience in energy and environmental matters relating to development, sitting, permitting, and operation of electric generation and other facilities.  Recently, he authored an article that considers the case for a New York carbon tax. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University.

Mohab El-Hakim is an assistant professor in Manhattan College’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department as well as an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo (Ontario) where he earned a Master of Applied Science and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering Degrees. He is also a professional engineer in Ontario with nine years of industrial and academic experience. As a consultant, he worked on several infrastructure projects including airports, highways and municipal roads.

Dr. Rocco J. Lafaro, M.D. of White Plains is a Stepinac alumnus (Class of ’68) and a preeminent thoracic surgeon and medical instructor with more than 40 years of experience. A graduate of New York Medical College, Dr. Lafaro served as a long-time cardiothoracic surgeon with the Westchester Medical College Center, devoting some of his time as a teacher and mentor of medical students at Montefiore Medical Center at St. Barnabas Hospital.  Earlier this year, he became an adjunct instructor for the Stepinac Health Sciences Academy, instructing a group of students on the topic of bioethics, examining the role of ethics in primary care and other branches of medicine.

Damon A. Amadio, P.E., also a Stepinac alumnus (Class of ’80) and a long-time White Plains resident, is Commissioner of the White Plains Building Department. After earning a B.E. in Electrical Engineering from Manhattan College, Amadio began his career as a professional engineer, first with IBM where he served as project engineer. He then joined Edwards & Zuck P.C., a leading mechanical and engineering consulting company, as a project manager/associate and was promoted to partner. In 2000, he was named Deputy Commissioner of the White Plains Building Department and in 2008 was promoted to his current position. He manages a staff of 20 technical and administrative specialists, responsible for the enforcement of state and local codes associated with the use and occupancy of buildings on private property.

Frank Portanova, Vice Principal for Curriculum and Academic Studies, who served as moderator, said that the Climate Change Symposium continues to fulfill one of the key goals of the Honors Academy that was launched three years ago—for the students “to see the relationship between their studies and their application to the real world,” adding: “Last year, for the inaugural Symposium, the students mobilized around the unresolved and nearly forgotten Flint, Michigan contaminated drinking water crisis.  This year, they tackled the threats that climate change poses to human hearth around the world, correctly concerned that this issue will threaten their children and grandchildren.”

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About the Author: Frank Pagani