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Headshot Sara Wylie who will help Biden's Justice40 initiative.

Northeastern professor Sara Wylie appointed to US Department of Energy

Sara Wylie, Northeastern associate professor of sociology and health science, is on a year-long fellowship with the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Justice Research and Policy. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Sara Wylie has been working to increase equity in climate change response for years through her work as an associate professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University. Now, with a year-long fellowship in the U.S. Department of Energy’s new Office of Energy Justice Policy and Analysis, she has the opportunity to help shape the future of U.S. climate policy in a meaningful way.

Working under the broader banner of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, run by Northeastern law professor Shalanda Baker, Wylie is excited to put years of research on environmental justice and equity to work for the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative. The effort aims to direct 40% of federal investments in clean energy toward marginalized communities that are overburdened by the impacts of pollution and climate change.

“If we rush toward addressing climate change without an eye toward justice, we’ll end up creating a lot of the same inequalities that we see today,” Wylie says. “There’s a huge legacy of the harms from our current carbon economy that needs to be undone.”

“We are excited to welcome Sara Wylie as an Energy Justice Science, Technology and Policy Fellow with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. Our mission to tackle the climate crisis through equity-centered solutions requires an all-hands-on deck approach,” says Baker, director of the office. “Sara’s experience in community centered science and environmental data justice will benefit our team and help advance our mission.  We look forward to the progress we’ll make together.”

Wylie’s academic work sits at the intersection of environmental justice–how climate change and environmental policies are impacting different groups of people–and data justice, which looks at the reasons behind and impacts of collecting data on certain groups over others. At Justice40, she will help develop metrics to identify marginalized communities that are most at risk of being impacted by climate change. With better metrics and data tools, the initiative could benefit the communities that need these federal resources the most.

“Like with all data tools, it’s only as good as the data that’s available, and much of the data that the state gathers has lots of gaps and holes in it,” Wylie says. 

“We’re an enormous nation and we’re a federation of states all of which have different systems,” Wylie adds. “So, the questions of ‘Who’s getting counted? Where does that data come from? How do we know how good that data is?’ are some of the things we need to be careful of and mindful of in the development of these processes.”

Wylie has plenty of experience with the all-too-common gaps in federal data. As part of her previous work, she dove into the Environmental Protection Agency’s data and found that about 19,000 facilities regulated by the EPA don’t have publicly available latitudes and longitudes. Without location data, it’s hard to measure their impact, either short- or long-term, on surrounding communities.

“We don’t have a good sense of how to measure cumulative impact from environmental exposures, and that data just isn’t available in ways that you can readily build on yet,” Wylie says. “I think that’s one of the key areas that I’m interested in working on.”

By getting in on the ground floor of Justice40, Wylie says she has an opportunity to fill in some of these gaps and “have the rubber meet the road” when it comes to her research. She started her year-long fellowship in September, but she’s already prepared to help shape a more equitable climate future for America.

“We know and we can demonstrate that our current systems produce inequality, and therefore, it should be possible to produce systems that do produce equity,” Wylie says. “I’m very thankful for the opportunity and really see it as a chance to move from a space of critique to a space of trying to make more equitable and just systems.”

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