By Chase Cutarelli
Hailing from a suburb of Los Angeles, Arianna Menzelos, CC ’21, is an ardent advocate for sustainability and accomplished climate activist whose work has had a lasting impact here on campus. When pushed to share the moment of epiphany when she discovered her passion, however, she could point to no spark, only the roaring flames. Still, as we chatted over Zoom one evening in mid-November, she shared a memory whose drama makes up for the want of a relevant origin story: When she was 15, Menzelos fell off a cliff.
“That was probably the biggest event of my life,” she confessed, “but it’s totally unrelated to sustainability.” I had to pry for more details. She had gone for a picnic with some friends by a beach bluff when she lost her footing and plummeted from the precipice. “The person who lived across the street from where I fell was actually the lead singer of Linkin Park, which was really crazy,” she noted. After being life-flighted, she spent several days at the hospital. “It was a really long recovery.”
Despite Menzelos’ insistence that no single revelation inspired her climate justice career, I like to imagine that such an experience humbled her. The ostensibly unimportant anecdote reminded me that we must yield to natural processes, from unstable ground soil to gravity itself, even when it is inconvenient.
Today, Menzelos is thousands of miles away from that dreaded crag, but not New York—instead, she and a few roommates have settled in Newport, Rhode Island to enjoy autumn on the Atlantic.
Before COVID-19 stumbled onto the world stage, Menzelos was spending her junior spring abroad in Spain. Her summer internship in the city was upended, too, but she still found several bright spots throughout quarantine. “It was very unexpected to spend March through August back at home, but I did spend some really good time with friends at home, and family,” she reflected.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
It was refreshing to hear Menzelos frame her pandemic problems as manageable inconveniences and digestible disappointments against a backdrop of incalculable death and destruction, rather than catastrophizing them. Everyone copes with tragedy in their own way, but Menzelos’ implicit contextualization was deft and admirable.
Indeed, catastrophe—this time of the climatic variety—has long loomed large for Menzelos, inspiring her work as an intern, student, activist, and policy contributor. In the spring of her first year at Columbia, Menzelos worked for the Executive Director of the Earth Institute, and in the summer she worked for the California League of Conservation in Los Angeles. After taking Climate Change Law with Professor Michael Gerrard, she interned with the Sabin Center for Climate Law in the summer of 2019, and she currently works for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
This latest endeavor has been “really fantastic and really encouraging in terms of the fact that I want to work in climate policy post-grad,” she said. An intern since June, Menzelos has been able to apply what she’s learned in the classroom at an agency that in 2019 passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which established a 22-member Climate Action Council to curate a Scoping Plan that will ensure the state meets rigorous green energy goals in the coming years. The council holds regular panels, which Menzelos helps facilitate.
All along, Menzelos said, these endeavors have simply felt like the right things to do. “When I’m asked why I care about this issue, it’s kind of like, ‘Why not?’ This can be catastrophic, and it is for a lot of people.”
Still, the classes she has taken, which cover policy issues as well as environmental science, continually confirm that the very real threat of climate catastrophe renders her causes worthy. The nature of Columbia’s environment, where everything seems to be happening all at once and everyone seems passionate about effecting positive change, has also stirred Menzelos to action. As she explained the positive experiences she’s had on campus, citing the well-known “little fish, big pond” adage, Menzelos reminded me that Columbia can be, at its core, inspirational.
At times, however, Columbia fails to live up to its own example. For instance, despite its formidable climate leadership, the University lacked an ambitious sustainability plan in 2018, a failure Menzelos set out to remedy with the biggest project of her college career: Columbia for Carbon Neutrality. Menzelos and her close friend, Meredith Harris, worked with the Roosevelt Institute to create a comprehensive campaign, including a promotional video, social media accounts, and an op-ed, to pressure the University to commit to going carbon-neutral.
“We did end up speaking to a lot of faculty and admins, a lot of student leadership bodies, getting resolutions passed, letters of support signed,” she said. “We had a lot of conversations.” All of these efforts, along with a variety of others, spurred Columbia’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “I hope the campaign contributed to that,” she explained, perhaps too humbly, “but we were just glad that there was a decision that was made.”
It seems unlikely that Menzelos’ successes will end there, but at the moment, her post-grad plans are, forgivably, a bit up in the air. “I don’t know what I’m doing next year,” she said. “I really want to continue to work in policy. I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet.” Her honest outlook is a welcome reminder that even as the world’s problems demand immediate action, it’s okay to be unsure about the future. Hers is surely bright and green.