The Climate Fight’s New Stronghold
Updated: Feb 19
On the Columbia Climate School, what it is, and what it must be.
By Elizabeth Jackson.
Attentive observers recognize that climate change impacts and is impacted by everything we do—from the food we eat to the energy we consume to the air we breathe. Such a pervasive problem demands understanding that transcends individual disciplines and traditional academic structures.
In July, recognizing the breadth of the problem, President Bollinger formally announced the creation of the Climate School, established in accordance with recommendations made by Columbia’s Climate Task Force, a group of 25 administrators, researchers, professors, deans, Earth Institute faculty, and a University trustee.
The heart of the Climate School’s purpose probably lies in the relational terms that the Task Force Report, released in December 2019, employs liberally: “multidimensional,” “trans-disciplinary,” “systems-level,” “partnership.” Though the Task Force Report stresses at the outset that it “does not lay out a detailed blueprint for the School or how it would operate,” and, indeed, key components of the School in the Task Force Report are left vague, it is clear that—ideally, at least—the School is about connection.
The administration intends to adopt a “hub and spokes” model for the School. The phrase’s meaning is somewhat obscure, as specific organizational structure remains under development. Based on my discussions with professors and leaders of Earth Institute-affiliated centers, some, if not all, research centers will be absorbed into the “hub” of the Climate School, while the School’s activity and influence will extend to the rest of the University and beyond. Director Alex Halliday elaborated, “The spokes will connect the climate hub with Columbia’s Schools, as well as with Institutes, the Global Centers, and other University-wide initiatives.” University Professor Ruth DeFries, co-director of the Sustainable Development program, member of the Climate Task Force, and a leader of a working group helping to design the School, also explained, “The Climate School very much recognizes that there is this wealth of expertise within departments and within different schools, and we’re not trying to replicate that within the Climate School. It’s more building the bridges.”
Eventually, as the Report outlines, the Climate School will also include a physical hub for climate work, and the University’s goal is to fundraise for a new building on the Manhattanville campus—a tangible embodiment of its efforts to address the insufficient connection between the many research centers and individuals currently focused on climate at Columbia. For instance, the Report mentions that, currently, The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, while located at Lamont alongside the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), “pursues its own governance and strategy, despite sharing scientific labs, teams, and students [with LDEO].” LDEO itself, which is a major climate research center, “has been quite independent from the rest of the university.” The Report goes on: “The lack of strategic alignment and integration between LDEO and DEES limits a coordinated vision from just the physical science perspective.” A unifying physical space would help support more coordinated climate work.
Though at first glance, the Earth Institute (EI) may seem to provide a sufficient basis for collaboration and concrete, extensive climate action, the EI structure, according to the Report, has certain limitations. The EI “cannot appoint faculty, which limits its ability to recruit and retain the top academics in their respective fields.” It also “has limited ability to determine who teaches in its co-sponsored education programs,” as these programs are “housed at schools.” Financially, “it has no major tuition base of hard funding to subsidize its soft-money research endeavor” and “has no alumni with which to develop a pipeline for fundraising.” A school structure would, by its very nature, address these issues. Regarding finances, Professor Upmanu Lall, Director of the Columbia Water Center, said, “I think the biggest thing that the Climate School could do that the Earth Institute did not succeed in doing would be to create a large endowment so that the income from the endowment can support these projects.” By “these projects,” Lall referred to practical environmental fieldwork, especially projects abroad.
In a virtual town hall on October 22, Earth Institute Director Alex Halliday clarified that he envisions a move to newly situate the Institute entirely within the Climate School.
Academics and Faculty
The School expects to someday offer new graduate degrees, many of them likely granted jointly with other graduate programs—Journalism, for example—to formalize and underscore climate’s relevance to an abundance of fields.
An education-focused working group is currently developing the School’s future offerings in greater detail. Halliday mentioned that some possible new Master’s programs include but are not limited to “climate risk and finance, climate ethics and justice, disaster management, [and] climate communications.” In the town hall, Halliday stated that the Climate School’s first Master’s program would be Climate and Society, which is currently housed in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. DeFries, as one of the town hall panelists, emphasized that this kind of transition is not a model for the way the Climate School intends to establish programs going forward; instead, it will focus on establishing new ones. She also noted that in undergraduate programs such as Sustainable Development, changes would serve to “expand our offerings, to have more classes that would be available to the students, to have different topic areas related to climate and other sustainability problems, to have more faculty, to have more research opportunities.” The interdisciplinary approach to climate detailed in the Report will serve even students pursuing degrees and careers previously considered unrelated to climate. “No matter what students go on to do,” it insists, “they will need to understand the climate crisis and its impacts.”
One of the most obvious and effective ways to extend climate studies to as many undergraduates as possible is to integrate it into the Core. The Report mentions a few possible methods, including making climate a “4 week module” in Frontiers of Science, approving new climate courses to fulfill the science and Global Core requirements, and the possible “introduction” of climate into Contemporary Civilization.
For Ellie Hansen, CC ’22, founder of the Tricentennial Project, a climate-focused student group, climate integration into the Core should not be a matter of a “climate day or week” or other hyper-focused but limited efforts. Instead, when thinking about climate in the Core, instructors should make it “an active point to incorporate it as a point of discussion and a thing to analyze within [the] texts.” Hansen went on to say that environmental themes like “relation to nature” could be organically incorporated into class discussions, just as themes like gender are often used as lenses for analysis.
The Report also mentions two potential approaches to climate integration into University Writing. A new UW section (“‘Readings in Climate Change,’” for example) could be formulated, and the administration could “challenge/incentivize” instructors of other sections “to consider climate as a vehicle within their own subjects.”
Emily Hunt Kivel, a fiction writer and former UW: Contemporary Essays instructor, explained that instructors have near-total freedom to choose the texts they teach. Referring to climate, Hunt Kivel stated, “I also think that it could be integrated really naturally” by making it “more present in our training.” Though UW leadership does not mandate specific texts, particular texts are used in instructor training, and new UW instructors in particular tend to rely on them. Hunt Kivel added, however, that regardless of instructors’ experience, if UW leadership provides an excellent text, “it’s likely that a lot of the instructors are going to use it.” Emphasizing climate-focused texts in orientation would preserve instructor freedom while providing key resources for climate integration into UW. Hunt Kivel also liked the idea of a new UW section fully devoted to climate, but she specified that this approach will likely be most effective if there are a lot of those sections and if students are given some incentive to take them.
Siloes and Interdisciplinary Importance
The word “silo” cropped up several times over the course of my interviews and in the Report, denoting two general kinds of separation: an academic institution’s isolation from its surrounding community and the world, and the insulation of disciplines and projects from one another. Dr. Bob Chen, who directs the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), acknowledged that in climate, “as with any area of interest like this, there’s a lot of silos, there’s a lot of parallel things going on that don’t connect very well.” He believes that the Climate School “is an opportunity to really do a better job pulling all the different pieces together and getting more systematic approaches to addressing climate change.”
Hunt Kivel lamented the growing gap she identifies between the humanities and the sciences, particularly environmental science. In her observations as a fiction writer, even climate activists “struggle to write about climate,” as doing so “can be a kind of daunting task to people who do not have a scientific background.” Overcoming this gap requires artists and writers to realize that “they can bring their particular interests and talents to the conversation about climate.” Understanding how the arts and humanities can help us grasp and cope with the climate crisis is the first step.
On the humanities front, that understanding is partially about establishing personal, active connections with the environment. Hunt Kivel referred to Zadie Smith’s essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” which she taught in all of her UW sections, explaining that “it was able to make me care personally about something that I had only, before that, sort of theoretically and vaguely participated in.” Regarding climate, Hunt Kivel said “the more that we can all I think feel individually involved and invested, the better.”
Hunt Kivel believes in the motivational power of the humanities. “If humanities are the things that’s going to make you think critically and deliberately about the way you live your life, which humanities do,” she said, “I think that’s a really effective way to communicate with people.” She then added: “To ignore the humanities would be to essentially say that on an individual level, our actions are not going to be what saves us—like the individual doesn’t matter in this, and I think that’s inaccurate. Or maybe it’s accurate, but it’s sad.” To conceive of climate as an issue beyond our reach, dominated only by power structures and irrelevant to our individual pursuits is, as Hunt Kivel puts it “an intellectualization of complacency.”
The Report outlines new potential approaches for recruiting faculty and for multiple levels of faculty engagement with climate, including the possibility that “Faculty from across the University could be challenged to incorporate climate into their teaching…The Climate School could ask each department to develop and offer one course in climate,” which the School could support either through “course development funds” or through “buy out[s] of academic time.” Though faculty structure is still being designed, the Report discusses the prospect of joint appointments between the Climate School and other departments, as well as that of “5-10 year secondments,” during which faculty time would be bought out in order to facilitate “focus on particular inter-disciplinary problems for a limited period.” This structure may provide a method of engaging faculty without traditional academic backgrounds, like those with experience in policy, finance, or other related fields who would prefer not to pursue a tenure track.
Engaging faculty from non-academic backgrounds, including policymakers, journalists, business and financial experts, and artists, is part of the University’s effort to bolster another form of connection—that of academic work to practical solutions. As the Report acknowledges, the Climate School’s engagement of these “professors of practice,” as it often calls them, will involve applying new weight to different metrics of success, like field and industry experience, as opposed to just academic expertise.
The School may also facilitate greater flexibility for current faculty and staff. When I spoke with Dr. Chen about what the Climate School might mean for CIESIN staff, he expressed optimism about its capacity to provide more options, allowing them to blend research and teaching more fluidly. “I think staff would have the ability not to just be in the research-officer track but be—have different kinds of faculty appointments,” he said. Even if these appointments do not involve tenure, they may give staff more job security and may streamline the process of combining research and teaching.
Part of the Climate School’s mission is realizing the University’s “fourth purpose,” alongside research, education, and public service: “extending Columbia’s abilities to bring knowledge, in tandem with actors beyond the campus, to more effectively address pressing human problems.” Part of this practical action will necessarily include giving a “seat at the table” to communities most vulnerable to climate change—often low-income communities and communities of color. A forthcoming working group will examine how the Climate School can thoughtfully engage with the local community surrounding campus, as well as the broader NYC community, in a sustainable and inclusive manner. I spoke with Sonal Jessel, a graduate of the Mailman School of Public Health and a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for WEACT for Environmental Justice, about methods of structuring the Climate School’s community engagement in a way that is beneficial to all participants. WEACT is a community-driven environmental health and justice advocacy organization based in northern Manhattan that has been instrumental in securing passage of important environmental and health initiatives.
WEACT has longstanding partnerships with individuals and research centers at Columbia, with both institutions initiating particular collaborations. Jessel emphasized that that Columbia isn’t “guiding” the focuses of the partnered projects; instead, “Columbia plays a supportive role when asked to help bolster the efforts of groups like us, community groups that have been doing the work for a really long time and just might not have all of the infrastructure and resources needed to conduct like bigger research studies.” In other words, the community’s needs drive the partnerships. As Jessel stressed, WEACT ensures that “the policies and the programs that we’re pushing forward are informed by our community and are led by our community, ‘cause we believe that communities know what’s best for them.” There is equity in these partnerships in that community members know the issues, culture, and workable solutions in their community best, while Columbia provides access to highly skilled researchers who can aid in data-collection that can be the basis for effective advocacy.
Both DeFries and Lall, who work abroad extensively, emphasized the necessity of place-based solutions—without a deep and nuanced understanding of a place and its people, they claim, sustainable remedies aren’t possible, even if issues in multiple communities appear similar on the surface. Professor Lall described his early time working abroad as humbling. “We learned a lot,” he said. He specified that considering lessons from the community was essential to eventually having “something to communicate” in the way of advice. “Understanding what the real issue is, is important before you start pitching solutions to people,” he said.
On the subject of how the Climate School can best structure its community input beyond research, Jessel explained that she thinks Columbia “should be doing it through partnering with CBOs [Community Based Organizations], partnering with organizations that have been around for a long time that do work with community.” She added, “I think a lot of people that live in communities don’t really love the big institutions that are in their neighborhoods…so I think being strategic about how you gain the trust of community members is going to be a big piece of it.” More broadly, Jessel stressed that however the University structures engagement with community members, “Columbia should pay them.” She continued, “Underline, underline bold—pay them. I think that’s just vital. I mean, so many people are, like, their knowledge is taken for granted and taken for free.”
The format for student input remains in the works, but at the recent town hall, Halliday mentioned the development of student engagement opportunities, including but not limited to participation in working groups, roundtables, and town halls, led by Professor Sandra Goldmark, the Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action at Barnard, who is helping to facilitate the design process for the School. More information about these opportunities will be shared with the student community in the coming weeks, in the form of a student engagement survey.
Many aspects of the Climate School have yet to be defined and addressed. Concerns about the University’s ability to lead climate action when it has not yet announced a plan to divest from fossil fuels or released a hard date for achieving carbon neutrality still exist, though the Report mentions these concerns and recommends taking practical steps to address them as part of a comprehensive climate action plan. According to Halliday “In particular, the School will serve as a key resource for the University in terms of understanding its own impact on climate—including carbon neutrality.” Students should stay abreast of Earth Institute updates and take advantage of opportunities to contribute ideas, especially in these early stages of design, because the Climate School has the potential to forge lasting connections among fields and individuals both within and beyond the University, and to help us understand climate for what it is—existential and all-encompassing.