Why Do We Need a Climate School?

Climate change is already part of the curricula across Columbia, but we can make a bigger difference by working together.

Alex Halliday
July 13, 2020
alma mater in front of Low Library
Photo: Columbia University

Seventy years ago, if studying at Columbia, you might have learned about Magna Carta and its importance in shaping the United States of America. You might also have learned about the then-developing field of nuclear fission. Today you might learn about Magna Carta still, possibly with a clearer understanding of its influence, but the field of machine learning would be the exciting new area instead of nuclear fission. Seventy years ago, a new research center established 10 miles north of the George Washington Bridge was developing innovative research on the Earth’s interior. Today, the focus at the Lamont Campus is much more on the oceans, ice sheets and the impact of climate, while still studying the Earth’s interior workings. All universities and their disciplines evolve, while recognizing the timeless importance of fundamentals.

Despite this inevitable and healthy, but gradual, development, it is worth asking whether a university or universities generally are still structured optimally for tackling the hard and typically trans-disciplinary problems faced by today’s society. If you could start from scratch, would you really design a university and its subjects this way? Alternatively, is it time to develop a new kind of structure?

In this context, you may have noticed that Columbia University is launching a Climate School. This will provide students, researchers, faculty, and our many colleagues and partners in New York and around the world, with an effective and novel vehicle for both focusing and expanding the university’s activities around climate, sustainability and the human interface with planet Earth. The main emphasis needs to be the developing climate crisis, but one cannot develop a school with such a focus that does not consider the broader related issues. This is why a century ago, universities created schools of public health rather than schools of pandemics. In fact, climate and its closely related fields feature in many Columbia schools.

If climate is part of the curricula and research programs of so many parts of Columbia, you might ask “Why do we need a climate school?” At present, we do not have central, strategically focused coordinating structures and mechanisms for developing education, research, technology and policy hubs linked to climate. The Climate School will provide that. Different schools contribute in their own very significant way but the university needs to strategize about what we should do next, how to develop a new initiative, what degrees will be needed and who we should recruit. The whole university needs to do this because the problems are larger than what can be addressed by one or two schools. Together we can make a bigger difference. Of course, the Earth Institute has long trail-blazed in sustainability education but because we cannot award degrees, our programs and students are based in a variety of existing schools alongside other climate-relevant education. With a school, we can think strategically about the opportunities and needs for climate education and research more holistically. We can provide opportunities for students to interact and learn across more disciplines.

Few universities can match the potential for this Columbia-wide activity. The Climate School will bring together many of its world-leading capabilities in climate that currently are based in centers of the Earth Institute, such as the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, the Center for Climate Systems Research, the Center for International Earth Science Information Network and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. However, much of Columbia’s expertise sits elsewhere, inside existing schools. Therefore, the grand prize, recognized by the Climate Task Force, is to form a school like no other, with a hub and spokes structure that networks and supports diverse activities across the institution.

If that sounds like a nightmare of bureaucracy in an otherwise straightforward university, perhaps it would help to focus on what this new school will aim to do and why it is so important. We are strong in paleoclimate but this is almost exclusively based at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory where Arts and Sciences (Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences) faculty and students are based. However, other areas — such as climate modeling, energy, water resources, food security and nutrition, climate and health more broadly, climate communication, resilient cities, climate economics, policy and decision-making, migration, ethics and social justice — are spread across widely different parts of Columbia. Then there are those studying the impact of climate on human history, or the psychological impacts of climate change, or how to develop disaster relief as a subject, or how to express our thoughts and feelings about the environment through the arts and media. This is all here, at Columbia. The goal is to harness this immense firepower of around 1,000 researchers, faculty and staff working on subjects related to climate.

Columbia brings this scale but also three other facets of the climate problem.

First, humans have been able to raise the temperature of the surface of the planet by a degree Celsius, but are struggling to prevent it from rising further. Our ways of living have become so inextricably linked with the things that cause carbon emissions. Despite the public health impacts, the food security issues, the drought in the southwest US, the likely impact of extreme events on the south and eastern US, the danger of large scale societal disruption, migration and conflict, all precipitated or made significantly worse by climate change, society is slow to respond. This is not just about technology, although breakthroughs there are always going to be key. This is about the human condition of our failure to focus on how we make decisions to build a more sustainable future for humans and the biosphere more broadly, and how we interact with this wonderful but powerful planet. Humankind has failed at this, and the unfairness of the devastating implications for those least able to respond, and least responsible for the problem, stands as a major concern in terms of ethics, social justice and human rights.

This lens of social justice and how society functions, needs to frame the work of the Columbia Climate School. This of course raises the importance of diversity, which will drive our public engagement and schools programs, our education programs, the career opportunities for young people, and our recruitment of faculty. Our society, the issues people face and the solutions they are developing, need to be a key part of the Climate School.

Second, there is no point having the school unless you intend to collaborate across disciplines. The problems of climate are complex and inter-connected, which is why Columbia, with the experience of the Earth Institute, is such a great university for making a difference. However, the opportunity is far greater than is represented by the Earth Institute. Sea level is a good example. We have great glaciologists studying ice sheet dynamics. However, sea level change will affect coastlines in differing ways — some will even experience sea level going down. We need to better understand coastline dynamics. Then of course, we need to consider what this will mean in times of extreme events and what kind of coastal defense systems are needed. Then we need to think about buildings and urban planning needed to achieve resilience in our infrastructure. Of course, we need to deal with disasters in terms of the immediate impact on people’s lives. Then there is the impact on the economy and property markets in the US and elsewhere. There is the collapse of society in many regions of the world as people are forced to migrate. Then there are the legal rights of citizens whose countries become uninhabitable.

Work on sea level, whether it be research, education or impactful practice, can be found across almost all of Columbia, well beyond the Earth Institute and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. It also includes Arts and Sciences faculty in Anthropology, History, and Classics. It includes Earth and Environmental Engineering and Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, both in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as Environmental Health Sciences and Population and Family Health, both in School of Public Health. It includes the School of International and Public Affairs, the Data Science Institute, Teachers College, Barnard, School of the Arts, Nursing, Business, Law, Social Work and others. Sea level is a huge and complex problem with massive ramifications for society. It is just one facet of climate change but the complexity requires a university like Columbia, with its breadth and intellectual richness, to bring people together in a trans-disciplinary school to address the issues. We can do this with the Climate School, recruiting new faculty and establishing new programs through the hub and spokes as needed. Of course, we are doing this in a major city impacted by climate change, which raises the third facet.

We need to use the Climate School to build a climate portal for connection with the world about the issues we all face. Columbia has an opportunity to establish a hub for engagement with the world, by virtue of it being located in New York City. There is no stronger university in terms of climate expertise, with more IPCC authorships than any other US academic institution. There also is no stronger university in such a major coastal city. New York brings the focus of business, global connectivity, the UN and the importance of culture and the arts. Columbia is good at engaging, whether through the world’s greatest Journalism School, the Center for Global Energy Policy, the Earth Institute, ICAP, or the School of the Arts. The Shed, Carnegie Hall, NYC Mayor’s Office, NYSERDA, all want to work with us on climate change, as do many businesses. However, the connections are not just local — we work globally and the Columbia Global Centers will be another key asset in delivering the work of the Climate School going forward.

Therefore, here we are, with a chance to design a school for the future that will engage broadly across Columbia and beyond. This is worth working hard to achieve and I am looking forward to the next three years as we build out this creative new enterprise.

Alex Halliday is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.