An illustration of a leaf growing sprouting through a stacked pile of textbooks symbolizing climate school
Every college should be giving future generations the skills to understand climate change. (Illustration by Veronica Chen, Yale University)

Climate School: The Planet Saving Program That Every University Needs

Columbia has an innovative new program capable of educating students on how to combat climate change. Will other colleges follow suit?

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An illustration of a leaf growing sprouting through a stacked pile of textbooks symbolizing climate school

Columbia has an innovative new program capable of educating students on how to combat climate change. Will other colleges follow suit?

At a United Nations meeting on July 9, President Bollinger of Columbia University announced the creation of a new climate school under the Ivy League institution’s umbrella. The move falls in line with the university’s consistent promotion of climate research, and the school’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) has attracted some of the greatest minds in climatology.

Yet the name of this new school may confound some. A more popular configuration of these words is “school climate,” referring to the frequency of bullying at an institution. Nevertheless, on some abstract level, a climate school is more or less an evolution of that — an institution working against ecological torment outside its walls.

One may list other established graduate schools, such as law school or medical school, and imagine the curricula and occupations associated with them in total clarity. As we look at the new establishment through this lens, many questions arise. Would a climate school offer an imaginative possibility for students looking for tangible skills and careers? Furthermore, is a climate school even worth establishing?

Let’s begin with my (eventual) alma mater. With interdisciplinary undergraduate schools and over a dozen graduate programs to choose from, Columbia University is a massive institution. If we look at Columbia College, the university’s cornerstone college for undergrads pursuing the humanities, you can major in a range of eco-related disciplines, from earth science and environmental chemistry to sustainable development.

Of course, if we think more broadly about the skills needed to combat the climate crisis, just about every major offers students a toolkit to help save the planet, whether that be through activism or artistic means.

Then there’s SEAS, the engineering school. More than equipped to give undergrads the skills needed to transform a warming world, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering offers only the Earth and Environmental Engineering major, which provides a comprehensive outlook on the greatest challenge facing humanity.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences offers a master’s degree in climate and society. Columbia Law School holds the Sabin Center for Climate Change, which, according to its website, “Develops legal techniques to combat climate change, trains students and lawyers in their use, and provides up-to-date resources on key topics in climate change law and regulation.” The School of International and Public Affairs offers MPAs in environmental science and policy as well as in sustainable development, the latter of which is also given as a Ph.D.

From the looks of it, Columbia appears to have embedded the whole climate change issue into the fabric of its academic approach. No matter which school you attend, there’s bound to be a program concentrating on this existential threat. So, why found a school focused solely on studies that are already a part of what defines the university?

Despite these various programs being in place, very few students actually take advantage of them. In 2019, out of 1,173 degrees awarded to Columbia College graduates, 27 of them were in sustainable development, three in earth science and just two in environmental science. Out of 481 degrees that same year, only 16 SEAS students graduated in earth and environmental engineering.

This trend runs across the Ivy League. Last year, only 24 out of 1,665 Harvard College graduates received degrees in environmental science and public policy or earth and planetary sciences. In 2018, not a single Yale College student graduated with a degree in environmental engineering.

Dartmouth College is an outlier in this regard, with 66 graduating in 2019 with degrees in environmental studies. Granted, you don’t have to pursue these specific majors to combat climate change as a professional, but the fact that there is so little attraction suggests that these manifestations of sustainability education just don’t cut it.

Yet the scope of sustainability at Columbia extends beyond the limits of law or graduate school. Since 1995, the Earth Institute has been working to advance understandings of earth science as well as to apply that knowledge to public policy around the globe. Although the institute has attracted notable figures such as Nobel Laureate Leymah Roberta Gbowee and renowned climatologist Maureen Raymo, who is also the director of the LDEO, it has struggled to draw in donors.

An institute is different from a school in that it does not confer degrees. This makes it difficult to have an impact beyond research projects and broad policy issues. We need more boots on the ground with the skills to mitigate global warming through direct, policy-based action. Given the meager output of eco-friendly graduates, only a school specializing in augmenting those numbers could make a true difference in our society.

When you look at climate change with a narrow scope, limiting your purview to daily, individual actions, you can start to see the cracks in our culture that desperately need filling. How often do you try to recycle, but cannot readily find a place to do so? When that vacuum cleaner stops sucking, what do you do with it? How do you switch to solar if you rent a property?

These are the questions that require answers from specialists in sustainability, and no matter how decorated a researcher may be, they cannot have the same impact as hundreds of experts in America’s small towns and cities implementing new ways to consume and live. The more personnel we have, the better.

Not only would climate schools produce more experts in the designated field, but it would also bring together other students and faculty of universities in a discussion of pressing environmental issues. Those eco-centric programs at your institution would meet their full potential for collaboration, research and innovation. Just like a human, a degree can only do so much in isolation.

For Columbia to found a one-of-a-kind climate school is to acknowledge that we need more schools like it. A prestigious institution has sway over how the world reflects on itself, and many colleges are likely to follow in its footsteps. If other colleges begin uniting their environmental programs of study in some way, all of humanity will benefit.

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