State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Influencing Students Towards a More Sustainable Path

By: Andrew Wilson

Stuart Gaffin is a research scientist with the Center for Climate Systems Research at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, where he focuses on the interplay of climate change and urban sustainability. In a recent interview, Gaffin provided insight into the exciting areas that the field of sustainability is moving into. According to Gaffin, urban environmental research and policy is becoming one of the hottest topics in sustainability and one that shows encouraging and measurable results. For example, many cities such as New York are implementing measures to reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change–through green street and roof programs, urban tree planting programs, installation of reflective urban surfaces that reduce heat entrapment, and adaptations to infrastructure–to better manage future changes in the environment.

When he is not conducting research, Gaffin teaches SDEV W3280: Workshop in Sustainable Development in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development program and is a lecturer at the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. He became involved with the Undergraduate Sustainable Development program because of its relevance to current issues facing humanity, such as global climate change and the need for a sustainable future. Gaffin admires and values the intellectual flexibility that the undergraduate degree provides students, by exposing them to a broad range of disciplines. When asked what his favorite part of being a professor is, Gaffin noted the enjoyment he gets from seeing students overcome challenges:, “I like most of all how they can start the semester knowing absolutely nothing about wetlands and by the end of the semester go toe-to-toe with veteran wetlands managers.”

Students in the Workshop in Sustainable Development course have the opportunity to engage in consulting projects with organizations outside of Columbia University as part of their degree studies. During the class, students work in teams as consultants for organizations to address a specific problem or need. Many of these projects, like where students did a comparison of green vs. white roofs for the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, allow students to work on these issues of urban sustainability. Gaffin sees the course as “training the next generation of sustainable development analysts as they enter the workforce.”

For the fall 2012 semester student teams will be working with one of two organizations: the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Rockland County Legislature. Students working with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation will analyze the success in recruiting, training, and retaining volunteers for the “Natural Areas Volunteers” program that helps maintain 10,000 acres of urban forests. The group working with the Rockland County Executive will analyze water conservation methods that have been utilized in other areas and then provide recommendations to the Rockland County Legislature as to which solutions to implement.

Gaffin’s advice to future sustainability practitioners in the sustainable development program? “Be patient because the large sustainable development problems the world faces are not going away any time soon, and certainly not on their own. Your academic training is only going to increase in demand as time goes by.”

Andrew Wilson is an intern with the Earth Institute’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development and working toward a degree in the Master of Public Administration in Development Practice.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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