State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

ESP Students Share Mid-Semester Findings

MPA in Environmental Science and Policy student Erin Entler presents the initial findings for the Advancing Education for Sustainable Development: Designing a Pilot Program for the Park Slope Education Complex Workshop group.

On Wednesday, March 6, students in the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program presented their midterm Workshop briefings for fellow students, staff, and invited guests at Columbia University’s Faculty House. This spring’s Workshop projects, intended for ESP students to gain experience tackling tough environmental problems by working with real-world clients, dealt with topics ranging from climate justice research to tree-based conservation efforts.

“I appreciated the rigorous methodology that’s already very clearly underway within each of the workshop groups as they explore their topics,” said Kendall Singleton, member of the West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT) for Environmental Justice Workshop team. “It’s also affirming to see how both the science and the policy aspects of each project are so important to the client, and how the coursework from the previous two semesters is directly informing our work.”

The Workshop course is just one component of the program that is designed to give students a more complete understanding of sustainability issues while gaining valuable professional experience. Students in the program conduct research and analysis in the Workshop course for each of the three semesters they spend in the program. By shifting the focus of their research each semester, students are able to gain a variety of skills and experiences addressing such issues as management, funding and legislative initiatives.

“The students have internalized the academics of our program, as well as the practical skills we strive to impart, like presenting complex ideas to a general audience,” stated Sarah Tweedie, Assistant Director for the MPA-ESP program. “The students presented another round of impressive briefings and I look forward to seeing their final projects.”

The students will present the rest of their findings at their final briefings on Wednesday, May 1. If you are interested in attending the briefings, please contact Sarah Tweedie, Assistant Director, at

You can read more about this semester’s Workshop projects below.

Title: Development of a GIS and Remote Sensing based Integrated Decision Support Tool (DST) for Water Resources, Environmental Sustainability, and Validation of Safe Water Stations Siting

Faculty Advisor: Shadan Azali

Safe Water Network is an International Non-Governmental Organization committed to developing and demonstrating scalable, sustainable market-based solutions that provide safe, affordable drinking water to underserved communities. Co-founded in 2006 by the actor and philanthropist Paul

Newman and a group of leading philanthropic, business and civic leaders, Safe Water Network has established a sound track record in the development and implementation of innovative solutions to improve access to safe, affordable water to communities in need with the goal of achieving lasting impact on human development through improved public health. This project will be working with Safe Water Network on its water resource management initiative for its sites in India.

Title: Climate Justice- Research for the World Resources Institute

Faculty Advisor: Kathleen Callahan

In September 2012, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice (MRFCJ), entered into a memorandum of understanding launching the Climate Justice Dialogue. WRI and MRFCJ believe that a new window of opportunity has emerged that provides a chance to motivate and generate climate equity thinking and action among nations. In December 2011, more than 190 countries convened in Durban, South Africa and agreed to launch new negotiations toward an international climate agreement for 2015. Their goal is to influence the development of this agreement through the Climate Justice Dialogue. They wish to see a new agreement, which is “constructed in a manner that is informed by science, considers the specific needs of the populations most vulnerable to climate change, and catalyzes sustainable development.”

Title: The Future of PlaNYC: An Urban Sustainability Benchmarking Study & Recommendations for PlaNYC’s Success Post-Bloomberg Client: The New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability

Faculty Advisor: Steve Cohen

Released in 2007, and updated in 2011, PlaNYC 2030, New York City’s sustainability plan, was an unprecedented effort led by Mayor Bloomberg to prepare the city for one million more residents over the next two decades, strengthen the city’s economy, combat climate change, and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers. Much of PlaNYC’s success can be attributed to the strong commitment and support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Over the past five years, OLTPS and City agencies have focused their attention on meeting PlaNYC’s numerous initiatives and targets, and they have produced detailed assessments of outcomes in annual progress reports, greenhouse gas inventories, and other documents. With the Bloomberg Administration coming to a close at the end of this year, it is likely that the City’s sustainability policy will undergo change, and new directions will be charted. While New York City was implementing PlaNYC, cities across the country have adopted their own plans and methods of incorporating sustainability into urban policy and business. Taking stock of what other cities are doing, developing an inventory of this activity, and analyzing the various approaches to planning, governance, budgeting and performance management will provide insight on the state-of-the-art in urban sustainability policy and help to inform future discussions in New York City.

For this project, students will conduct an urban sustainability benchmarking analysis, paying particular attention to these issues and discussing new approaches that could be considered in New York City. Students will pay attention to how sustainability or related agendas have fared during political transitions in other cities and how stakeholder groups have contributed during transitional phases.

Title: Advancing Education for Sustainable Development: Designing a Pilot Program for the Park Slope Education Complex, NYC Department of Education

Faculty Advisor: Nancy Degnan

The New York City Department of Education is the largest public education system in the world. It is responsible for the education and safety of 1.2 million children in approximately 1,600 public schools throughout the five boroughs. As a municipal government agency, the Department is part of the efforts of New York City to engage in environmentally sustainable practice through PlaNYC. It has taken a two pronged approach to fulfilling its PlaNYC goals. The first approach is to improve energy use and conservation in school buildings to decrease carbon footprint, as well as to enhance recycling efforts. The second is to encourage curricular innovation at the individual school level to increase the understanding of and skills and knowledge acquisition in, sustainability. A handful of “pioneering” schools have been addressing the issues of sustainable development through their core curriculum with the intended outcome of anchoring this education at the secondary level.

The Park Slope Education Complex, one of the largest middle school education campuses in New York City is one of the “pioneering” schools. The school’s principal, Ailene Altman-Mitchell, has asked the workshop team to design and describe a pilot program that captures the essential elements of sustainable education. Core to the design of the pilot will be an evaluation framework that would support the translation of the pilot to a model, adaptable across other middle schools in the city and nation.

Title: Assisting Congress to Better Understand Environmental Justice

Faculty Advisor: Gail Suchman

West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WEACT) believes that a majority of members of Congress do not fully understand the interaction between environmental health and federal policies on clean air, toxic exposures and climate change, and its impact on low-income communities of color and Indigenous populations. WEACT would like to create a very practical resource for Congress that identifies and discusses 2-3 fully developed case studies, at least one in an urban area and at least one in a rural area. The cases would include the following information: (1) toxic exposures (using TRI and other available data), (2) number and types of permitted facilities, (3) community health profiles, (4) socioeconomic and demographic information, (5) urban heat island potential, (6) potential climate change impacts, (7) access to health care resources and health care costs, (8) access to energy resources and energy costs, and (9) local/state health and environmental policies/compliance. The Workshop group would then create an index or environmental/health scorecard which may be compared to the overall environmental wellbeing generally in the states in which these case study areas are located. Environmental Justice advocates hypothesize that there will be distinct differences between the indices in the case study areas and those in the relevant states generally. Overall, the goal would be to create and test a “method” that can be used (and replicated) to identify areas where environmental justice issues are valid concerns and demonstrate concrete difference between life in those areas and in the rest of the state. WEACT has suggested the southwest Detroit community as a possible case study area but a literature research may identify other areas as well.

Title: Energy Crisis: Reducing Rising Energy Demands through Tree-Based Conservation Programs

Faculty Advisor: Sara Tjossem

Energy Saving Trees began as a pilot program in 2011 in which the Arbor Day Foundation works with public and private utilities across the nation to advance utility investment in urban tree canopy to reduce the demand side of electricity. Much research documents the energy conservation benefits of strategically placed trees—according to the US Forest Service, trees properly placed around households can reduce energy bills up to 30%. Other benefits include improved air quality, stormwater runoff retention, and carbon sequestration. At the core of the program is an interactive online tool that uses peer-reviewed scientific research from the USFS iTree software to select the right tree and location for planting to yield the greatest energy savings.

Electric utility companies spend billions of dollars annually on energy conservation programs aimed at reducing consumer demand through providing or defraying the cost of energy conscious light bulbs, window insulation, heat pumps, and more. Each state has a public utility commission that determines which programs qualify to use these funds. Unfortunately few utility commissions currently allow these funds for tree planting programs as an approved energy efficiency alternative. We have a working model with Arizona Public Service to operate the Energy Saving Trees program as a viable energy conservation program and would appreciate the opportunity to work with a group of students to review and pursue policy alternatives for all state utility commissions to accept strategic shade tree planting for energy conservation.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

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

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments