Savannah Miller, a student in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, has witnessed the impact of climate change on three different continents. Prior to attending Columbia, Savannah completed fieldwork in Antarctica and sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, she attended the climate negotiations at COP21, in Paris, France, as a student delegate.
This fall, she will be serving as an intern with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where she will analyze different policy initiatives for the Climate Change Post-Disaster Recovery and Preparedness Recovery team.
She wants to use her MPA ESP degree to make an impact, and tell her story. MPA ESP intern Alexandria J. Nakao-Eligado asked her a few questions about her first few chapters.
What inspired you to join the field of sustainability?
As a product of a military family, I’ve always had a sense of civic duty—a job is not a means to an end, but a commitment to make your own, individual difference. When I was a kid, I attended the Charleston County School of the Arts in South Carolina and majored in creative writing, so being an author and journalist was my primary focus. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized the synthesis between environmental science and creative writing—that there is no story more compelling than climate change.
In my first semester at Emory University, I didn’t get into the philosophy class I wanted, and found myself in Environmental 101. I absolutely fell in love. As I grew in to program, I recognized that since I was equipped with both the ability to understand the science and to communicate it, I had a role to play in this field.
Always curious, I wanted to expand my learning beyond the classroom. I was awarded a grant to conduct field work with a university team in the Peruvian Amazon River basin during my sophomore year. In that brief expedition, I could finally sense climate change happening first hand. I understood in that moment that preserving biodiversity is crucial for mitigating climate change impacts.
After my return, I began working for a non-profit environmental law firm and then for the Mayor’s Office for Sustainability. My creative side, however, wanted to learn more and keep traveling, so I received another grant to travel to Africa during the summer of 2015 to learn more about the ecology of Namibia and Botswana.
COP21 was a synthesis of my love for communication, city initiatives, biodiversity hotspots, and international policy. I decided I was going to use photography and the stories from my field guides as a way to improve environmental literacy. I started a blog, Sustainable Directions, to tell the story. I’ve since teamed up with other bloggers to co-develop future media content, including Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), an NGO focusing on large-scale conservation, and Sustainably Chic, a sustainable fashion blog.
On your trips to the Amazon, Africa, and Antarctica, what did you find most memorable?
They were all striking in their own way. Climate change is a global problem, and each one of these areas is its own section of the quilt that is interwoven to tell a larger story. In the Amazon, I witnessed families retreating from sporadic floods. In Africa, people struggled to find food, and children were malnourished due to drought.
The most striking, though, was Antarctica. It was so special. When you see such beauty that is unlike anything else that you’ve ever seen before—this incredibly harsh climate that is nonetheless home to numerous creatures—it wasn’t about me anymore. It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had.
The most pressing moment was when we hiked up to the top of this stunning glacier in Neko Harbor. It was dead silent, we were hanging out with our journals, and then I heard this sudden crack. Right in front of me, this glacier, about 6 stories tall, starts falling into the harbor. The calving event caused a small tsunami effect and was so loud, it reverberated for miles. Winter was supposed to be coming as well, so to see all of this ice continuing to crumble, it proved that it (the ecosystem) was not healthy. And it’s not just the glaciers. The ice sheets spread across the shoreline, home to penguins and humpback whales amongst many others, are thinning too. The ice sheets have layers of krill underneath, and as they get thinner and thinner, the krill that feed these penguins and humpback whales are lost, causing an immediate domino effect within the food chain.
As the glacier crumbled in Neko Harbor, I realized that every decision we make here affects a place that most of us may never see and most of us will never comprehend, but it’s beautiful, and it exists. So that poses the question of what else are we ruining? These places that we call our own homes can give us what Antarctica gave me if we treat them well. Ultimately, every decision, whether it’s in Atlanta, New York, Toronto, etc., affects Antarctica, and it also affects us. I think that Antarctica can serve as a metaphor for how we treat ourselves and our environment.
Antarctica also has a timeline. The Antarctic Treaty, which protects Antarctica as an international scientific center will be revisited in 2041, so 2041 can represent our own internal deadline for the many 2050 promises of renewable energy transitions. If mining for fossil fuels is economically feasible in Antarctica, countries and corporations alike will choose to set up shop, and the place will be gone. Further fossil fuel emissions will cause positive feedback loops within the Antarctic, reinforcing climate change. It’s not just a timeline for Antarctica, but in premise towards 2050, it means we need to get our act together. Time is of the essence.
What attracted you to Columbia University?
This was the only graduate program I applied to, because I felt like it was designed just for me. The program offers a synthesis of hard sciences and communications, a focus on strategic policy tools, and an emphasis on leadership and a new generation of policy. I feel a lot more confident in my ability to be a part of it and to make that handprint I wanted to see as a kid.
Also, it’s a one-year program; I’m a right-to-work person, so that was very appealing to me. And of course, Columbia University is an emblem for scientific research—it’s the best place for environmental science.
What do you see yourself doing after the program?
I want to be in the field working on projects in international sustainable development that bring out the stories of communities, that not just put a face in the place of climate change, but also a solution.
What advice would you give to students seeking similar experiences?
My advice would be to have a focused goal. If you show someone who has resources or similar interest in your subject, and you prove that you have an itinerary, a goal, and a tangible product, the financial support will follow.
For example, I was recently able to take a trip to Antarctica, which was something that I did outside of the university. I didn’t have enough to cover my travel expenses, so I created a GoFundMe account. It covered my own story, my itinerary, and my mission.