State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Climate Justice Advocate Strives to Create Solutions

By Asif Shah

13653061_10153732395967555_2153420417646701333_oElana Sulakshana is a Columbia College senior majoring in sustainable development and history.

What drew you to the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development?

I was drawn to study sustainable development because of the interdisciplinary nature of the program. I thought that it was necessary to study economics, earth science, history, sociology, statistics, and the combination of these disciplines in order to even begin approaching the complex issues that climate change poses.

What areas of sustainable development are you most interested in, and why?

I am most interested in human-centered climate change adaptation. Climate adaptation often serves to reinforce existing power structures by focusing on technocratic solutions and empowering experts and policymakers. My research and career goals are framed by this understanding, and I seek to center political and social mechanisms in questions of adaptation. My senior thesis explores relocation policy and funding for Alaskan Native villages that are facing extreme flooding and erosion.

What skills do you hope to acquire through the program?

I have acquired a number of practical skills through my study, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), statistical analysis, and programming with R. Beyond these, I have learned how to analyze complex problems with an interdisciplinary approach, work for a client in a real-world setting, conduct independent research, temporarily move to a faraway state, and most importantly—question, critique, and create solutions.

How do you intend to utilize these skills, and your degree, once you graduate?

My career goal is to work at the intersection of climate change and migration from a legal perspective and in a local context. Relocation policy must be community- and city-specific, incorporating a diverse set of stakeholders. Working in city or state government would be an ideal fit, because of my desire to learn about environmental governance on the ground and connect with people who are facing climate impacts.

What is your favorite class in the SDEV program so far, and why?

Climate Change Law and Policy with Professor Gerrard provided a unique opportunity to experience a course in Columbia Law School. The course rigorously surveyed various policies and legal tools that can be (or are being) utilized to address climate change, from the Clean Air Act to human rights claims. Though we attended the lectures and took the same final exam as law students, undergraduates were provided with extra support from the Sustainable Development program that made the material manageable.

Beyond the classroom, what, if any, extracurricular sustainability-related activities have you engaged in?

For the past three years, I have been active with Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, which calls on Columbia to take investments in 200 coal, oil, and gas companies out of its endowment. I advocate for divestment to hold my university accountable to the lessons and values that I have been taught in the Sustainable Development classroom.

For two years I lived in Greenborough Special Interest Community, which is an on-campus living space for students who are interested in environmental issues. Each fall, I led freshman on a four-day bike trip through Upstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey with COÖP (Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program).

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems, offered through The Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health.

To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Jessica Sotomayor at

Asif Shah is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute. He is an undergraduate senior studying economics and political science at Columbia College.




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

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