State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Faculty Profile: Lisa Dale

Lisa Dale joins the Earth Institute this year as lecturer for the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development. Lisa has a background in environmental policy and has worked with the United Nations on climate change adaptation and most recently directed the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy. This fall, Lisa is teaching Environmental Policy & Governance for Sustainable Development, which will examine policy frameworks at the national and international levels through a sustainability lens. Welcome to the Sustainable Development program, Lisa!

SDEV_Lisa_DaleWhat excites you most about joining the Earth Institute and working with the Sustainable Development program? What did you do before coming to Columbia University?

Moving to NYC to join Columbia’s Earth Institute is a professional dream come true. Not only is the Institute one of the most far-reaching research organizations in the world, the undergraduate Sustainable Development program offers targeted programming for the leaders of tomorrow. I’m excited to be a part of such a robust academic community.

Most recently I ran the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, a research center that is jointly hosted by the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Law School at Yale. That position was my re-entry to the east coast after 25 years in Colorado. During my time out west, I worked both inside academia – including 5 years on the faculty at the University of Denver – and outside of it, as a policy advisor for state government and a researcher in the non-profit sector.

Could you describe some of the projects you worked on, such as climate adaptation through the UN initiative?

My research track record falls broadly into two categories: global environmental policy in the developing world, and environmental policy issues in the American West. In that first category, I am a member of the Leadership Group for the UN’s Anticipate, Absorb, Reshape (A2R) initiative. In that role, last year I oversaw the completion of a baseline study assessing the state of readiness in the developing world for climate adaptation. While at Yale, I also had the opportunity to work on projects related to corporate sustainability in Latin America, forestry policy in the American West, air quality policy, and the development of metrics to measure and compare environmental performance at the country scale. Before moving back east, I was involved in the development of wildfire policy and endangered species protection, as well as public lands management more broadly.

Are there any new trends/innovations that you see happening in the environmental policy field?

Certainly we are seeing a dramatic rollback of federal policies that support environmental protection. That trend is apparent in the stated goals of the new administration, the proposed budgets coming out of the executive branch, and the already striking reduction in staff at the Environmental Protection Agency. Simultaneously, we see an effort to weaken scientific credibility and distance policy-making from environmental science. But interestingly, as the federal government abandons its responsibility to ensure safe air and water for Americans, states and municipalities are stepping up to fill the void. Those sub-national layers of government will be ever more critical to America’s ability to comply with our various international treaty responsibilities, especially (but not solely) the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement.

Why do you think that environmental governance and policy are important in the field of sustainability?

Governance includes the full range of laws, regulations, norms, and voluntary actions that individuals and collections of individuals take to achieve a sustainable future. Without governance, we would have no systems to allocate scarce resources. Without policy, we would have no guiding structure and no enforcement ability. Individual and corporate actions are undeniably critical; policy provides the scaffolding within which those efforts can contribute to a larger intention. For students learning about the global context for sustainable development, policy is an essential piece of the puzzle.

What will students learn in your new course Environmental Policy & Governance for Sustainable Development?

The course is an introduction to environmental policy and governance. We will cover some nuts and bolts of the policy process in the U.S. and consider how various environmental problems have been addressed in that system. We then look at international environmental governance, including a study of the treaty-making process, and then take a deeper dive into climate change policy. Woven into these topics will be a steady assessment of current events.

How do you think your course enhances the Sustainable Development curriculum?

Students in the Sustainable Development program have an incredible array of courses available to them. Hard science and economics are particularly well covered. But since policy often functions as a background enabler for scientists, economists and diplomats, understanding how governance works is essential. It is my hope that students with all sorts of backgrounds will consider this course.

Can you give us a sneak peek into courses you hope to develop in the future?

In the spring of this coming year, I’ll teach the Challenges of Sustainable Development course, which is a core piece of the Sustainable Development curriculum. Additionally, I’ll offer my Environmental Policy in the American West course. In that class, we look at the unique landscape of the West with a focus on public lands management and the political culture that has emerged there. Next year I hope to offer a course on climate change adaptation in the developing world; that class is in part a product of my work with the UN project (see above), but also stems from my dissertation research in Ethiopia years ago. I’m also toying with the idea of a course on American environmentalism, where we would trace the development of environmentalism over time. In that course we could critically explore the strands of thinking, tactics, and political dynamics inherent in the movement.

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 Cari Shimkus at


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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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