Written by Alexei Gittelson
How did you start teaching in the MPA ESP Program?
I started working as a postdoc and then as a research scientist at Columbia’s Center for Climate Systems Research, which works very closely with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). Professor Upmanu Lall at the Columbia Water Center suggested that I consider an opportunity to teach hydrology at SIPA. I had actually obtained my MIA in Environmental Policy Studies at SIPA back in 1999, and with my scientific background in civil engineering, I saw this is as an exciting way to come full circle and combine my interests by teaching policy students about some of the scientific concepts behind policy issues.
How did your civil engineering degrees lead you to hydrology?
I started out with the traditional mindset that I would go into civil engineering in order to build bridges. I was exposed to water resource issues because civil engineering was traditionally responsible for water systems and sewage, so there was a natural connection to hydrology. At the time, many universities did not have the environmental programs that they do today, and environmental engineering was still an emerging field at Columbia. In fact, when I switched into an environmental engineering concentration in the 1990s, I was the only one who had chosen to do so. So, by default, I was, in fact, both the best and worst in my class.
How did this lead you to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies?
After graduating from SIPA and having internships at the United Nations and other international organizations, I felt I had a good amount of policy experience, but I decided I needed more applied engineering experience, so I worked for several private engineering companies for a couple of years. At the end of that, I decided that I preferred the academic side of engineering, so I went back for a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton University. There, I studied plants and soil moisture interactions, which emerged into the field of ecohydrology. Thanks to this experience, I was able to find an opportunity to continue my research as a postdoc working on NASA’s global climate model (known as the GISS Model-E) through Columbia’s Center for Climate Systems Research. This challenging experience was great because I was able to understand how important our terrestrial water system interaction is in relation to our environment.
What do you work on now at GISS?
I continue to work on the land surface component of the climate model to see how irrigation affects local, regional, and even global climate. I have been gradually transitioning my efforts to focus on global food security, because, in many ways, it has links to hydrology, especially hydrologic extremes; severe floods and droughts are major pressures on our global food system as is groundwater depletion. I have really been making a push to build off my research to try and understand vulnerabilities of the food system that arise due to globalization and pressures on our water and food systems. The idea is to explore policy solutions and improve business practices that would reduce the vulnerability of our food system, strengthening agriculture in the United States but also providing it with the capacity to securely feed people around the world. This could help make local governments as well as the international community start thinking about strategies to address emergency disruptions and vulnerabilities to our food systems, including famines and other problems that we have not thought about before.
What I am trying to do is to understand the interplay and the extent to which trade relationships are important for a given country, while also maintaining its capacity to produce food domestically. Having strong trade relationships, for example, reduces your vulnerability to local disruptions that could include crop disease outbreaks, flooding, or droughts. But being overly dependent on the global food supply can make a country vulnerable to systemic risk and could lead to a spike in food prices.
That last perspective deserves more attention because such disruptions could have catastrophic consequences. A wake-up call came in 2008 when food riots started breaking out in parts of Africa and southeast Asia following trade restrictions despite the recommendations of the World Trade Organization. There is recognition now, but the logistics and partnerships that are needed in order to respond to these types of emergencies is not where it needs to be. In the transportation sector, cargo shipping changes are fundamentally changing the way food is distributed, so what is the strategy if something goes awry? We need to develop an effective response to these types of disruptions.The model I am developing aims to understand the sensitivities to the food system and determining different types of possible outcomes.
How do you feel that the MPA-ESP program fits into all of these themes you are touching upon in your work?
I have been trying to emphasize to students the importance of understanding extremes: extreme drought, extreme flooding, the connection with food, energy production and distribution, and how globalization leads to new challenges that need to be addressed. I think my course and other courses in the program try to raise awareness among policy students who will become policy leaders and to make sure that they have a perspective that recognizes the different sets of challenges that we face. Solutions are multi-dimensional and are not just going to come from governmental policy but from the private sector, non-governmental and international organizations as well.
And what do you believe is the best aspect of the MPA-ESP program?
I think the real benefit of the program is that there is an opportunity for students to understand the scientific aspects of research and analysis. That piece is quite important as they move to explore the economic aspects of policy. Having the ability to link different disciplines, bringing together the ideas from all of these perspectives puts students in a great position to making an impact on the world. The ideal type of policymaker is the one that has the ability to ask the right questions, and in order to do that, you need a broad background and you need the ability to communicate with economists, scientists, business types, as well as other policymakers. I believe that is the added value to students in this program: they are able to communicate with a wide range of stakeholders.
Is there anything else that you feel is important to mention that may be flying under the radar?
I always like to talk about our global food systems and security because I believe that is one critical aspect of human development. In relation to that, there is an emerging food crisis in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen (among other countries). The magnitude of these crises is something that the world has not seen in the 21st century. 30 million people are severely food insecure, and the media’s coverage of this crisis is almost non-existent compared to the scale of the crisis. I find that very troubling and tragic. I would hope that students from the ESP program and those like it can come out and start mitigating these humanitarian crises and come up with good responses to them.
Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute.
Visit our website for more information: http://mpaenvironment.ei.columbia.edu/