State of the Planet

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The Centrality of Science to Sustainability

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen on the Huffington Post.

I am not a physical scientist, but a social scientist; my doctorate is in political science and my work has been in environmental policy, public management, and sustainability management. But environmental and sustainability science are key to effective environmental policy and to the development of sustainably managed organizations. I learned this at the start of my career working in EPA’s water pollution and hazardous waste clean-up programs. Both required technical understanding of toxic chemicals, hydrology, biology, ecology and geology. I had to do a lot of on-the-job training to understand and define effective environmental policy.

Public policy always requires specialized expertise, but typically that expertise does not require whole different fields of study. Homelessness, education, national security, emergency response, trade, income inequality, economic development and many other policy subfields required additional depth in social science, but did not require the scientific expertise needed for environmental policy. The only field that was close to environmental policy was health policy, which required medical science to fully understand.

When I left EPA for Columbia University and in 1987 became a dean of faculty and curriculum at the School of International and Public Affairs, I worked with colleagues to develop a concentration in environmental policy. We decided to require a single science course taught by environmental scientists for policy students. We called that course environmental science for policy makers and for over a decade it was a signature course in Columbia’s approach to environmental policy. In 2002, as the Earth Institute grew, then-Institute Director and Senior Vice Provost Mike Crow asked me to design an all-environmental Master of Public Administration program. We decided that all the traditional management, political, economic and analytic concepts typically taught in a public policy program would be taught with environmental cases and seen through the lens of sustainability problem solving.

With my colleagues at the Earth Institute’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, we designed a program that started in the summer and took one calendar year to complete. It is an intense program that requires students to enroll in 18 graduate credits per semester and begins with a “summer of science.” During the summer, in addition to two policy courses, the students complete courses in: climate science, environmental chemistry, ecology, urban ecology, hydrology and toxicology. The Lamont scientists I worked with wanted the policy students to start with environmental science to ensure that scientific fact influenced their approach to environmental policy.

In 2010, we decided to bring this type of education to students working full time and establish a part-time graduate program. To do this, the Earth Institute worked with Columbia’s School of Professional Studies to develop the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program. This program requires students taking an environmentally-oriented management master’s to complete three courses in the “physical dimensions of sustainability.” These courses can range from green architecture to climate science and from energy efficiency to hydrology. This degree has been quite successful and already has over 600 graduates.  As we engaged with working sustainability professionals in our region, we found some wanted a master’s degree that included more than three technical courses. They saw the need for some management and policy, but in their more technical work sought a different curriculum. As a result of that dialogue, we have developed and will launch this January the Master of Science in Sustainability Science program.

The program is designed for full-time and aspiring sustainability professionals who wish to develop their skills in earth systems observation, analysis, projection, and environmental remediation. The program is offered as both a full- and part-time course of study. Courses are held primarily in the evenings, and the degree can be completed without daytime courses. The program is designed to enable part-time students to maintain full-time employment while studying. Our goal is that students will graduate from the program with the ability to:

  1. Use scientific methods to observe and monitor the sustainability of natural systems.
  2. Analyze and model scientific data to understand current and future environmental conditions and their effects on human systems.
  3. Use scientific tools to detect and respond to pressing sustainability issues.
  4. Analyze the organizational and political contexts, as well as identify the opportunities and obstacles for integrating scientific knowledge in decision-making processes of policymakers and managers.
  5. Integrate and apply their knowledge of scientific observation and monitoring, analysis and modeling, as well as the use of scientific tools in organizations.

The program’s coursework is organized by the following five areas of study:

  • Area 1 – Integrative Courses in Sustainability Science
  • Area 2 – Methods of Earth Observation and Measurement
  • Area 3 – Analysis and Modelling Environmental Conditions and Impacts
  • Area 4 – Scientific Tools for Responding to Sustainability Challenges
  • Area 5 – Sustainability Policy or Management

The program’s director is Lamont Deputy Director Dr. Art Lerner-Lam, who is now assembling a team of Lamont research professors and expert practitioners to deliver a cutting edge, but practical degree in sustainability science. The need for this science is obvious to those of us working in sustainability science and management. We need technical practitioners who know environmental science, modeling, and engineering, but are not research experts in any of those areas. Their job and the goal of this new program is to bring these disciplines together to address sustainability problems.

An example of the real time needs that they could address was brought home to me in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Sheila Kaplan, an enterprising New York Times reporter, described the process of assembling the expertise needed to understand the toxicity of some storm-ravaged neighborhoods in a fascinating piece entitled, “Looking for Answers, Times Reporters Tested the Water in Houston.” Ms. Kaplan and the Times deserve enormous credit for assembling and paying for a very expensive set of tests which included researchers from Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, Texas A & M and the University of California at Berkeley. According to Kaplan:

“The [sampling test] results were terrible: The level of E. coli (an indication of fecal contamination from the sewage) was 135 times what is generally considered safe, and there were raised levels of lead and other hazardous metals…. [In addition the] team found a truly dangerous threat: liquid mercury beads, spread out over the sand.”

It is wonderful that the Times was willing to invest in this research and assemble this national team. It is not that the government wasn’t also testing the water, but as Kaplan reported:

“The New York Times took this initiative due to a lack of available data. Neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would give us any information on what they were testing and what they had found. And while the Houston Health Department was doing some sampling of the floodwaters, it did not have any results to share yet.”

My concern is that in a world made more dangerous by the presence of toxics and complex sewage treatment, waste management, and water supply technology, we need far greater access to expertise about sustainability issues that we encounter in our homes and places of business. The knowledge we need cannot simply be housed in academia, but must be made more available in all of our institutions. That is why the professionalization of sustainability science is so important.

It is not going to be possible to eliminate the complex and occasionally dangerous technologies that make our lifestyles possible. Over time, the worst threats, such as asbestos, have been banned. But the degree of scientific literacy needed to manage our communities, businesses, and economy is continuing to grow. This new degree in sustainability science is the Columbia Earth Institute’s attempt to make our cutting edge environmental science more accessible to the engineers, technicians and other experts responsible for safely managing the facilities we rely on. Hopefully, we won’t always face the impact of natural disasters such as Harvey, Irma or Sandy, but let’s face it, these “emergencies” seem to be happening with greater frequency. Moreover, we need to be able to assess the environmental impacts of routine actions, such as building construction, infrastructure upgrades, and daily operations of our built environment.

The key to maintaining our current way of life without destroying the planet we rely on is to be more careful and knowledgeable than we now are when we produce and consume goods and services. Here at Columbia we have developed a comprehensive set of education programs  to meet the challenges of global sustainability. We are far from alone in developing this field and are part of a growing community of sustainability educators. The growth of this field of study is one of the reasons I am optimistic that we will overcome and meet the challenges of climate change and global sustainability. We have come a long way, but still have a long way to go.

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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