By Lauren Harper
In February, a panel of current Columbia University graduate students discussed climate change solutions at an event hosted by Millennials World. The event aimed to highlight how millennials are working to shape the future of sustainable development, climate action and environmental policy. Prior to the event, I sat down with each panelist to find out why they chose their career paths and how they plan to use their professional degrees to tackle climate change issues in the future.
Andrea Cristina Ruiz is a second-year MPA Development Practice (MPA-DP) student. Prior to joining Columbia, she worked on climate change adaptation with the Miami Dade County Office of Resilience and the CLEO Institute. Ruiz also led research at the Embassy of Ecuador in Washington DC. She has experience working in multilateral organizations like the Organization of American States, Ashoka, and the Institute of International Economic Policy at the George Washington University, and founded an education program that donated libraries in South America. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University, where she majored in Economics and International Affairs.
Why did you choose your career path?
When selecting the MPA-DP program, I was looking for a program that allowed me to become a stronger researcher, without losing sight of development practice. I valued the strength of the professors who conducted interdisciplinary research on climate change impacts using interdisciplinary approaches. Additionally, I was interested in the opportunity to connect with research centers at Columbia like the Earth Institute, International Research Institute for Climate and Society, and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, to name a few.
I also valued that the program allowed me to connect my background in economics with climate change and sustainable development. I had worked in research, mostly on international trade for development, market access, and macroeconomic analysis. In this work, it was impossible not to notice the effects climate change was already having on the economy. I moved to Miami to work on climate change more intentionally but felt I needed more than interest. Columbia was the perfect opportunity to pivot my career to focus explicitly on climate change adaptation.
Did being a millennial in the age of climate action influence that choice?
In practice, being a millennial exposed me to formative experiences and opportunities I would not have had without the internet. In feeding my curiosity, it set me up for a research-based career.
I grew up highly exposed to natural disasters. I lived through Hurricanes Andrew, Wilma, and Katrina in Miami. In Ecuador I survived an avalanche, earthquakes, and grew up preparing for the Pichincha eruption. Technology allowed me to move beyond being a passive observer to an active questioner and researcher. At the same time, living through the Ecuadorian financial crisis made me curious about hyperinflation, monetary policy, and inequality. I remember using all the broadband on Netscape, Ask Jeeves, and Geocities, looking up information to understand the world around me.
It is not enough for researchers and decision makers to consider how climate change will affect different populations, especially vulnerable communities; we need include diverse voices at the table, in seminars, in labs.
The western image of a “millennial” forgets people in our generation without the same access to technology and opportunities that we associate with a “millennial generation”.
When we think of millennials we should think of a subset of a generation who had the privilege to grow with technology. I recognize how empowering our digital nativity can be, but we have to remember that not everyone has the opportunities that allowed us to be where we are today, studying at Columbia.
This motivates me to advocate for inclusion of diversity in economics, STEM fields, and policy. It is not enough for researchers and decision makers to consider how climate change will affect different populations, especially vulnerable communities; we need include diverse voices at the table, in seminars, in labs. This is something we can accomplish by increasing diversity in fields that inform policies that address climate change.
Do you feel that millennials and other non-baby boomer generations are solely charged with solving the world environmental and climate issues?
Climate change is a global problem that requires coordination and cooperation from all generations. I don’t think it is constructive to focus on the legacy that previous generations left; instead, we should learn from this and make sure that our generation does not repeat the same mistakes. Beyond taking on these lessons, we should include every generation in the solutions.
I hope we are careful not to blame our “past” economic models because our current models, although better, are not that different. We live this at every level: from the availability of single-use plastics to the tight correlation between growth and greenhouse gas emissions. We are starting to feel the limitations of the natural world unlike any generation before us. Past generations may have not felt the limitations of resources. We are feeling it now, but our children will certainly feel it more.
We should learn from past indifference to climate awareness and be more proactive about taking action now and into the future. We cannot be satisfied with small changes anymore. It is time to think bigger and redefine the way things are. We can implement policies now and become more strategic and systemic about how to address these issues.
Bringing it back to the theme of millennials. When I think of “millennials,” I think of a generation with agency and urgency. We live in a time where maintaining the status quo is not only sub-optimal, it’s dangerous. Impacts from climate change may materialize through natural systems, but it is human systems that exacerbate these impacts. The challenges of our time put us in a unique position to act and dare us to think beyond silos and traditional approaches. We need to be innovative, creative, but also representative.
What are your long-term career goals when it comes to tackling global climate change challenges?
I want to approach climate change as a researcher, an academic entrepreneur. I have a very entrepreneurial personality and curious character. When you are a researcher, you are somewhat of an entrepreneur and a professional investigator. You are creating knowledge, identifying problems, and looking for unique solutions to those problems armed with theory, subject matter expertise, and econometrics! I think that is important to have diversity in thought, background, and disciplines. I want to be a part of a network of climate scientists, decision-makers and economists who can all work together to make better research-backed decisions. That’s where the best solutions come from. In the next five years, I want to be in an PhD program that values interdisciplinary approaches to research. In the very long term, I’d like to be a professor at a university or chief economist at a think tank, or development bank.
What you think will be the tipping point when it comes to advancing sustainability practices and lessening environmental impacts in the next 30 years?
Climate action is so complicated because it requires urgent, global action that is hard to galvanize when the effects are slow and progressive. We have made significant progress that should not be undermined. To reach the massive momentum we need to mobilize action, we may need some focusing event like Sandy that can make everyone feel we are in a period of clear and imminent climate change impacts. We also need a slow culture change; that is already happening. Something more concrete that could massively impact sustainability practices in the long run is a functional carbon market, and a carbon price that is close to the real social cost of carbon.
What motivates you and keeps you hopeful in tackling these long-standing issues?
I feel a sense of urgency when I consider the magnitude of the challenges we are facing. Seeing the impacts of climate change in places I love makes the issue personal and close to home. Recognizing the dangers of doing nothing and the potential of timely, effective and assertive action motivates me professionally. Climate change encompasses many environmental and social issues I am passionate about. The close relationship between social challenges and the environment add a level of complexity that stimulates me intellectually. We are in a period of rapid change and great need for information, ideas, solutions, advocacy, and much more. More than anything, we need people and professionals who are committed to contributing what they can offer. I plan on doing just that.
Lauren Harper is an intern in the Earth Institute communications department. She is a graduate student in the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.