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.
Megan Ross is a graduate student in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program. Before attending Columbia, Ross was a project manager at RECON, an engineering firm in Alaska. Ross also holds a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia as well as a M.S. in Geographic Information Systems from the University of Denver. Upon graduation Ross aspires to develop and implement urban sustainability in small and mid-sized cities.
Why did you choose your career path?
The short answer is I wanted to create a career shift to impact the issues I find most important, which are climate change and the environment. I wanted my work to directly reflect my personal values. I chose the SUMA program because I felt that it would help me build on my project management background and would enable me to have flexible career options after I graduated. I also liked the structure of the curriculum, which covers a broad range of topics and which was quite unlike the other degree programs I considered. Essentially, the integrative aspects of sustainability management along with the research opportunities at the Earth Institute were the driving reasons why I chose Columbia and SUMA.
Did being a millennial in the age of climate action influence that choice?
The millennial aspect wasn’t relevant at all because that is not an identity I particularly affiliate myself with. Considering where I am in my life and career right now, I felt like I had a lot of experience and capabilities to build on, but being relatively young, I have the bulk of my career ahead of me and I have a lot of time left to make a dent in the issues that are important to me.
“What motivates me is that there is no alternative to this work. I can’t not do it.”
Do you feel that millennials and other non-baby boomer generations are solely charged with solving the world environmental and climate issues?
Absolutely not; it’s everyone’s problem. Climate change affects the young, old, rich, poor, and those in developed and developing countries. But I do think every generation ends up being charged to tackle an issue they see as most critical for their time. We are facing a lot of critical issues: racism, sexism and income inequality are big. Climate change exacerbates all of those problems and makes it harder to gain traction on change for any of them, because climate change effects hit marginalized communities the hardest. For me, tackling climate change is a way to enable us to continue to focus on all of the problems. I do think climate change has resonated with our generation in a way that it hasn’t with former generations.
What are your long-term career goals when it comes to tackling global climate change challenges?
I believe in being flexible with my career. I could have never have predicted ten years ago that I would have spent these intervening years living and working in Alaska, so I have no idea where I will be in another ten years. With my studies here, I am looking to gain skills that will allow me to be flexible and inhabit roles that feel right as my career develops. Specifically, at this point, I am interested in how to implement urban sustainability in smaller cities. Although megacities have a greater overall impact on climate change mitigation, they cannot be the only attractive places to live, because then they become inaccessible and unaffordable. Bringing up small and mid-sized cities using a sustainable vision will enable them to grow more responsibly, retain local residents, and serve as examples to their regions.
What you think will be the tipping point when it comes to advancing sustainability practices and lessening environmental impacts in the next 30 years?
That is a really interesting question, because can you envision an event so heinous that it changes people’s behavior immediately and permanently? Honestly, at this point, I can’t, and so I don’t really think there is going to be a tipping point per se. I think we are looking at an ideological shift, which takes time. I think you have to change the way people consume, and the way they think about and use land. To reference one of our more memorable professors, I think that a major technological breakthrough could be a game changer, but that we can’t conceive of what that could be right now. I do think that when an alternative to fossil fuels becomes as available and affordable as fossil fuels have been, it will be a huge step forward. But that requires public and private sector action to create the space for that kind of innovation. I think innovation comes out of providing opportunity for everyone. I think it also comes out of sheer accidents at the right place and right time with a person who realizes an opportunity out of what some would perceive as a mistake.
What motivates you and keeps you hopeful in tackling these long-standing issues?
What motivates me is that there is no alternative to this work. I can’t not do it. When I was reassessing my career goals, I asked myself what would be the problem that I would look back on when I’m eighty and wish I had tried to solve throughout my life. I think it’s going to be climate change. Also, my cohort and faculty at Columbia are so skillful, insightful and diverse in their approaches to problem-solving. I know that they are all going to be influential in some way down the road and all I can think is, “thank God.” “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
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.