State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Sarah Burns Wants to Lead the Renewable Energy Transition

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. 

Sarah Burns
Sarah Burns, graduate student in the MPA-ESP Program

Sarah Burns is a student in the MPA Environmental Science and Policy program. Burns received her Bachelor’s Degree from University of Pennsylvania. She also gained professional experience working for the Environmental Protection Agency and Association for Energy Affordability, among other agencies. Once she completes her program in May, Burns will be working at National Grid as an Associate Energy Integration Consultant.

Why did you choose your career path?

I chose the MPA-ESP program because during application process I had a desire to work in government. However, when I was selected to attend the program, I observed a significant change in the political climate. This influenced me to consider the private sector, where I would make a greater impact. I am using the ESP program to bolster my science, economics, financial modeling, and energy systems knowledge, especially with the electives I have chosen.

Did being a millennial in the age of climate action influence that choice?

It is the responsibility of millennials who have been knowledgeable about climate change and the tools available to mitigate its effects to make a positive change. Being in that position and feeling that sense of urgency, I’ve decided to make a positive difference for the environment through this career path.

“I am motivated by the success of the past, and the awareness and the ambition of the scientific community, as well as my own personal drive.”

Do you feel that millennials and other non-baby boomer generations are solely charged with solving the world environmental and climate issues?

I think that if you are a millennial, or a non-baby boomer, with knowledge and tools to create positive changes for the environment, it is important that you do so even if it is only by recycling or engaging in dialogue about it. However, that isn’t limited to age-specific groups. If you have both the knowledge and the tools but are of another generation not mentioned before, there is also responsibility for you to help as well.

What are your long-term career goals when it comes to tackling global climate change challenges? 

My immediate goal is to work in the energy sector and aid in the facilitation of large-scale integration of renewables into existing energy grids. When I am much, much older, I would like to serve as the administrator of the EPA.

What you think will be the tipping point when it comes to advancing sustainability practices and lessening environmental impacts in the next 30 years?

I think the tipping point will come in a combination of factors including experience with climate change, environmental degradation first hand, learning about these issues, and technological innovation. Experience and knowledge will push individuals to be proactive, while technological innovation – promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy, and the conversion of conventional oil- and gas-based goods to renewable alternatives – will help transform society in a progressive way.

What motivates you and keeps you hopeful in tackling these long standing issues?

I am motivated by the success of the past, and the awareness and the ambition of the scientific community, as well as my own personal drive. I know I can fix some of what we have created and that’s what I plan to do in the future.

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.

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