State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Sustainability Education: Staying Positive While Trump Attacks Environmental Protection

This is a difficult time for those of us working to protect the planet’s ecosystems. Federal lands are threatened with exploitation, air pollution rules are under attack, and the corrupt EPA Administrator lies to Congress about his behavior and intent. But this past Friday night, I had the pleasure of attending a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Columbia’s undergraduate major in sustainable development. Earlier in the week I attended presentations by graduate students summarizing their capstone workshop projects for public and non-profit clients working to advance environmental sustainability. They were analytically sophisticated, public-spirited and inspiring. The best way to stay positive is to see what our students are learning and doing.

We have over 100 undergraduates studying sustainable development at Columbia. The two master’s programs I direct, the Master of Science in Sustainability Management and the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy, enroll about 300 students. In addition to these programs, Columbia’s Earth Institute has partnered with schools at Columbia to establish a PhD in Sustainable Development, an MA in Climate and Society, and an MPA in Development Practice. Scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have worked with the School of Professional Studies to establish a new MS in Sustainability Science. At Columbia, throughout America, and all over the world thousands of students are learning how to protect the planet while growing our economy. None of Columbia’s programs I’ve mentioned existed in the 20th century. Today, our faculty, students and alumni are a major force working hard to address the pressing problems that the Trump team is doing their best to ignore.

At many universities, this is the time of year when campuses are spruced up for graduation, and my thoughts turn to the accomplishments of our graduates and the potential represented by this year’s class. They will lead corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies, and will join their fellow graduates as change agents throughout the world. They will start new enterprises, and dream new dreams. They are determined to make the world a better place. The sustainability perspective is hardwired into our contemporary culture. People care about their health and wellness and extend that concern to their families and neighbors. Sometimes it is expressed in relatively negative reactions like NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) resistance to land use development. But it is also expressed in a concern for wellness, growing gym membership, bike riding, local food sourcing, the sharing economy, and in environmental advocacy.

Our federal government may be heading in one direction, but everyone else seems to be going the other way. McDonald’s, a company that was once synonymous with the throw-away economy, is in fact deeply committed to minimizing its impact on the planet. According to its corporate website:

“We recently announced the latest step in this ongoing journey – our 2025 goals to improve our packaging and reduce waste: By 2025, 100% of McDonald’s guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources. By 2025, our goal is to recycle guest packaging in 100% of McDonald’s restaurants. We understand that recycling infrastructure, regulations and consumer behaviors vary from city to city and country to country, but we plan to be part of the solution and help influence powerful change. Together with employees, Franchisees and suppliers, the Company is committing to use our Scale for Good to make changes our customers want and that will have a meaningful impact in the communities we serve. Our vision is nothing less than transformative.”

This is not a new initiative for McDonald’s; they began this effort a quarter century ago by partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and since that time “eliminated more than 300 million pounds of packaging, recycled 1 million tons of corrugated boxes and reduced waste by 30%.”

The ideas represented by McDonald’s sustainability practices did not emerge out of thin air. Students educated in sustainability science, management, policy and practice work for EDF, McDonald’s, and countless other organizations, and slowly but surely are bringing their perspective into the workplace. Certainly, companies consider these activities to be good corporate citizenship, but it turns out that waste reduction, energy efficiency, and renewable energy also help organizations save money and operate more efficiently.

There is a reason why America’s environment is getting cleaner, even as we increase our GDP and population. We are learning how to more carefully use the earth’s bounty, and over time are including that knowledge in how we operate our communities and organizations. That learning has been going on for over a half century. The danger with the distressing backward thinking in the U.S. federal government is that it could disrupt some of the momentum we have gained over the past several decades.

It could upset sustainability’s momentum, but I doubt it. Trump’s visibility and ceaseless need for attention has the impact of motivating those that disagree with him to act. High school kids are organizing against gun violence. Mike Bloomberg is personally picking up our country’s $4.5 million tab to conform to the Paris Climate Accord. Applications for Columbia’s sustainability programs continue to be strong. The energy efficiency and renewable energy transition continues to grow. As French President Emmanuel Macron said in his moving address to the U.S. Congress last week: “Let us face it: There is no Planet B…I am sure one day the United States will come back and join the Paris agreement…Let us work together in order to make our planet great again.”

I don’t minimize the damage that Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke have done and will do while they hold power. But they have vastly underestimated America’s broad and deep support for protecting the planet. They have taken a few examples of regulatory over-reach and tried to convince people that all environmental rules are excessive. They are attacking public lands that people want to leave pristine for their grandchildren, threatening their beaches with oil rigs no one wants to see, and eliminating fuel mileage standards at the very moment that other nations are eliminating the internal combustion engine.

The forces of technological, economic and cultural change cannot be resisted by any government, even one as powerful as our own. America’s federal system ensures that states and communities can continue to promote sustainability, even if the federal government abandons it. And companies like Walmart, JetBlue, Apple and McDonald’s are not about to walk away from their commitment to protect the environment.

In a couple of weeks, I will sit on some platforms dressed in medieval academic attire congratulating the graduates and their families as they leave our campus and either resume or begin their careers as sustainability professionals. It is a rite of passage that always engenders reflection, and both the joy of accomplishment and a little sadness for something wonderful that is ending. These graduates always reassure me that the world is going to be better tomorrow than it is today. We live in a better and more just world than the one I was raised in, and even though we have a long way to go and a great deal of work to do, I continue to see progress and remain optimistic. The folks in charge in Washington are outliers and represent the one step back that often precedes the two steps we will soon take forward. Science, communication and learning will continue to transform our world. Our graduates will work hard to ensure that this transformation is largely positive. No attempt to subvert this progress will succeed in the long run.

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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