State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Graduate Professional Education in Sustainability Management and Environmental Policy

Today and tomorrow night Columbia will welcome about 80 new students to our master’s of sustainability management program. In late May, the day after Memorial Day, we held orientation for 57 students in our environmental science and policy Master of Public Administration program. We started the policy program in 2002 and the management program in 2010 and have graduated over 1,300 environmental sustainability professionals from those programs during that time. These are both programs I helped create and have led since we started them. They are both team efforts characterized by mission-driven and incredibly dedicated faculty, staff, students and graduates. As I watch corruption, dysfunction, and ignorance take root in our nation’s capital, it is truly uplifting to see our community come together to learn and work together. It’s clear that our transition to a renewable resource-based economy will not be led by America’s national government, but by the next generation of sustainability professionals hard at work in our corporations, nonprofits, state and local governments, and communities. It’s a privilege to help prepare these students for the work they’ve signed up for.

An educator working in a great university not only gets to interact with talented colleagues and students, but you get to see impact of your graduates once they have the opportunity to apply the lessons they learned in school. I have always focused on practice-oriented professional education, because the skills and concepts taught in professional schools can be directly applied to solving the world’s most difficult problems. My view is that the problem of global environmental sustainability is the most important and fundamental challenge humanity faces.

The issue is very simple to understand, but very difficult to address. We now have a global population of 7.5 billion people that will likely peak at 9 to 10 billion. In the developed world we have managed to build the technology and wealth that allows us to assume the presence of food, clothing, safety, and shelter―the very things that humanity once spent all of its time and effort struggling to achieve. Unfortunately, many people in the world are still unable to meet those basic needs. In the developing world, we have a long way to go in achieving the benefits of development, although the number of people in extreme poverty is being reduced. According to a Brookings Institution report authored by Homi Kharas and Wolfgang Fengler:

“The good news is that global poverty reduction will remain strong in 2017. The world is expected to reduce extreme poverty by 38 million people, slightly faster than in 2016 when an estimated 34 million escaped poverty. The bad news is that this is not fast enough to end poverty by 2030. To end poverty, 1.5 people need to escape poverty each second (or 90 per minute). The average rate of poverty reduction in 2017 is 1.2 people per second. This means that at this point the global reduction in poverty is falling short by 9.5 million people compared with the speed needed to get to zero poverty by 2030.”

The Sustainable Development Goals call for the elimination of extreme poverty, but they also call for achieving that goal and the overall goal of building a more prosperous world economy while maintaining the health of the planet’s ecosystems. The defining issue of environmental sustainability is how do we build a high-throughput, circular economy that allows for prosperity throughout the world, without destroying the planet that sustains us?

The goal of our professional master’s programs is to develop the management, political, and analytic skills needed to build this prosperous and sustainable world. The productive capacity of the world’s modern organizations dwarfs anything humans have ever achieved before. But even as we’ve generated this incredible bounty, too many people continue to suffer and the planet’s environment is being degraded. I believe that the same capacities that have enabled us to build this prosperity for some can be turned to the goals of increasing the proportion of people enjoying this plenty while simultaneously protecting the planet.

But to do this we must apply human ingenuity to the problem of increasing production while decreasing environmental impacts. This calls for government rules, policies, and incentives to prevent environmental damage and promote sustainability technologies. It means that private organizations must learn to routinely factor environmental impacts into their business plans and strategies. The built environment, and the systems that provide our water, energy, transportation, food, and other necessities, must be managed to decrease damage to planetary systems. Some damage is inevitable, but most damage is avoidable. Some of the environmental damage we permit is easily avoided and does not require a trade-off choice, just a little brainpower and attention. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that we can replace coal with natural gas and eventually switch natural gas to renewable energy. That allows us to generate the power we need while reducing environmental impacts. It also has the long-term effect of reducing the cost of energy.

Our need to apply human ingenuity is where graduate professional education comes in. Sustainability management and policy professionals provide the brainpower and attention that we need. Someone has to search for and deploy the new management practices, financial tools, and technologies needed to ensure that our production and consumption does as little environmental damage as possible. Our sustainability policy and management students are introduced to environmental science, green architecture, sustainability management, green finance, environmental ethics, and a range of other topics to help them become the professional sustainability problem solvers the world needs. The old skills of applied economics, organizational analysis, legal and political analysis, and quantitative analysis remain necessary, but are not alone sufficient for the challenges ahead. Our graduates must learn to understand environmental science, engineering and design, and then learn to integrate these fields with those traditionally relied upon to lead our organizations. Sustainability professionals must learn to bring groups of disciplinary experts together and coordinate their discussions to foster ever more sophisticated efforts at sustainability problem solving.

I know this can be done, because I know over 1,000 of our own alums now doing this. And we are only two programs out of a dozen at Columbia and thousands at universities throughout the world. We are fortunate that young people everywhere are growing up with a deep understanding of the sustainability crisis we are facing. It is not simply climate change that we must mitigate. But we need to maintain biodiversity, avoid resource depletion, reduce air and water pollution, and reduce the volume of persistent toxics and plastics polluting the entire biosphere. Even when we finally mitigate climate change we will face challenges to our global system of food supply and to our local and regional water systems. The generation coming of age has lived with these conditions and seen them in person and through internet images their entire lives. They are not environmentalists out of choice, but out of necessity. The world they have experienced is more crowded and environmentally challenged than the one their parents have seen. The world on the horizon can either mitigate these problems or exacerbate them. We are at an inflection point, and I am betting on humanity’s creativity and adaptability.

The faculty of the master’s in sustainability management that will gather Tuesday night to welcome our new students are dominated by thoughtful New York area sustainability practitioners. They are an impressive group of people who are actively building a profession and mentoring our students as they build a sustainable planet. The students studying with us are the antidote to dysfunction and corruption and our best hope for a sustainable future.

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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Chris Agnos
5 years ago

When do we address capitalism and its incessant need for continuous exponential growth as the main driver of all things unsustainable?