State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Alum Trained and Ready for Climate Action in Any Environment

By Peter Smith Olah

Megan Ross has a background in project management and GIS analysis for engineering and environmental work. She she holds two masters degrees, in Sustainability Management (Columbia University, 2019) and in GIS (University of Denver, 2014). During her time in the sustainability management program (SUMA), she served on the board of the SUMA student association for two terms, managed consulting projects for the Capstone Workshop and Net Impact, and was an EDF Climate Corps Fellow. She has research and consulting experience in climate action planning, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, wildfire mitigation and response, water, and waste management. Since graduating, she has relocated to California in search of new opportunities in climate adaptation and mitigation.

How did SUMA fit into your overall career trajectory? What did the program offer that particularly appealed to you?

The SUMA program offered a chance to build on the career experience I already had and position me for roles that were high-impact and values-driven. The first phase of my career in Alaska was all about building and testing skills in project management: monitoring project timelines, writing reports and requests for proposals, budget administration and estimation, liaising between clients and third-party consultants, document and data management, etc. There was an environmental foundation to most of my work, but across a variety of applications and project types.

As my responsibility and scope of impact grew, I decided to focus on applying my skills toward a core mission of addressing climate change. I knew that working with the Earth Institute would solidify my credibility in climate science and that the SUMA program’s multidisciplinary approach would capitalize on my ability to synthesize several aspects of a problem into a clear project mission with a focus on climate. As a mid-career professional, I appreciated the ability to choose courses that were directly applicable to my goals and didn’t force me to revisit subjects in which I was already well-versed.

What were your three favorite classes out of your coursework, and why?

One highlight was SUMA’s “Responsiveness and Resilience in the Built Environment” with Lynnette Widder. Through an iterative design process, we proposed concepts for revitalizing a district of a historically African American community in a Chicago suburb that has suffered from chronic flooding. It was a project that merged policy, history, equity, transportation, housing, urban planning, ecology, and other issues.

I also took the opportunity to cross-register into courses at other Columbia schools which fit my interests and aligned with the curriculum guidelines. At SIPA, “Politics and Policy of Urban Sustainability” with Rit Aggarwala honed my ability to investigate the root cause of problems and craft specific, targeted policy solutions, as well as to tap into the power of individual people as levers for change.

At GSAPP, “Climate Change and Cities” with Michael Kimmelman gave me the opportunity to tackle a passion project: discovering how wildfires would impact the Los Angeles area as climate change continues, and what planning strategies and structures would be effective at mitigating those impacts.

What other benefits or opportunities did the Earth Institute provide for your career growth?

Working with professionals from all over the world with expertise in every subject was one of the best benefits. Student-led opportunities like Net Impact consulting gave me a chance to put my skills into action right away — I led a team of consultants in developing a process for municipal sustainability planning and in outlining strategies for climate mitigation and adaptation regarding greenhouse gas emissions reduction, water security, and wastewater infrastructure.

The Net Impact consulting project in Massachusetts, as well as my academic projects in Chicago and Los Angeles, were all supported by Earth Institute grants. That funding support made it possible to be on location to engage with community members, walk the neighborhoods, and build the kind of understanding that only comes from interaction.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges associated with sustainability?

One challenge is that reaching a more sustainable future involves re-shaping the infrastructures of energy, transportation, and consumer goods that are already entrenched in place. Shifting that momentum is incredibly difficult because it requires cross-sector and multilateral cooperation. Another related challenge is the lack of incentives for legislators to plan beyond the short term. By definition, sustainability involves long-term preparation and planning, often with some degree of uncertainty. Comprehensive, forward-looking plans don’t always get traction in contrast with short-term wins when there is always an election around the corner.

How did you decide what your next step would be after completing your SUMA degree?

I wanted to position myself for long-term career growth in climate adaptation, which is largely place-specific, since you’re often responding to regional climate patterns and forming a relationship with the community to effect change. I also wanted an interesting challenge to face, and California is challenged by nearly every climate hazard you can think of: wildfire, mudslides, sea level rise, floods, droughts, etc., plus earthquakes. Action on these issues can’t happen fast enough. California’s cities are also working hard to adapt to climate-friendly technologies, strengthen their public transportation and urban connectivity, and address extreme heat issues. Not only is there opportunity here to make a meaningful local impact, but this state often acts as a proving ground for national change. Essentially, I chose to root myself in a region that would enrich my professional curiosity and that also felt like a home. My parents grew up in southern California, and I have a lot of close relationships scattered throughout the state. It’s always been a big part of my life.

How are you putting sustainability and resilience into practice outside your professional life?

I just finished the CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program offered by my local fire department, which trains and mobilizes citizen responders in the event of a disaster. I used to train for backcountry disasters in Alaska, but some of the tactics for the urban environment are a little different. CERT started in Los Angeles, and it’s now a nationally recognized program rooted in education and engagement. It equips people to help their families and neighbors prepare for and recover from the types of hazards we’ll see more frequently as climate change continues. In order for resilience-building to succeed in our institutions and communities, it has to be practiced at the individual and neighborhood level, and that includes me and you.

Peter Smith Olah is a current student in the MS in Sustainability Management program and currently works as an intern for the Earth Institute. Peter has a background in corporate lending and private equity with a concentration on renewable energy. He started attending the SUMA program in Fall 2018.

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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