State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Congratulations to the 2020 Graduates in Sustainability and Environmental Science

Every spring, thousands of people gather on Columbia University’s Morningside campus for a grand commencement ceremony honoring our graduating students.  The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into that tradition. This year we cannot meet in person to celebrate and take photos, but that hasn’t stopped the community from coming together online to commemorate the graduates’ hard work and dedication in virtual ceremonies.

Earth Institute Director Alex Halliday offered his congratulations to all the students graduating from Earth Institute-affiliated education programs this semester, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree programs.

“We may not be able to gather in person for commencement, but that does not diminish the incredible accomplishments you all have achieved,” Halliday added. “You have faced the unexpected and difficult circumstances of the last few months with courage, grit, and creativity — and persevered. The Earth Institute community is here to support you when needed and is rooting for each and every one of you. We look forward to seeing the extraordinary impact you will have on the world.”

Although it is a difficult time to be launching a new phase of one’s life, we have every confidence that our graduates have a bright future ahead of them, and that they will impact the world for the better. The world needs experts in sustainability and environmental science now more than ever.

Below are photos of some of the students graduating in the Spring and Summer semesters, along with messages of congratulations, encouragement, and advice from faculty in each educational program.

PhD in Sustainable Development

Ana Varela, Ruiwen Lee, and Anouch Missirian with columbia university backdrop
Ana Varela, Ruiwen Lee, and Anouch Missirian earned their PhDs in Sustainable Development this spring. Photo editing by Phebe Pierson

Rodrigo R. Soares, Lemann Professor of Brazilian Public Policy and International and Public Affairs: The best of luck and success in your future careers!

John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and of International and Public Affairs: My heartfelt joy and congratulations on your amazing successes. It’s true, we don’t make success a snap, but now that you have made it, I wish you all the best in the post-PhD real world.

Scott Barrett, Vice Dean, School of International and Public Affairs; Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics: Congratulations! Getting a PhD is a significant achievement. You have every reason to feel proud.

The program is difficult. Research is difficult. You have to pick a topic, find a question, do the work. There is the anxiety of wondering, will the work be good? There are stumbling blocks and disappointments. If you’re persistent and perhaps a little lucky, you find that you have something worthy. But then you need to write it up. You think it won’t take long, but it does. You try to anticipate concerns that may be raised about the work. You also try to show the work in the best light. You find that doing both is a balancing act. You get different kinds of advice. One person says one thing, another a different thing; you have to decide. You know what you want, sometimes you’re not sure. It takes time. A lot of time.

And then, even before you’re done, you have to face the job market. You have to prepare your slides. Practice your talk. Get ready for interviews. Finally, the moment arrives when you give your talk, and have your interviews. And then you wonder, did it go well? After that, you wait. And wonder. Will I get an offer? Will I get my first choice? What happens if I don’t get an offer?

But you can’t worry about this too much, because you have to finish your thesis and submit it in time. You have to prepare for your defense.

Being a special group, you had one more obstacle to overcome: COVID-19. This is a true test of will. And you passed! Take some moments to appreciate what you’ve done. You owe this to yourself.

I’m very proud of you. I wish you good luck in your new positions. I hope you will stay in touch. Congratulations, graduates, and good luck.

Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development

Ruth deFries, Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology: To the students in the undergraduate program in Sustainable Development, we salute you and admire your perseverance to get to this point under such difficult circumstances. The world needs your passion, insights, and roll-up-the-sleeves attitude like never before. Be well.

Kytt McManus, Senior Systems Analyst, Center for International Earth Science Information Network: Congratulations and good luck to the Class of 2020! Remember: If you can measure it, you can manage it.

Mike Steckler, Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: Congratulations to the Sustainable Development Class of 2020. I wish you all success in following your vision for the future.

Lisa Dale, Lecturer in Discipline in Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology: You are graduating into a most unusual time. And in many ways, it feels like we are handing you a broken world. It’s broken by coronavirus most obviously, but it was also broken long before COVID-19 became a pandemic. The world is broken from climate change, from inequality, and across any other sector we can probably think of. So we turn to you, the graduating seniors, as the hope and the path toward a better future. You are better equipped than almost anybody out there to tackle what’s broken about our world. You can contribute. You can participate. You can build. You can lead. And someday I have no doubt we will see many of you in leadership positions, fixing what’s broken in the world. I feel a little better each night knowing that we are looking at a future that has you all in leadership positions. So congratulations on your amazing accomplishment, the hours of work you put in, the learning you’ve done, the exploration you’ve done. Congratulations and good luck to everybody.

Malgosia Madajewicz, Associate Research Scientist in the Center for Climate Systems Research: I want to congratulate you on this tremendous achievement, your graduation. Terribly sorry that you’re not getting to celebrate on campus with all your friends. A lot of you might be worried about your opportunities, given that you’re graduating in an economic recession. Two things about that: One, keep in mind that even during an economic recession, most people are employed and most of you will have great opportunities. Two, if you’re finding yourself not finding the opportunities that you want at this time, don’t spend time stressing about the situation and worrying about it.

Young people when they graduate are often in a great big hurry — they feel they have so little time to establish themselves in their new careers, that they can’t afford to let themselves get ‘behind.’ Believe me, from the perspective of someone who is decades older than you are, you have plenty of time. People start new, very successful careers later in life. If you’re not finding what you want at this time, use this as an opportunity to broaden your horizons, to grow. This is a wonderful time in your life to do new things. You can continue to learn, you can travel. When I graduated from college, there wasn’t a recession, I have no excuse, but I spent almost two years partly working and partly bumming around South Asia. It was the best thing I have ever done in my life. I am so glad I did that.

Keep in mind you have plenty of time to do achieve all the great things that you’ve set out for yourself, and I wish you the best of luck.

Paul Gallay, Lecturer in Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology: I want to wish you all congratulations. It’s amazing what you all have achieved in your time in the Sustainable Development program. The folks that I’ve had the pleasure of instructing, I’ve really been struck by your level of commitment, your thoughtfulness, and your dedication to sustainability. It’s going to be so important and so valuable as we move through what are extraordinary times. And no matter how long the current crisis lasts, you all are going to be so benefitted by the work that you have done and the commitment that you’ve put into your education. I’m grateful for the work that I was able to do with many of you, and no matter what the future holds — the challenges, near-term and long-term — I know that you’re going to make an enormous difference. So thank you for the great work you did at Columbia, and thank you even more for everything that you’re going to do out in the world to help build the cause of sustainability. Best of luck, sincerely, to you all.

M.P.A. in Environmental Science and Policy

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MPA in Environmental Science and Policy Class of 2020. Photo editing by Phebe Pierson

Steve Cohen, Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy: If the last several months have taught us anything, it is that we are closely interconnected on this small blue island in the vastness of space and that our survival depends on an ecologically healthy planet and medically healthy humans. The professional skills that our new graduates have developed in the environmental science and policy program equip them to take their place as sustainability professionals in a world that has never needed them more. I am deeply proud of the class of 2020 and know that with those that came before them and those who will follow, we can together save the planet and preserve it for our children.

Park Williams, Lamont Associate Research Professor in the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: Congrats to all of you for finishing this marathon year! As you now head back into the real world to do some good, please never forget about the infinite interconnectedness of the Earth system and the fact that it doesn’t care much about the human timescale. The things we do today will reverberate through the Earth system for many thousands or millions of years.

Howard Apsan, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs: I’m not sure what the new normal will look like or how it will impact environmental policy, but I am upbeat knowing that our graduates will play a key role as they assume greater and greater leadership responsibility. Congratulations, ESP graduates!

Sara Tjossem, Senior Lecturer in Discipline of International and Public Affairs: Dear Class of 2020, know that whatever path you follow, we as faculty, your fellow graduates, and decades of alumni will be there to listen and help you think about how best to realize your vision for a more sustainable future. It’s also really fun to hear back from you!

Bob Cook, Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs: In these uncertain times, you have demonstrated your commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and your perseverance in the face of significant challenges. With the education you have gained, you have the tools to contribute to a more sustainable world. I wish you every success in your next steps!

Energy and Environment Concentration

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Part of the 2020 class graduating from the Energy and Environment Concentration. Photo editing by Phebe Pierson

Jason Bordoff, Founding Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy: The 50th anniversary of Earth Day has been, for me, a moment to reflect not only on the urgency of our climate and environmental challenges, but the transformational change that the next generation of leaders can deliver through their research, advocacy, and service. Congratulations on your graduation from SIPA — and thank you for your passion and commitment to solving our most pressing energy and environmental issues. When I feel pessimistic about the future, nothing gives me more hope than being able to teach talented young leaders like you who will, I have no doubt, deliver a cleaner and prosperous future for all of us. Like you, I regret that this year’s crisis does not allow for the typical graduation celebration, but I hope we can celebrate your achievement in person together soon and wish you all the best for your future endeavors.

Scott Barrett, Vice Dean, School of International and Public Affairs; Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics: Congratulations! Graduating from SIPA is an achievement. You have reason to feel proud. Of course, it is normal also to have other feelings at this time. Relief that it’s over. Excitement about the future. You probably already miss your life in NYC and as a graduate student.

For your class, uniquely, you have reason to feel a heightened sense of loss because of the way everything ended. You expected to be on campus for graduation. You thought you could say goodbye to your friends and classmates with hugs. You were confident that the economy was strong. Like everyone, you have been affected by this crisis. I hope you are safe. I hope your families are well.

I wanted to say something to the environment concentrators. If you took my course, Fundamentals of Environmental Economics and Policy, you may remember my lecture on infectious diseases. I highlighted two issues, the emergence of a new disease and the eradication of an existing one. These are the two most critical issues for global health. They both put the international system to an extreme test.

COVID-19 is a new disease. So far, the world’s response to it has been a patchwork. This isn’t all bad. If a country lowers transmission within its borders, it poses less of a threat to others. The big test for the international system will come later, when some countries have reduced transmission to a safe level and others haven’t and can’t on their own. Will they be helped? Perhaps the biggest test will come if and when a vaccine becomes available. Who will get it? How will it be paid for?

This is where the other test comes in. I can think of no greater achievement of humanity than the eradication of smallpox. This happened because the world worked together to make it happen. As COVID-19 jumped from an animal to humans, it cannot be eradicated. Even if the virus disappears, we can’t be sure it won’t return in some form. But we can make a vaccine available to everyone who wants one, irrespective of ability to pay. Doing so will increase protection for everyone, but it will also be an expression of our common humanity.

I would invite you to think about what is possible. Don’t be naïve, but don’t be cynical. We can do more about the world’s great problems, such as climate change. We just have to figure out how to do more. I hope you will join in this effort.

It has been a privilege to teach you. Congratulations again, stay in touch, and good luck.


M.S. in Sustainability Management

Steven Cohen, Director of the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management: I’d like to congratulate the graduates of the Sustainability Management program who are working every day to build our new profession. We now know that the physical dimensions of sustainability must include public health infrastructure to protect us from pandemics. We also know that just as we need to understand the science of climate change and ecology we must now understand the science of contagious disease detection and prevention. I am confident that your sense of purpose and mission will enable us to meet the challenges of the complex world we live in.

Bob Cook, Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs: It was my great pleasure and honor to teach a section of the Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 MSSM Capstone workshop. The teams produced important work. Of course, the spring semester was particularly challenging as we moved to virtual meetings once COVID-19 arrived. Members of our team dispersed around the globe. I was really impressed by how everyone maintained their focus and productivity. The transition to virtual teams was seamless and I believe has provided you with yet another valuable skill as you prepare for the new, novel workplace environment. I look forward to your contributions to a better, more sustainable world. Best of luck to you all!

Howard Apsan, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs: I’m not sure what the new normal will look like or how it will impact environmental policy, but I am upbeat knowing that our graduates will play a key role as they assume greater and greater sustainability leadership. Congratulations SUMA graduates!

Lynette Widder, Lecturer in Discipline, Masters of Sustainability Management: My parents’ lives spanned from the early parts of the 20th century, when things seemed to go from bad to worse, into the early years of the 21st, which seemed to promise the conquest of the forces that had immediately caused the difficulties through which they’d suffered as children. They would never have foreseen the return, at least in part, of the medical, economic and political problems against which their generation had to struggle. Obviously, no one gets to choose world history. But knowing you as I do, I feel encouraged to know that you will be among those addressing the forces that threaten us in the early part of this century. You are versatile, creative and courageous. We will always be your advocates. Congratulations on your graduation.

Christoph Meinrenken, Associate Research Scientist, Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management: I have to say, this semester in particular I have been blown away with the dedication, intellectual energy, and professionalism of the students in my Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) class. Their commitment — and the fantastic help from the FSAs — made the transition from classroom to online teaching smooth. The energy even spilled over to auditors, some of whom stayed with the class and actively participated until the end of the term. The final projects in my class are a sort of role play where students use the acquired bread and butter skills of LCA and apply them in a simulated company setting, integrating LCA with their other talents and interests in marketing, sustainable corporate strategy, and consumer engagement. The results were amazing to see and made me confident that everyone in the class will have a successful career, regardless of any challenges that these extraordinary circumstances might throw their way.

M.S. in Sustainability Science

Arthur Lerner-Lam, Academic Director, M.S. in Sustainability Science: Congratulations to the inaugural graduating class of 2020 for our Masters of Science in Sustainability Science program. You are not just scholars, but you are real pioneers, especially in the difficult circumstances we face today. This is really a new field that you’ve graduated into, and you really are at the vanguard of this.

It’ll be your field to define as you go off and do whatever you wish to do, whatever enterprise you chose to join. But let me give you a few personal comments: I appreciate your willingness to be the first class. Obviously you all took a chance and that shows real, legitimate courage, and I am really gratified that you chose Columbia and our program to take that chance.

In your courage, in your participation, you’ve affirmed the notion that this is an important field to study, that this is something that deserves your attention. I am really sorry that you are graduating under these circumstances and that we can’t be there in person to congratulate you, but your dedication is evident and I really commend it. You are part of a larger cohort of sustainability professionals. You will be building your awareness, you will be building your competencies, you will be bringing a sense of sustainability throughout the economy, throughout the non-profit sector, wherever you end up, and that’s what’s really important, so I am proud of you. I am really proud of the dedication, courage, competence, your success, and I look forward to keeping in touch with you as you move ahead with your lives. Thanks very much and good luck to you all!

Steven Chillrud, Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: Just a quick shout-out to the Class of 2020: You made it, and we expect great things from you in the future. Stay in touch. Be strong.

Michael Previdi, Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: My warmest congratulations to the inaugural graduating class from the M.S. in Sustainability Science program! You are a remarkable group in many ways, as you have so clearly demonstrated to everyone by your ability to push through to the finish line during these trying and uncertain times. It was a pleasure getting to know you during the past couple of years, and I wish you success and fulfillment in all your future endeavors. You have much to be proud of! Best wishes.

Braddock Linsley, Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: To the first graduates of the MS in Sustainability Science Program, congratulations on completing this important step in your education and careers, and for being trailblazers in the sustainability science field. Best of luck on your path forward and please stay in touch.

M.P.A. in Development Practice

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MPA in Development Practice Class of 2020. Photo editing by Phebe Pierson

Glenn Denning, Director, MPA in Development Practice: Congratulations on becoming the 10th graduating class of the MPA in Development Practice.

You came to SIPA and to the MDP program with ambitions of changing our world for the better — to one that is more inclusive, more sustainable, and more resilient. Many of you arrived at SIPA frustrated by the difficulties of putting good ideas into practice and then taking those good ideas to scale. Now, after 21 months of hard work, you have the knowledge, the skills, and the networks, to fulfill those bold ambitions.

Your journey was not an easy one, especially during the past few months. But neither was it easy for the millions of people, around the world, who will be looking to you for leadership and support in the months and years ahead.

Today, you have joined a remarkable global community of development practitioners — more than 450 awesome MDP alumni working in 70 countries.

We need MDPs more than ever. I am confident — no, I am certain — that you can take our world to a better place. Stay safe, stay positive, and stay in touch.

André Corrêa d’Almeida, Assistant Director, MPA in Development Practice: We are immensely proud of your academic achievement, dear MDPs! Each one of you, in your unique individuality, mattered when you applied to the program, you mattered even more when you became a student and we got to know your uniqueness better, and you’ll continue to matter equally now that you join the MPA-DP Global Alumni Community. We care because you matter!

Sarah Holloway, Lecturer in the Discipline of International and Public Affairs: To the 13th class I will see graduate! There is no way I will not remember the Class of 2020. What a miraculous journey it has been. The world may seem upside-down but I have zero doubt that it will right side back up and that you — amazing soon-to-be global changemakers and rockstars! — will be at the ready to tackle whatever comes your way next. I cannot wait to see what you all do. Please keep in touch and send word about all of your amazing adventures. Congrats! Forever your cheerleader!

Alan Yang, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of International and Public Affairs: Congratulations to the graduating MDP-DP Class of 2020. Respect for the ideals that inform your work and the strength and resilience you have shown during this final chapter of your time at SIPA. We will be rooting for you as you develop and implement the knowledge and public policies that promote social change and enhance well being around the world.

Andrea Bubula, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of International and Public Affairs: Congratulations, DP Class of 2020! I am so sorry that we cannot celebrate you in the way you deserve. Remember, however, that these difficult circumstances will pass. I am confident that your eagerness, your dedication, your experience, and your skills will lead to great things. Teaching you and learning from you was a real pleasure. My warmest wishes to you all.

M.A. in Climate and Society

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M.A. in Climate and Society Class of 2020. Photo editing by Brian Kahn and Phebe Pierson

Mingfang Ting, Co-Director, M.A. in Climate and Society: Congratulations, Climate and Society class of 2020! I am so very proud of each and every one of you for your achievements — particularly under the difficult circumstances. I wish the best to all of you for a very bright future!

Ben Orlove, Co-Director, M.A. in Climate and Society: I send you my deep gratitude for your contributions to making humanity’s presence on this earth more sustainable. Sustainability is an issue that will resurface strongly when the pandemic recedes, within the next year, or maybe two. You will be there to guide the urgent actions that the whole world will need.

Cynthia Thomson, Associate Director, M.A. in Climate and Society: I’m so proud of each of you for thriving in our program. In what was a challenging and chaotic year, you rose to the occasion and we are so impressed by that. Understanding the interconnectedness of climate and society has never been more important, and I can’t wait to see the mark you are all going to make on the world.

Kate Marvel, Associate Research Scientist, Columbia University/NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies: I feel both very happy and very angry right now. I’m angry that this is the world into which you’re graduating. I’m not pleased to hear about canceled internships, rescinded job offers, and struggles on the job market. We all know that it didn’t have to be this way, and we all see the failures of old systems and ways of thinking. There is no new normal, there isn’t even a new abnormal. The world is suffering from a pandemic while experiencing what may be the hottest year on record. Nothing will ever be the same.

But here’s why I’m happy: I know from having the privilege to teach you that you’re going to change things. You now understand enough of the science to grasp why climate change is a pressing problem, and you know enough about the solutions to understand why science alone can’t solve it. I’m so proud to have helped you acquire some of the tools you’ll need to go out and change our weird new reality. I can’t wait to live in the world you’re going to build.

Michaela Biasutti, Associate Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: You did it! You were dealt a challenge like no other, and you rose to it with commitment to your craft, determination to reach your goal, and mutual support within your community. All this bodes well for your future endeavors, as you help stir society towards equity and sustainability. We are proud of you!

Catherine Vaughan, Senior Staff Associate, International Research Institute for Climate and Society: A big congratulations to the graduates! It’s so heartening to see this cohort of super-smart, thoughtful, and engaged people (re)join the effort to create integrated solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. Can’t wait to see what you do next!

Andrew Robertson, Senior Research Scientist and Head of Climate Group, International Research Institute for Climate and Society: Congrats to all for the end of the semester! I’m really impressed on how you all handled the challenges we faced after spring break, remained engaged in the course, and especially how brilliantly you all collaborated virtually on your final group projects. Great team presentations and am looking forward to reading your final reports! Wishing you all the best for the summer at Columbia and in your future endeavors. Keep in touch!

Andrew Kruczkiewicz, Senior Staff Associate, International Research Institute for Climate and Society: With the climate crisis more pressing than ever, we are confident that you all are amongst the best equipped to understand and articulate the interdisciplinary nature of climate challenges, and frame the just and equitable solutions. We are proud of you all and to see you all graduate leads us to know that the future is in better hands now that you all are out there reacting, and being proactive, to flatten the climate curves, and present options for a sustainable, social conscious new normal.

Brian Kahn, Lecturer, M.A. in Climate and Society: I look at the current world and see the same things you do. Suffering. Uncertainty. Worrying signs of a lack of care for fellow humans. Everything broken, a thousand shards flickering amidst the growing darkness.

Think back to why you came to C+S. Each of you has your own story, your own reasons. But I’m willing to bet that the tie that binds is that you came here because you wanted to learn how to fix problems. Big ones.

As you prepare to graduate, the problems may look bigger, more intractable. That is precisely why you are needed more than ever, to be a light against the darkness and work together to fix what’s broken better than it was before with care and wisdom. None of it will be easy, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary.

Author Naomi Klein described previous moments of turmoil from the Gilded Age to the Civil Rights Movement as ones “when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public together.” Now is another one of those times. Do not be afraid to dream big and out loud.

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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