State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Climate Corps Fellowships: Transforming Business for a Sustainable Future

On November 6, the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development hosted Scott Wood, an alum of Columbia’s M.A. Program in Climate and Society, for its second Speaker Series talk of the fall semester. Since graduating from Columbia in 2010, Scott has gone on to become the director of Climate Corps at the Environmental Defense Fund, and through his work, is entrenched in a network of professionals working to advance climate solutions.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is one of the world’s leading environmental organizations, working at the intersection of policy, science, and economics to solve the most critical environmental challenges facing the planet. The organization has over 700 staff members working out of 12 different offices located internationally; apart from its headquarters in NYC, there are other primary offices located in places such as San Francisco, London, and Beijing.

green area between business buildings
Photo: Pexels

The principal belief of EDF is that a healthy environment and a healthy economy are symbiotic. Although it is the responsibility of every global citizen to take preventative action against climate change, some of the worst offenders are businesses. Engaging these businesses in meaningful action and advocacy on climate presents a powerful lever for driving critical change. Implementing sustainability efforts in a business benefits not only the business itself, but its many stakeholders — customers, shareholders, investors — and the environment on which we all depend. Therefore, businesses thrive because they become more efficient and resilient, consumers thrive because they have safer and healthier products, and the environment thrives because less demand is placed on its resources. Public perception has also played a huge role in the sustainable shift of businesses in recent years. Stakeholders are placing increasing pressure on businesses to focus on sustainable practices, adding yet another incentive for corporations and companies to prioritize sustainability.

Wood is the director of Climate Corps, a summer fellowship program within the Environmental Defense Fund that is building a network of climate and sustainability leaders. EDF trains and matches highly qualified graduate students with a variety of host companies and organizations in order to help these businesses achieve their sustainability goals. These pairings are based on both the student’s personal experiences and skillset and the company’s specified environmental goals. According to Wood, there is so much variation throughout the organizations and projects involved in the Climate Corps program that there is no one profile that makes the ideal applicant. However, in terms of common skills, EDF looks for graduate students who are self-starters, with strong quantitative and communicative skills and a general resourcefulness.

In 2020, over 40% of Climate Corps fellows identified as BIPOC, over 60% identified as female, and about 20% were international students. With growing opportunities abroad, Climate Corps launched a parallel program in China in 2014. Of the fellows selected each summer, approximately 100 are placed in organizations across the United States and 20-30 are stationed in China. Once they complete their fellowships, alumni go on to careers in corporate sustainability, public policy and much more, reflecting the network’s values. Approximately 80% work on sustainability as their full time jobs, 70% report that they are advocating for environmental issues outside of work, and 47 new companies have been founded by alums!

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has had an impact on the Climate Corps program. Much of the matching for the summer projects is done in March, so the 2020 program was interrupted by the first spike of COVID-19 nationwide. This past summer, much of the U.S.-based fellowships were conducted remotely. This upcoming year, EDF anticipates having a hybrid program. Although there have been some changes in the recruitment process, Wood and the rest of Climate Corps are hoping to return to the normal process soon.

Although the Climate Corps fellowship is only open to graduate students, it is never too early to think about both sustainable careers and sustainable practices that are applicable in daily life. If you’re interested in helping companies improve their sustainability targets through projects such as setting greenhouse gas targets, procuring renewable energy, advocating for environmental justice issues, and improving climate resiliency and energy efficiency opportunities sounds appealing, make sure to stay engaged with the Environmental Defense Fund and its Climate Corps Program.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development hosts speaker series every semester to provide opportunities for students to explore professional development related to sustainability and the environment. The next Speaker Series will be in the Spring 2021 semester. To learn more about the program, please visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at cshimkus@ei.columbia.edu.

Caroline Horrigan is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an M.S. candidate at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Columbia University.

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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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