State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Environmental Science and Policy Students Begin Their Summer Policy Analysis Workshops

u.s. capitol building
Photo: David Maiolo

The students in Columbia University’s Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy Class of 2022 are just embarking on their Workshop in Applied Earth Systems Management. The students spend this summer-long workshop doing an in-depth analysis of a piece of proposed, but not yet enacted, United States federal, state, or local legislation.

The five teams in this year’s cohort are each assigned a different piece of legislation to examine under the guidance of a faculty advisor. Every week, a briefer from the team reports back to the rest of the cohort their findings on different issues related to the implementation of the bills, such as the environmental problem the legislation is addressing, the science behind that problem, and science behind the proposed solution to the problem.

Each workshop team works with their assigned legislation for the whole summer semester so that they can understand the bill inside-out and backwards and forwards. The pieces of legislation under the microscope this year address the identification of environmental justice communities, financial support for clean energy projects, water and habitat clean up, the proliferation of plastic waste, and carbon emissions from agriculture.

H.R. 516: Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act of 2021

One of the many unfortunate realities of the climate crisis is that it does not impact all people the same. Environmental justice communities are those that have been disproportionately negatively impacted by the effects of climate change and other environmental issues. Historically, there has been no comprehensive central registry of environmental justice communities in the US.

A workshop team led by Professor Louise Rosen will examine the Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act of 2021, which promises to create an up-to-date database of vulnerable communities that will be maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency. Under this bill, a committee made of up several different federal agencies will be responsible for identifying and directing investments to these communities.

By identifying environmental justice communities through this legislation, climate resilience and pollution reduction investments can be used where they are most needed.

H.R. 806: Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator Act

The transition to renewable energy is arguably one of the most important steps that must be taken to avoid catastrophic warming of the planet. However, finding funding for renewable energy projects can be a significant obstacle.

The Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator Act will reinforce the U.S. position as a leader in renewable energy by providing financial support for low and zero-emission projects. This bill will be examined by Professor Steven Cohen’s workshop team.

A non-profit corporation established by the bill will invest in clean energy projects and start-ups through a series of programs. The bill also mandates that 40% of investments will go toward communities disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.

With this bill, the U.S. will be one step closer to transitioning to an equitable clean energy economy.

H.R. 610: San Francisco Bay Restoration Act

The San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary in North America. It is home to an extraordinarily diverse ecosystem, rich human history, and is a popular recreation site. Unfortunately, human development in and around the area is degrading the environmental quality of the Bay. A few examples are pollution from shipping, runoff from agriculture, and the detection of flame retardant chemicals in the Bay, which can cause neurological damage.

Professor Howard Apsan’s workshop team will review the San Francisco Bay Restoration Act, which was proposed as an amendment to the Clean Water Act to address these environmental concerns by focusing on habitat restoration, protection, and improvement. The San Francisco Bay Restoration Act will accomplish its goals by building on the work already being done by stakeholders in counties and municipalities that all rely on the Bay.

The bill provides funding for four key areas: habitat restoration and protection, the prevention, reduction, and elimination of pollution, resilience to climate change, and ensuring equitable solutions to the problems facing the San Francisco Bay.

S. 984: Break Free From Plastics Act of 2021

It’s a well-known fact that the U.S. produces more plastic waste than any other country, but what’s less well known is that less than 10% of U.S. plastic waste is collected domestically for recycling, and about 50% of U.S. plastic waste is shipped overseas.

The Break Free From Plastics Act of 2021 goes above and beyond to address this massive issue with plastic waste. Professor Robert Cook’s workshop team will examine this omnibus bill that covers a wide variety of issues, including single-use plastic packaging, the standardization of recycling and non-flush labeling requirements, and studies of microfiber pollution.

The bill has several parts that each provide solutions for how the federal government can change the U.S.’s unhealthy relationship with plastic. Some of the more novel solutions included in the bill are requirements for producers of plastics to establish non-profits tasked with plastic waste management, the reduction of greenwashing by prohibiting non-compostable bags from being tinted green or brown, and grants for innovative projects to reduce plastic waste.

S. 1072: Climate Stewardship Act

Agriculture has always been an important facet of addressing the climate crisis. Traditional agricultural practices have resulted in carbon emissions and poor management of forest and coastal areas that are critical for capturing carbon. In addition to this, the impacts of environmentally unfriendly agriculture tend to disproportionately impact low-income, Indigenous, and minority communities.

Professor Matt Palmer’s workshop team will analyze the Climate Stewardship Act, which aims to improve the health of vital ecosystems to reduce and capture carbon emissions. Beyond nature-based solutions, the bill also focuses on job development to put America’s youth to work and places a strong emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion in working towards solutions.

Some noteworthy programs under this bill include funding for socially disadvantaged farmers and first-time farmers, significant reforestation efforts, and restoration of coastal wetlands. All of these aspects are necessary to improve the resilience of the US to the impacts of climate change.

* * *

On June 30, the workshop teams will each deliver a midterm briefing on the progress they have made researching the science behind their teams’ bills. This will be followed by a final briefing on August 11 that will be the culmination of their summer analyses. These briefings are open to the public to attend virtually. RSVP here for the midterm briefings and here for the final briefings.

Although these bills may not be signed into law in reality, the workshop teams’ work on these pieces of legislation will continue into the fall as they simulate what it would be like to implement them.

Allison Day is an alum of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, Class of 2021.

If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact the assistant director, Stephanie Hoyt (

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