This fall, Columbia University will welcome the first class of students who will graduate from the newly created Climate School. Drawing on the expertise within the Earth Institute and its many centers, the Columbia Climate School will serve as a hub for transdisciplinary climate research and education across the university, exploring and developing solutions to the most urgent and complex challenges of our time.
The M.A. in Climate and Society program is the first degree program offered through the Columbia Climate School. This 12-month interdisciplinary program trains students to understand and address the impacts of climate change and climate variability on society and the environment. The program’s class of 97 students enrolling in fall 2021 will graduate from the Columbia Climate School in August 2022. State of the Planet will be featuring interviews with several of these extraordinary students over the coming weeks.
Below, you can learn about Celena Wasserstrom, who grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, and is committed to helping vulnerable communities adapt to climate change.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in studying climate?
While I was born in NYC, I grew up in northern Greece in a culture that prizes and preserves its natural resources and beauty. As a kid, I remember driving to school and seeing bright yellow banners protesting the creation of open-pit mines. As an undergraduate working toward a BA in political science, where I focused on the intersection of politics and the environment, I learned to identify these banners as part of a larger environmental justice movement that the journalist and activist Naomi Klein identified as “blockadia” [a form of activism where people try to stop extraction projects with their bodies or in the courts]. I went on to work for a small firm in the Washington area, working to tackle governance issues in fragile states. I supported programs in two countries predicted to be among the hardest hit by climate change, Bangladesh and South Sudan, and saw firsthand some of the challenges already present in such environments. Working in these countries reconfirmed my commitment to supporting vulnerable communities as they adapt.
Which classes are you most excited about in the Climate and Society (C+S) program?
Of the core courses, I am particularly excited for “Managing and Adapting to Climate,” taught by Ben Orlove and Catherine Vaughan. One of the greatest challenges we face in the U.S. is how climate issues are communicated to and perceived across the broad public spectrum. Messaging has to change if we are to garner the community buy-in needed to understand and move forward on adaptation and mitigation measures in a nation among the top contributors to the problem. With the tools I will gain from that class, I will be one step closer to understanding how to synthesize the material I learn across the C+S program and package that information effectively for a wide range of audiences.
I am also extremely excited for the course, “Human Rights and the Anthropocene.” To learn about the relatively young conception of human rights against the backdrop of the geological timescale of the Earth seems like such an interesting juxtaposition! I expect the course to challenge my understanding of human rights and that there is quite a bit I need to “unlearn” as related to human interaction with — and mistreatment of — the Earth.
How does the program align with your career goals?
Through my undergraduate education and work in the past five years, I was exposed to public policy formulation and on-the-ground implementation as well as to private sector approaches. I observed some of the tragic consequences of climate change in countries with no resources to cope. But these experiences only underscored my lack of a real foundation in the sciences which I need to complement my academic and professional background in the social sciences. The Climate School will enable me to address that lacuna. Ultimately, I look forward to working with the private sector, to enable firms to evolve and adapt to increasingly ambitious national, sub-national and local sustainability goals, down to the community level, and make a much larger contribution to the common good. They must also evolve, adapt and clean up their act or they, too, face existential threats.
You’ll be part of the first graduating class of the Columbia Climate School. Did the creation of the Climate School affect your decision to apply to the C+S program?
Honestly, I hadn’t heard of the Columbia Climate School when I applied. In researching programs that addressed my own intellectual gaps, the MA in Climate and Society really fit the bill and, as I mentioned, aligned with my professional goals, so I applied. Only later did I discover that I will be part of the inaugural class, a fact about which I am both very proud and excited.
When you look at the future of the Climate School, what would you like to see?
The need for firepower — intellectual, technical and political — to accelerate the formulation and implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation at every level is exploding. The Climate School is perfectly positioned to meet the growing demand for the highly trained, skilled workforce that is necessary now to progress on the existential agenda.
Columbia is global academic leader which has long made its contribution to the rarefied atmosphere of policy elites. I would like to see the Climate School focus at least part of its program on ensuring impact where it matters the most: the grassroots. I have seen firsthand thoughtful, well-intentioned policies fail in that key domain. The School should make sure every graduate understands the need for and design of community initiatives. It should require all its graduates to be cognizant of and able of engaging in policy or program impact evaluation.
Columbia is inextricably linked, geographically, historically and otherwise, to its own community, New York City — and New York State. With its extremely large and growing intellectual and financial capital, it should always be considering ways to give back. The city has incredibly ambitious climate goals. The Climate School is uniquely positioned to help it achieve those objectives, while remembering that Manhattan is not the only borough. It should work with local schools and civil society organizations to develop programs geared towards sustainability and locally led solutions.
Finally, I look forward to the Climate School building out its curriculum in environmental justice, a key thematic area that should be integrated across all courses.