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 Irina Ishan, who comes from Brunei on the island of Borneo. She plans to combine her learnings from the Climate and Society program with local and Indigenous knowledge in order to address climate vulnerabilities in Brunei.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in studying climate?
I graduated in 2019 from Royal Holloway, University of London with a Bachelor of Science honors degree in environmental geology. Upon graduation, I was fortunate enough to work among other youth researchers in realizing Brunei’s climate ambitions through drafting the Brunei Darussalam National Climate Change Policy. Although the experience allowed me to gain a better understanding of policy making, I realized that a collective consensus on the community-level effects of climate change has yet to be achieved.
This led me to develop a relationship with the Indigenous communities local to my tiny island nation of Brunei. Through my shared time with the Lun Bawang Murut, Iban and Dusun tribes, it became clear to me that Indigenous peoples hold community-based knowledge that can provide sustainable solutions to the climate crisis and a better understanding of our changing environmental conditions. I hope to incorporate the knowledge that I will gain from the Climate and Society program with local knowledge, in order to address various climate vulnerabilities.
Which classes are you most excited about in the Climate and Society program?
“Managing and Adapting to Climate.” Professor Ben Orlove’s research into traditional forms of forecasting among Indigenous people in areas such as the Peruvian Andes and Aboriginal Australia is of particular interest to me, as I believe that the heart of sustainable development lies in communities such as these. This course will allow me to understand how to use climate information for societal decision-making, which seems to be very exciting.
As a resident of Brunei, I know that there are huge opportunities for the local community to come together to tackle the climate crisis. Fortunately, I would be able to further hone my analytical and communication skills while studying in the Climate and Society program.
How does the program align with your career goals?
Currently, jobs in Brunei surrounding the climate are done by Western expatriates because of their guidance and expertise. Asserting myself in this field would prove that those who are local to the area can also promote positive change. Ideally, I would strengthen existing climate policy, and the quality of research and its accessibility, so that more people are aware of the climate’s importance. I would also like to extend a similar approach to the heart of Borneo, my island of origin, where half a million Indigenous people still rely on the rainforest. I believe I can employ the skills the program offers into making this approach effective.
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?
The creation of the Climate School is truly pioneering as it becomes a central hub linking climate research across the university and beyond. The news made me more excited while preparing for my application to the C+S program. Having a dedicated school rather than an additional department focus can provide opportunities for students to learn across more disciplines, and will allow the scope of my work to evolve more.
When you look at the future of the Climate School, what would you like to see?
I would be interested to see the Climate School confront the climate crisis through a social justice lens. Often, climate studies are restricted to scientific policies and broader climate change considerations, or resource availability, rather than the intrinsic change there will be within our human-made social structures. It would be beneficial to see a marriage of these disciplines under the Climate School — In particular, the different ways the local community could contribute to the overall discussion on climate justice, highlighting the need for nationwide collaboration in ensuring that the climate crisis is addressed in a way that is both practical and effective.