State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Columbia Climate School Welcomes First Class of Students

Columbia University Alma Mater

The Columbia Climate School, in partnership with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, will receive its inaugural class of students this September through the Master of Arts in Climate and Society program. Over the course of one year, students from around the world will develop their approach to scientific inquiry and how best to apply their backgrounds to addressing the climate crisis.

In an email to the State of the Planet, Alex Halliday, the founding dean of the Climate School and director of the Earth Institute wrote, “There is a growing demand for a climate-educated workforce; the incoming class will be leaders in this space. They have the opportunity to shape emerging professions and fields as varied as climate finance to climate justice.”

The Climate and Society Program

While new to the Climate School, the Climate and Society program was founded 16 years ago by faculty member Mark Cane. Cane, whose groundbreaking forecasting models in the 1980s made him a world-renowned climatologist, recognized the need to educate professionals about the basics of climate science and equip them with the tools to communicate that science to other stakeholders.

“This is a program that was ahead of its time,” said Cynthia Thomson, an alumna and now associate director of the Climate and Society program. “Until recently, you would say ‘climate and society,’ and people would give you this look like they didn’t really understand what you were talking about.”

As the scientific understanding and public awareness of climate change has evolved, the program has continuously expanded the scope of its coursework. In addition to climate science and variability, students now learn about climate impacts, prospective climate solutions, and potential climate careers.

“It is a fitting inaugural program for the school,” wrote Halliday, “providing students with the critical interdisciplinary knowledge needed for their prospective careers.”

The program’s curriculum is broken up into trimesters. In the first two trimesters, students will all take the same five core courses, including “Dynamics of Climate and Variability” and “Managing and Adapting to Climate.” They will then have the opportunity to tailor their education through the selection of four electives. The last trimester of the program is dedicated to providing students with practical learning experiences through either a summer internship or a capstone workshop with an outside organization.

“When you are talking about something as dynamic as climate change, it’s hard to understand how it all fits together until you get out there and put theory into practice,” said Thomson.

The flexibility of the program is designed to support a more diverse cohort of students. Broadly speaking, previous classes have included an even mix of students with backgrounds in the earth sciences, natural sciences, and social sciences. Of the over 400 alumni of the program, roughly one third continued as post-graduate students, one third now work for non-governmental organizations, and the remaining third are split between the public and private sectors.

“We don’t have a formal way of guiding students,” said Mingfang Ting, co-director of the program. “They find their own pathways, and we help them navigate those pathways.”

The Dawn of the Climate School

The first of its kind, the Climate School was announced in July 2020 as a way for Columbia to address the urgency of the climate crisis by harnessing its wealth of expertise and global reach. The School will measure success by whether the knowledge it cultivates in its students is turned into action in service of a more sustainable, just, and safer future, wrote Halliday.

Thomson and Ting have already found that the Climate School has shone a new light on the Climate and Society program. “We have definitely seen an extremely positive impact on the visibility of the program and the resources available to it,” said Ting.

Perhaps one of the most notable changes to the program is its ability to educate and train more students; this year’s class size is double what it was in previous years. Behind the scenes, that means the program will offer two of every course, as well as host additional events and speakers.

“We have always really liked the program’s intimacy,” said Thomson. “We are looking forward to growing the program but still keeping that community feeling among the students.”

Under the Climate School, the Earth Institute will continue to co-run sustainability and environmental education programs in partnership with other Columbia Schools. The Climate School will also develop new programs and expand existing ones, guided by the professional and academic needs of the field. This includes degree-granting programs, courses and majors for undergraduates, K-12 education to support teachers and pre-college students, and capacity building efforts for government agencies, both nationally and internationally.

Ting and Thomson plan to integrate new, highly-sought-after courses into the Climate and Society curriculum as the Climate School develops. This includes a course focused on climate equity and justice, a course on climate migration, and a course on climate communication.

“The inaugural class of the Climate School will be the first, but far from the last, to work with faculty and peers in the Climate School, develop their skills over the next year, and make a positive difference in addressing climate challenges around the world,” wrote Ruth DeFries, co-founding dean of the Climate School, in an email to the State of the Planet.

In the meantime, Ting and Thomson are eager to welcome their next class of Climate and Society students. “These students – their motivation, their enthusiasm, and their passion for solving the climate crisis – make me so, so hopeful for the future,” said Ting, “They are all so ready to make an impact.”

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