The Alumni Spotlight series includes interviews from Earth Institute alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Earth Institute programs, and any advice that would be useful to current and future students.
Jake Higdon graduated from Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program in 2019. Now he works to drive federal action on climate change. But he didn’t always know that he wanted to specialize in environmental policy.
Jake began his undergraduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill focused on urban planning. After his freshman year, he took part in a summer abroad program in Germany with a joint concentration in urban and environmental studies. Throughout the program, Jake toured wind and solar farms and explored everywhere from urban centers to mountain summits with ease, due to the public transportation system. At first, Jake found this experience jarring, especially after growing up in Jacksonville, FL, where he always felt dependent on cars. “My experience during my study abroad in Germany felt so disconnected to where most of the world was on environmental issues at that point in time,” he said.
Jake went on to study abroad in South Africa as well. There, working with communities that were fighting for the very basics of waste management and environmental safety, he realized that a large gap needs to be bridged to achieve a sustainable and equitable future. Bridging that gap, he thought, will require big, system-wide change — the type of change that can only be accomplished with government intervention. He began to feel that he could do the most to make a positive impact through policy.
He ended up graduating with his undergraduate degree in International Studies with a minor in Sustainability and a focus on the relationship between health and the environment, particularly in Africa. During his senior year, he did an internship at the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change to “try to play a small part in advancing federal climate policy.” However, Jake felt he needed to develop more hard skills before pursuing graduate studies. To do so, he worked as a data analyst for a couple of years at a company called Red Ventures, which leverages e-commerce for digital marketing. As an analyst, Jake did market research, and worked with different consumer brands to help them run their digital platforms, data infrastructure, or customer analytics. This was a great learning experience and today he continues to use the analysis techniques that he gained from his work. Jake knew that being comfortable with quantitative analysis and being able to think about policy in a quantitative way would help him succeed in graduate school.
After a couple of years honing his quantitative analytical skills, Jake was ready to begin graduate school and kickstart his career in federal climate policy. He chose to pursue a master’s degree from the Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program at Columbia University for many reasons. One of the things that most attracted him to the MPA-ESP program was the workshops. He appreciated that gaining real world experience and connections was baked into the program, rather than something that he would have to find separately through internships. He also liked that the program is accelerated, so it seemed more efficient as a career stepping stone because you gain a lot in a very short period of time. Additionally, Jake thought Columbia was a really exciting place to be as a graduate student. As a student, he was involved in the Journal of International Affairs and other programs that exposed him to interesting people and allowed him to hear fascinating speakers outside of the classroom as well.
In the MPA-ESP program, Jake had the ability to do research at the Center on Global Energy Policy, which had a substantial impact on his career. In particular, Jake found it highly valuable that he had the opportunity to work with and learn from the center’s amazing scholars, who work on topics ranging from decarbonization to taking care of workers during the energy transition.
Another experience in the MPA-ESP program that Jake found particularly valuable was spending a spring break doing an independent study in Puerto Rico. Working closely with a faculty member, he and several classmates designed a study to see how Puerto Rico was navigating the energy transition in the wake of Hurricane Maria. During this independent study, he met with solar developers on the ground and attended a conference in San Juan focused on the energy transition.
Soon after graduating from the MPA-ESP program, Jake was hired by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a global environmental nonprofit. EDF is known for leveraging a mix of science and policy analysis to address environmental problems — particularly climate change — by working with governments, individuals and with the private sector. He started as an analyst, and then was promoted within his team to Manager for US Climate Policy. In this role, Jake was responsible for conducting analysis, research and advocacy to inform climate policy that will get the US on track to a net zero economy by 2050 in a way that benefits American working people and communities. Jake spent his time managing a portfolio of analyses on different topics. His work included engagement with stakeholders — such as labor unions and community-based organizations — and direct engagement with policy makers.
Some of Jake’s favorite projects working for the Environmental Defense Fund were a project focused on fairness for workers and communities in the energy transition, as well as the Climate Innovation Blueprint, which informed policy makers on how to leverage funds for innovations to combat climate change. One of Jake’s favorite parts of this work was that he was actually able to see his team’s recommendations in proposed legislation, including the reconciliation and bipartisan infrastructure bills.
Jake worked at EDF for three years, focused on federal climate policy. Towards the end of those three years, he started to feel more strongly that, “revitalizing U.S. manufacturing is essential for both economic growth and climate action. We can no longer consider industrial development and environmental protection to be at odds,” he said. Thus, when he was offered a position as an Energy Innovation Impact Fellow at Federation of American Scientists, he was excited by “the opportunity to work on a policy issue that can deliver tangible, everyday benefits to people while also equipping us to tackle climate change.” More specifically, Jake’s current work is a part of the Day One Project, which develops innovative ideas in science and technology policy and tries to translate them into action. For this project, Jake is focused on researching and developing policy tools to promote U.S. clean energy manufacturing and strengthen domestic supply chains.
“I aim to support the Biden-Harris administration’s work to strengthen the critical clean energy supply chains — from solar panels to batteries and beyond — that will dominate our decarbonized future,” said Jake. “The policies that I am focused on will increase the U.S. manufacturing base for emerging energy technologies, leading to quality jobs, energy security, and climate action.”
Jake feels that the MPA-ESP program was instrumental in preparing him for this position, in which he is working to bridge the gap between science and policy action. The MPA-ESP program allowed Jake to develop and strengthen many of the tools that he is using daily in his work, including the ability to synthesize scientific ideas, write policy proposals and memos, and translate policy language. Jake also says that the program “strengthened my technical understanding of the clean energy industry, which is obviously a critical component of work on U.S. clean energy manufacturing.”
To current and prospective MPA-ESP students interested in following a similar path, Jake advises them to remember that windows of opportunity open up in surprising ways and often at unexpected times. He suggests doing work that you believe in, staying patient, and being ready to seize opportunity when it arises.
If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Pearl Gray (email@example.com) with any questions or to schedule a campus visit.