State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Meet Rashawn Merchant From the Climate and Society Class of 2023

rashawn merchant headshot
Rashawn Merchant starts in the MA in Climate and Society Program this fall. He hopes to explore new ways to communicate about climate change.

This fall, the Columbia Climate School welcomes a new class of students into the M.A. in Climate and Society program. The 12-month interdisciplinary program trains students to understand and address the impacts of climate change and climate variability on society and the environment.

The incoming Class of 2023 includes 80 students with diverse backgrounds and career paths, impressive skillsets, and big plans to help people and the environment.

State of the Planet will be featuring interviews with several of these extraordinary students over the coming weeks. In the Q&A below, you can meet Rashawn Merchant, who wants to help make climate change information more accessible for non-scientists, particularly in urban settings.

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in studying climate?

This past year I completed my bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Georgia. While I was raised in Atlanta, GA, my family is from Harlem, NY so I’ve always had a close relationship with urban life. Through my studies and research experience in water resources, I’ve gained an understanding of the importance of climate change and ensuring that people within cities are educated on the proper means of building a sustainable future.

Cities are important to a sustainable future because they can be contributors to an unsustainable future. Urban environments play a significant role in excessive consumption, waste outputs, and habitat loss. With so many people now living in cities and even more migrating, these challenges can worsen. Fortunately, this also presents an opportunity for positive changes to be made due to a greater number of residents that are able to be informed of positive changes.

What role would you say education plays in fighting climate change? Is there anything you’d like to see done differently about how climate change is taught?

Education plays a primary role in fighting climate change. We’re now at a point where most people are aware that climate change is occurring; however, information as to how the planet is changing and what effects will take place aren’t as available. I believe when people learn about the impacts they’re more willing to participate in solutions as well as spread information themselves. I’d like to see climate change taught with a more visual emphasis. As a society, we’ve rapidly moved towards a state where our primary sources of information are imagery based. While trying to reach wider audiences, it could be beneficial to have a greater emphasis on graphics and less on wording that may be difficult for those outside of the scientific community to understand.

What drew you to the Climate and Society program specifically? 

I saw an opportunity for growth. I truly believe climate change is the biggest modern crisis humanity faces and being able to receive an education at a world-renowned institution would give me the best opportunity to advance my own skills in order to make contributions toward a solution.

What are you most excited to learn about while you’re here?

I’m most excited to learn how to interpret climate data so that it can be presented in ways that are accessible to everyone.

How does the program align with your career goals?

I want to be a climate professor and that starts with continuing my education. Climate change is a problem that affects everyone regardless of age, race, and socioeconomic status. I’d hope to reach people of all backgrounds in order to have a global effort towards change. I’d love to work in an urban setting and even one day at Columbia University.

Congratulation on receiving a Diamonstein-Spielvogel fellowship. Could you tell us a little about what it means to you?

I’m extremely happy to be a recipient of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel fellowship. I think that most importantly it shows a dedication to investing in the future of climate scientists. I feel motivated to make the most of this opportunity by excelling in my academics and being involved within the department.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I can’t wait to meet my peers!

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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