State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Faculty Profile: Jessica Thurston

jessica thurston
Photo: Brooke Alexander / Studio Brooke

Jessica Thurston serves as the senior director of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategy and reporting at Paramount Global. Thurston leads the development and execution of the global media company’s ESG priorities across its operations and brands, from MTV to CBS Sports, and from consumer products to real estate and facilities.

Her background is rooted in ESG and corporate sustainability strategy development, having consulted for a number of major companies and worked on developing sustainable procurement policy for the U.S. federal government. Thurston earned her M.S. in Sustainability Management from Columbia University, where she now serves as an adjunct lecturer.

What initially motivated you to pursue the field of sustainability?

My undergraduate degree is in urban design, which was part of the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon. That program was ahead of its time in encouraging students to think comprehensively about urban systems and the externalities of decisions that affect the built environment. It enabled me to think broadly about what sustainability meansーyes, to the built environment, but beyond that, to governments and corporations and their inefficiencies. To this day, I consider ESG an exercise in finding the “slop in the system”ーas a means of identifying inefficiencies that, when solved, will benefit the environment, society, and organizations at once.

What drew you to the Columbia Climate School and the School of Professional Studies?

In 2012, when I started as a Sustainability Management student while working full-time, I knew I wanted to expand my technical expertise in sustainability while also learning more about how expansive sustainability is as a topic. I was already working in New York City and it made sense to seek out the best institutionーColumbia Universityーto take this endeavor seriously.

What course will you be teaching this fall and what excites you most about it?

This fall, I will teach ESG Governance. I’m thrilled to teach this course and to dive into discussions of how decisions are made and how high-risk topics are managed, particularly at publicly traded companies. It is essential to anyone who wants to work in sustainability and ESG to understand the pressures and transitional risks that shape companies’ and governments’ decisions when it comes to sustainability.

No matter one’s fieldーwhether you’re coming at this from a heavily environmental background, or diversity, equity, and inclusion, finance or anythingーit is absolutely key to understand what we mean when we talk about the governance of ESG. It will better all of us.

What changes do you hope to see in the field of sustainability in the future?

I want to see corporations held to higher standards for disclosure. We do not have the luxury of time for organizations globally to navigate this complex field, and therefore need as many sustainability professionals in the workforce as possible.

What advice do you have for students pursuing a career in sustainability?

Learn as much as you can ー a true breadth of topics and industries and how sustainability takes form in each of them. But also go in depth in one area, whether it’s supply chain issues, governance, materiality, water or whatever you choose. Be the expert in that field, and you’ll be an essential member of a team looking to fill that role.

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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