State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Faculty Spotlight: Rachel Patterson

rachel patterson headshot
Rachel Patterson

Rachel Patterson is a faculty advisor for the spring 2023 workshop course in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program. An alumna of the program, she graduated in 2018 and is currently pursuing her JD at Albany Law School.

In addition to serving as a faculty advisor, she works at Evergreen Action, supporting federal climate policy work that advances renewable energy deployment and emissions reduction strategies while centering the needs of frontline and environmental justice communities.

After graduating from the MPA-ESP program, what did you pursue?

I graduated from the program in May 2018, and at that point I had done very little in the way of job searching. But, the SIPA career office was great in sending open applications for state jobs. I was willing to move up to Albany and by the time the school year ended, I got a job as an Excelsior fellow for the state of New York. That allowed me to work for NYSERDA, which was a cool opportunity that allowed me to get into the weeds of a few state policies and my boss ended up being a great mentor. I was there for about six months doing program management and then I was asked to move over to the governor’s office as a briefer. However, that job did not have a policy focus so I chose not to stay too long.

At that point I had public experience, and I had done non-profit work for a year between undergraduate and graduate school and I wanted to get corporate experience, so I went to work for Booz Allen for about six months. I found that it wasn’t a good fit for me. I was doing defense contracting, which I had no passion for. I decided to move back to New York State and started working as a legislative and climate associate at Environmental Advocates New York, which is where I got the bulk of my in-depth policy experience. I got to do a lot of writing policy, researching, analyzing, and blogging that led me to my current role doing something similar, but at the federal level, as a policy lead at Evergreen Action.

What led you to law school?

I was working on the state level for a couple of years doing policy work, which I really enjoyed. That work included putting together policies that were ambitious compared to what New York State was doing already. Most of which was advocating to improve existing policies. What I found out for myself was that a lot of times it didn’t matter how great the policy was or how much work you put into it. What really matters was who is in the room interpreting what the policy says. Which, at the state level, tend to be lawyers. Initially I went to undergrad thinking that in order to do policy I was going to need a background in policy and science. However, in the real world I found that nobody cared about the science and it was really about the interpretation. That is why I ended up in law school, so I could be one of the people that validates that interpretation of the law.

What are you passionate about?

A big passion of mine is environmental justice. I came to climate work from a human-centered approach, knowing people that grew up impacted by oil refineries, having asthma and experiencing pollution. A lot of what I’m doing in my job is making policies more equitable. This includes making sure communities can be involved in the process, which may sound easy but is often overlooked.

When I moved back to New York and started doing policy work I did a lot around the implementation of Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. At that time no one really knew how to go about assigning benefits to people, especially around the 40% mandate. However, we were able to advocate to maintain the funding sources, which I am really proud of. The first thing to go when people need to divert funds are things that seem aspirational, like climate goals. In particular I did a lot of work around the Regional Greenhouse Gas Inventory Program because New York State had a really long history of diverting the money and spending it on other things.

I also got to work on this bill that just passed last year, not related to environmental justice, but the bill is about allowing deceased people, rather than being cremated or buried, to turn into organic matter, which has a huge environmental impact.

But what I’m proud of with my career is being able to have that equity throughline. A lot of what I do now is following the leadership of New York and California but doing it on the federal level. Being able to take those lessons learned from New York and then being able to take that to agencies and scale it up to a huge degree. There are so many challenges and so many agencies not doing things right from my perspective, but there’s also just so much opportunity.

What are some highlights about your job?

Even though I am a lawyer in training they let me do a lot of really cool things that relate to the sphere of law. For example, we put together a list of recommendations for US attorneys general on how they can help implement environmental justice. Fun little projects like that. 

What are your big takeaways from your post-grad experiences?

My big takeaway from my 5-7 year career range is to keep following that passion project. When I left Booz Allen, left the corporate world and took a different job, I followed my passion. It worked out and now the job that I have is incredible. I love it, and we’re also one of the most well-funded climate nonprofits other than the big greens. The path will present itself. You just have to keep chasing the right path and those passion projects. I am really excited that I have been able to continue to do this justice work.

How does it feel coming full circle, now being faculty advisor to the program that you graduated from?

I’m very humbled and honored to even be considered. Steve Cohen [director of the MPA-ESP program] has been incredibly supportive to me and any student that shows effort and puts in the work. I guess it is a testament to maintaining those connections and building them with authentic people who have the same goal in mind.

As an active practitioner it’s been really fun to see the questions that the students have. They had a more rigid process for the workshop in the fall and now they have a client who is very open-ended in the spring. That’s real life. I am currently undergoing almost exactly the same thing in my professional life. I have a project that’s due at the end of the semester and it has all the same steps. I’m putting together an outreach plan and tracking weekly progress. My real life still mirrors this program.

What do you want this cohort to keep in mind as they approach graduation?

So many people think they know what they want to do. For me, letting time pass and actually learning what I like was really important. I don’t feel bad about quitting a job that doesn’t align with my morals and interests. I am able to justify it because I am a really hard worker at things that make sense and that I like. It doesn’t make sense for me to put energy into things that I don’t like. I hope that this generation of students realizes that we don’t have 20-year careers anymore — we don’t need to pick one thing and stick with it forever. As long as you have the basic skills from the program — research, analysis and ability to communicate with people — you will be good at any job you do. 

Saj McBurrows is an intern with the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program.

Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Climate School.

Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program’s 1,112 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers and environmental scientists and engineers.

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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