Growing up in Northern California, Benjamin Preneta remembers always having nature nearby, and spending a lot of time hiking.
“It heightened my awareness of the connection between people and the natural world,” he says.
Preneta first came to Columbia as an undergraduate, studying both modern African history and sustainable development. After serving four years as an armor officer in the U.S. Army, he returned, enrolling in the MA in Climate and Society program at the Columbia Climate School and becoming the Climate School’s first student senator.
Now, Preneta and his classmates are gearing up for Class Day on May 12 and summer internships before officially completing the program in August.
In the Q&A below, Preneta explains how he ties together so many diverse academic perspectives, why that’s important for solving climate change, and what he’ll be working on this summer.
What led you to combine modern African history and sustainable development for your undergraduate degree?
History and sustainable development are very much in different realms, and they approach problems differently. The way you look at the world is distinct for each, but I really enjoyed both of them.
They also complemented each other in a very unique way. Sustainable development involves the social sciences as well as some physical science, but it connects with history, too — because one of the critiques that Africanist historians often have of sustainable development is that there’s kind of a lack of awareness around the historical context where we’re often looking at development. That’s something that the Climate School and others have started to get better at, but there is still significant work to do across the field.
After getting your bachelor’s degree, you spent four years in the Army. How did that influence your academic journey?
Gaining experiences and information from places that may not seem to have any connection is really important to me. Being an officer in the Army is very much a job about people — you’re working with people from all kinds of backgrounds, and you’re solving problems daily. I learned how to be a leader, how to listen, and how to take in all these inputs and try to find a solution.
My military experience had a really big impact on my journey here in the Climate and Society program, because of the human aspect of climate change. Climate change affects all of us, so solving it is, by its very nature, going to take everyone’s input to some degree.
What drew you to the Climate and Society program?
The climate crisis is as much a human issue as it is a scientific one, right? I liked the program’s multidisciplinary viewpoint, where it’s not just about knowing all the climate dynamics and how to run a model. That’s obviously an extremely important facet of it, and it’s part of the reason I came here. But it’s also about understanding the human element, such as how we perceive and interact with our environment.
Could you tell us about some of the new skills you got out of the program?
One of the really nice benefits of the program is the ability to take electives, so I was able to take graduate-level courses that really enhanced my understanding of climate dynamics and how we model predictability and uncertainty. In terms of technical skills, I’ve taken courses in geospatial analysis, and I’ve done some coding with R and Python. Having a pretty decent backing in these allows me to both be scientific in my research or analysis, but then also think about how we translate this information to decision-makers or people who need the information.
One of my favorite classes was graduate-level Intro to Atmospheric Science. I was lost sometimes and scrambling to catch up. But then at the end, when it all makes sense and the lines of calculus finally add up, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can actually explain a complex physical process in a numeric way.’ It’s really an ‘aha’ moment that sticks with you.
What are your plans for the summer and beyond?
I have two internships this summer. The first is at the U.N. with the Office of the Special Adviser on Africa. There, I’m working on technical reports for different energy systems and providing information to decision-makers for how these could be potentially used in African countries. What are the pros and cons? What infrastructure, both political and physical, needs to be built? I’ve only just started, but it’s really nice to be able to do research that has an applicable use.
On top of that, I have a research fellowship with an energy research group, where I’ll be using geospatial analysis to look at potential areas for siting renewable energy in the U.S. It will allow me to hone my modeling and spatial analysis skills, which I will then be able to apply in any environment I go into.
Longer term, I’m still figuring it out, but ultimately I would love to be somewhere where I can not only do analysis and research, but also translate it toward solving the climate crisis.
African history, sustainable development, atmospheric science, energy systems — these are all very different fields that don’t always speak the same languages. How do you manage to put it all together so that it makes sense?
That’s true, by their nature these very different worlds don’t always speak to each other. But, not to sound trite, there is the human nature aspect to all of it. We’re all people and we’re all trying to live and exist on this planet.
In the climate sphere, there are people who have a very strong science background and understand the models, but may not know how to talk to a decision-maker about what crops they should plant in the next two or three months. And then you have people who really understand the community and know the problems firsthand, better than any outside researcher could understand, but may not have the tools to show it on a map or model it. That’s one of the challenges within the field, and I think it’s about finding a common language. There is no quick solution to it, but open communication and really listening are key, because each side has something important to say and there is a middle ground.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.