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Aaron Stockel: From Byzantine History to Modern Politics

A smiling young man in a button-up shirt in front of bookshelves.
Aaron Stockel is a soon-to-be-graduate of the M.A. in Climate and Society program.

Although Aaron Stockel describes his path to climate science and political advocacy as a circuitous one, he has always been guided by a singular question: “How and where can I do the most good?”

Stockel grew up in Los Angeles, where many of his friends and neighbors were interested in the outdoors and tuned into changes in the climate. “My parents took me to see An Inconvenient Truth when it came out because they felt it was important—and I was like nine at the time. So I think that was pretty formative,” he said.

In high school and then college at the University of Chicago, Stockel followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on history—specifically, he majored in Byzantine history with a minor in astrophysics “for fun.”

“I chose astrophysics because I like space, but it actually was really climate focused. It turns out the best way to study planets in other solar systems is to study our own. We learned a lot of atmospheric science and we talked a lot about climate change,” Stockel recalled.

In the interview below, Stockel describes how he channeled this newfound knowledge into a graduate degree at Columbia Climate School’s Climate and Society program and to an upcoming internship with the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

While Climate and Society students like Stockel are celebrating Commencement and Class Day this May, they will participate in a variety of exciting summer internships before officially completing the program in August.

Why did you decide to pursue climate science and advocacy on a professional level?

The 2016 election was happening when I was in college, which was a terrifying moment for climate. In the 2018 midterm season, I worked on a congressional campaign because it just felt like we had to do something. I was trying to figure out, how can I make the most impact? It all sort of came together as I got to the end of college and realized that climate is probably the big question that our generation is going to have to deal with because the previous one just didn’t. And where we have until 2030 to actually do something before we’re in big trouble.

Right after college, I went on to intern for a nonprofit called Grand Canyon Trust in their energy program. I read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for that, along with federal bills and agency rules. Plus I was exposed to a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and climate justice principles. That was all definitely eye-opening.

Grand Canyon Trust does great work and, for their size, they make a really big impact. But I knew a nonprofit in Arizona was not going to be able to solve the climate crisis—they’re just one small part.

With the 2020 elections coming up, I was determined to do whatever I could to get involved, even if it was just as a field organizer calling people or knocking on their doors. It felt like the best thing I could do was put a Democrat in the White House because at least that party believes climate change is real. So I worked on the Warren campaign in four states, and then we lost. COVID started. Then I joined the Biden campaign and we won.

Right after that, I went to Georgia to help with the Senate runoffs and we won that, too, against the odds. And then I wondered, now what?

What brought you back to school, and specifically to the Climate and Society program?

I knew then I wanted to work in Washington, but I couldn’t get my foot in the door. So I hung out for a while. I learned to surf.

I thought, because I only have a bachelor’s, maybe that’s holding me back from working on the Hill, where I felt like really big changes were happening.

In my college thesis, I wrote about the Justinianic Plague of 542, which was suddenly topical because of COVID-19, and the effect that climate change and other events may have had on society back then—there was a coinciding cooling period that reduced agricultural yields. It turns out human society has always been really dependent on climate—and still is today. It had been a very interdisciplinary thesis, which drew me to this Columbia Climate and Society program because it’s not a climate science degree, a policy degree, or a climate advocacy degree—it’s all of those things. It’s trying to create well-rounded climate leaders who can understand what everyone at the table is talking about and bring them together.

That was really appealing to me because the longer I’ve been involved, the more I don’t know exactly where I fit in and what I can do, but I am sure I want to do the most good I can. I’ve always really enjoyed working with people with diverse backgrounds and achieving results. I think that’s the point in this program. There are a couple others like it in the world, but not many.

The climate crisis is so big that there’s no one sector or field that’s going to be able to solve it. It’s a problem when you silo yourself off as only engineers or only advocates or scientists. It’s not going to work unless there’s society-wide cooperation, and that’s going to lead to the systemic transformation we want.

What made you want to work at the White House?

Well, first of all, I love The West Wing. I always have, though it has some problematic moments looking back now, 20 years later.

But mainly, it felt like the Biden administration has been making so much progress on climate work. They’ve done a lot more than most previous administrations combined. To me, the White House represents that idea of where everything comes together, in terms of overarching strategy, and where cooperation in decision-making can be achieved on a larger scale. It seems like a really exciting place to be. So I applied for the internship and was thrilled to get it.

What are you hoping to learn from your internship experience?

Obviously, I’m really excited about it and I really appreciate the opportunity. I will be working at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which was created in 1969 by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). They do really important work, including developing procedures for federal agency implementation of NEPA and coordinating federal efforts to improve, preserve, and protect America’s public health and environment.

I’ll be on the Clean Energy, Infrastructure, and NEPA Team—I don’t know exactly what the day-to-day will look like yet, but I’m looking forward to heading down there to be in a place where there’s really momentous stuff going on.

How does this opportunity align with your future goals?

The chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, Brenda Mallory, is one of the main climate advisers to President Biden, which is awesome because it means they have the power to really make change. I have an interest in being proximate to decision-makers, where that real change can happen. I think it’s important to bring the Columbia Climate School interdisciplinary perspective into spaces like that. They are doing it already, but I hope adding my voice, work ethic, and my experience will help contribute to that process.

As far as future career goals go, I don’t know exactly, but I have never worked in government before. I am definitely going to devote myself to it fully and work really hard. As of now, I can definitely see myself at a government agency that’s working at the intersection of climate, justice, engineering, science, and policy.

Have you received any words of advice during your educational journey that have stuck with you?

I’ve talked to a lot of very kind and driven people who are making their own way doing a lot to make the world a better place. They’ve taught me it’s okay if you don’t have it figured out; it’s okay to just go with the next thing that feels right, as long as it’s right to you and you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile and good. Just do what you can for the world because it’s kind of all we can really do. We only get one shot at this.

There’s no one path to government work. There’s not a specific candidate that they’re looking for, clearly, because I was thinking, I’m never getting a White House internship…and then I did. It’s cliché, but if you pursue your passions and show that you care, that you’re smart and articulate and you’re trying your hardest, I think that’s essentially what any organization is looking for. It was a very circuitous path for me.

There was a speaker in my class recently who said something really powerful. She told us her dad always said the two most important days in your life are the day you’re born and the day you figure out why. I don’t think I’ve quite figured out why yet, but I think I’m on the path to getting there.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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