Alumna Profile: Lauren Faber O’Connor
Lauren Faber O’Connor, a graduate of the very first class of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Climate and Society program, was recently awarded the 2023 GSAS Dean’s Award for Distinguished Achievement. The award recognizes recipients for their profound impact on academia and on the world at large. After graduating, Lauren went on to work for the British Embassy, the California Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Defense Fund and, most recently, the city of Los Angeles as chief sustainability officer.
What first attracted you to Columbia’s Climate and Society program?
I was thinking about grad school in my senior year in college at Stanford. I had studied earth systems with a concentration and a minor in economics, and I wanted to continue that interdisciplinary study of climate change—to be able to learn about the science, gather the expertise behind the scientific explanation of climate change, while really immersing myself in the solutions. At that time, 2004, it was very difficult to find a university that was looking at climate change holistically and teaching it in an interdisciplinary way. My sense was that the academic community was wrestling with the question, “What does interdisciplinary study look like?”
I don’t even know how I came across Climate and Society, but it just really clicked. And I was so impressed with how quickly Columbia was pulling from multiple disciplines, and equipping students with a holistic view of the issue. I was also really excited that this class was going to be split between domestic and international students.
And there were areas of rigor that I probably wouldn’t have pursued had they not been required, but I’m glad I did—like atmospheric and oceanic dynamics and modeling. Even though they are not things I use every day, they give me confidence to be able to engage authentically and credibly.
How did the program shape your career path?
When I started taking policy related classes, I was focused on energy and emissions reductions. My professor was a practitioner who worked in Washington, and had worked in Congress. I was submitting required research papers that were mostly focused on policies coming out of the EU, and mostly the UK. And she said, “Oh, you must be really interested in British policy.” I’d never really thought of it that way. At the time, the EU was the leader, and within the EU, Great Britain was really leading. So I found myself focusing more and more on Britain. My professor said I should meet the folks at the British Embassy in Washington. “There’s a whole policy team there that works on energy issues and climate issues, and I’m going to introduce you to them,” she told me. I ended up working at there for almost five years right out of grad school, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was just because my professor paid attention to what I was doing in her class, and thought, how can I help?
What was also valuable was the curation of the class and my classmates, developing that network. I am still in touch with and cross paths with so many Climate and Society students from my tiny little class. We are in similar or adjacent fields, and we call on each other for help and assistance.
What were your main responsibilities as chief sustainability officer in the Office of the Mayor?
Developing and implementing a sustainability program for a city is definitely where the rubber hits the road. It was my responsibility to develop a holistic sustainability plan for the second largest city in the country that not only served as a kind of traditional strict climate action plan, but also looked at improving people’s daily experience. That stretches across everything we touch—energy, water, transportation, the built environment, the way the city is laid out, how people move around, housing, food, waste, economic development, environmental justice. I had to develop a plan where all those things really knit together and that engages stakeholders. Then actually put in place the tools for all our departments and community partners, while also serving as a leader in our community of cities all around the country and the world.
I was fortunate to be working for a Columbia alumnus—the mayor of LA [Eric Garcetti]. He himself credits Columbia professors for influencing his passion around the issue of climate change. To be working as a partner with someone leading the city who sees it the way I see it was a very unique and special thing.
What was one of your proudest achievements in LA?
One area where we really sought to create a template was the transition to renewable energy. We run the largest municipal electric and water utility in the country. I set out to determine our pathway to a completely decarbonized grid.
We’re not part of the California grid, which is very relevant when it comes to figuring out how to run on zero emission sources. I engaged with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of the premier national labs at the Department of Energy. We put together a proposal with the city Department of Water and Power to do a detailed comprehensive study of what it looks like to transition to all zero emission, with a grid that is as unique and complicated as the one in Los Angeles. The Department of Energy would say that this type of study had never been done before. And it was done in partnership with an advisory group of two dozen stakeholders across the city, so it was really a study guided by the users. The three and a half year study showed that we can run our grid on a completely zero emission system, and it will be reliable and affordable. And we can do it 10 years earlier than we thought we could. That led the mayor and city council to move our zero carbon goal up by 10 years to 2035, which was unprecedented throughout the country. The study has become the template for a number of efforts that DOE [labs] are undertaking to bring this approach to other cities and countries.
What are you looking to do next?
When I look at the ecosystem around climate action now, I’ve never seen more readiness and willingness from the private sector. So how do we help make it authentic and effective? I’m seeing investors trying to be more strategic and creative, and beginning to understand the economic opportunities before them. This is a time for the private sector to be shifting the way they are deploying dollars—away from fossil operations and infrastructure, away from technologies and businesses that are harming public health, and towards sustainability. I feel my skills could really help deploy dollars in effective ways. Public dollars are flowing in unprecedented ways, it’s the moment for private dollars to flood in. That is happening more and more in project development and infrastructure, private equity, and venture for new climate tech to not just fill the gaps in getting to net zero, but actually transform markets. I think there are some really exciting opportunities ahead.
This is probably the first time in my career where it hasn’t been about pulling teeth, and having to convince people that this is go time. It’s implementation, it’s deploy, it’s do. And so when I think about a next step, it’s all in the name of getting the actual work done—getting results.