Global Sustainability and the Class of 2009

cugrad Global Sustainability and the Class of 2009Here on Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus, at around Broadway and West 116th street, the surest signs of spring are all of the preparations for graduation now underway. Groundskeepers are planting new shrubs, and bleacher seats and tents are being assembled everywhere. Working in a place like this is both a joy and a privilege– a fact never far from my mind- especially this time of year. As another group of students gets ready to face the challenges of the “real world,” a source of hope is the growing number of students working on environmental issues.  This can be seen in many of Columbia’s Schools: its undergraduate College and School of General Studies, its graduate schools of International and Public Affairs, Public Health, and Architecture. In these schools and in our Engineering School we are seeing a dramatic increase in interest in the study of environment, energy and sustainable development.

At Columbia, a new undergraduate minor in sustainable development will soon graduate its first class. Masters programs in climate and society, environmental science and policy, environmental health policy and ecology have all been created in the past decade– and are all growing. A Ph.D. program in Sustainable Development attracts about 150 applications each year for only six spaces.  While our schools and Columbia’s university-wide Earth Institute are constantly developing new environmental educational initiatives, it is our students that are providing the drive and demand that is fueling the growth of sustainability studies on campus. This is happening here in New York City and around the nation.

A few weeks ago the graduating environmental science seniors at Columbia and Barnard presented their senior projects in a poster session held before a packed crowd on the Barnard campus.  Papers ranged from Alison Powell’s, “Reducing Emissions on Agricultural Lands in the Hudson Valley “ to Robin Broder’s  “The Future of Electric Vehicles and Challenges for Infrastructure”. If watching these young scientists present their findings doesn’t provide you with hope for the future, I don’t think you’re paying attention.

At Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, I direct a Graduate program that awards a Master of Public Administration Degree in Environmental Science and Policy. In their final semester, about 60 students are divided into five groups and work with a faculty member to produce consulting reports for public sector clients. Over the past several weeks, these students have been presenting the results of their latest projects. Last week, a group of students I worked with presented their study on how to improve energy efficiency in the New York City Housing Authority. The Housing Authority has an impressive record of accomplishment in energy efficiency and my students studied cases from around the world to come up with some new ideas for New York City. Other projects presented by our students included:
• Assessing the Effectiveness of Payments for Environmental/Ecological Services– for the Wildlife Conservation Society;

• Gateway National Park’s Long-Term Ecosystem Management Options under Changing Climate Conditions– for the U.S. National Park Service;

• Quantifying and Reducing a National Organization’s Impact on Global Climate Change and Developing a Model to be Replicated– for the  National Audubon Society;

• An Analysis of Renewable Energy Payments (REPs) Policies for the United States– for the nonprofit groups Alliance for Renewable Energy (ARE) and EarthAction

Columbia is far from unique in producing these reports and in educating students interested in ensuring a sustainable planet. This is happening everywhere and in greater numbers every day. The new administration in Washington is encouraging it, but they too, like our faculty at Columbia, are responding to a strong and constant demand from young people across the country and around the world. Educating the next generation of environmental professionals and scientists is a challenge, even to those of us who have worked in this field for many years. Students are demanding that traditional questions and methods be replaced by programs of study that bring together many fields and help solve real-world problems.

These demanding students and the dedicated faculty working in this area are a source of optimism for the future.  This generation of students is not interested in the environment simply out of a love of nature.  While some care about the outdoors, many are just as interested in sustainable cities and “green buildings”. They do not see the environment as a “frill”, but view a sustainable planet as a necessity for their own future.

The graduation season on campus is always a time of hope as well as a nostalgic rite of passage. Proud families and posed photos are the order of the day. One of the most renewable resources we have is the brainpower, hard work and sense of idealism of our young people. This precious resource is an essential component of our transformation to a sustainable planet and a green economy. They deserve our thanks and our support, along with our congratulations.