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Columbia’s Low Library Photo: Kate Della Pietra, Columbia Daily Spectator
Late last month, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, acting on a recommendation by a university-wide Task Force, announced a bold new initiative — it will form a new cross-disciplinary “Climate School” to address “the long-term climate issues that will be with future generations, and will also act swiftly given the short timeframe with which the world must act.” In his announcement, Bollinger explained that “this rapidly growing crisis demands our collective engagement as an institution and across society. Indeed, because Columbia is one of the world’s great academic centers in climate science, we have more than the usual responsibility to play a leadership role in adapting to and stemming this emerging threat to the planet.”
Why This Matters: There is nothing else like this proposed school in academia in the U.S. and certainly not at an institution as prominent as Columbia. Like the big move by BlackRock to shift out of fossil fuel investments, this is probably a decision that is intended to have a positive impact on the world, but it is also intended to benefit the University. Columbia is making a big bet on the growing demand for climate-related education to prepare for climate-related careers and is likely hoping that this bold action will also help attract new funding that can strengthen it financially. Its $11 billion endowmentreturned just 3.8% in 2019, and the Task Force recommended that the University consider incorporating socially responsible investing principles into its portfolio. In order to be taken seriously in this Climate Change School endeavor, the University will need to divest from fossil fuels.
Columbia Will Be Carbon Neutral by 2050
Columbia already runs a research entity, the Earth Institute, that it founded in 1995 that studies issues regarding conservation and the environment, but the Institue “has encountered structural challenges that limit its success and growth,” according to a December report from an advisory task force to Bollinger. Bollinger also announced the creation of a Chief Climate Officer position within the University that will report directly to him to guide the University’s own efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, and to be more efficient and less wasteful, and to build on the University’s own current sustainability goals.
In December, according to the Columbia Spectator, over 100 Columbia faculty members signed a petition in support of Extinction Rebellion hunger strikers and their demands to declare a climate emergency, reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, and divest from fossil fuel companies by 2025. Columbia has been moving in this direction since 2016, and after students held a sit-in in University President Lee Bollinger’s office that lasted eight days. after which the University decided to divest from thermal coal producers in 2017.
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