A Glimpse at the Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains Program – State of the Planet

Students from the 2023 Green Mountains cohort celebrate the conclusion of an empowering program under a rainbow. Photo credit: Courtney White

Last summer, the Columbia Climate School hosted the 2023 cohort of the Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains program. The program, in partnership with Putney Student Travel, welcomed 65 students from around the world to Castleton, Vermont. The cohort represented 15 different states across the U.S., in addition to Puerto Rico, Canada, China, India and Turkey. 

The students participated in a two-week campus-based program to mobilize action, drive impact and effect change in response to our warming planet. Students engaged with faculty and staff from the Columbia Climate School and learned about cutting-edge research and innovations in action. Students also had a chance to meet, collaborate and build partnerships with like-minded peers and tap into their collective strengths to develop climate action plans. To follow is a glimpse at what students experienced during the program, including course lessons, activities and excursions.

Lucia Bragg from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness kicked off the program with a plenary session on climate change impacts. Students then broke into smaller learning groups for a “Science of Climate Change” primer taught by Laurel DiSera and Miriam Nielsen, Ph.D. students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. The primer was intended to provide a background on the science of climate change to ensure all students had a solid foundational understanding of the subject before diving deeper into complex scientific concepts. 

On the second day, students joined sessions on the science of climate change, led by DiSera, to take a deeper dive into climate warming, variability and feedback loops; and “Climate Communication and Conversation,” led by Josh DeVincenzo from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Students learned about environmental science tools and strategies to assess the health of the ecosystem, including a biodiversity survey of the macroinvertebrates living in the stream (i.e., water bugs) as a proxy for water quality. 

The day concluded with a fireside chat with DiSera and Nielsen, who discussed their climate careers, pathways to a Ph.D. and advice they would give to their younger selves and aspiring climate experts.

Day 3 had a session, “Climate Modeling and Projections,” led by Nielsen, and “Preparedness Tools and Strategies” led by DeVincenzo, to facilitate an understanding of the emergency notification process for county governments during and after the remnants of a major “unnatural” disaster. The students also went on their first excursion to Stillwater Farm to learn about local, sustainable agriculture and farming practices. 

Students traveled to Burlington, Vermont, to learn about applied sustainability science from various practitioners. After spending the morning exploring downtown Burlington, the group went to Burlington Electric, the 100% renewable energy, municipal power company for the City of Burlington. The general manager, Darren Springer, presented on the company, power sources, power saving incentives and how they balance rising prices. The next stop was the ECO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain where students had a chance to explore the science and nature museum. 

Led by Martin Dietrich Brauch from the Center for Sustainable Investment, students learned about “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement and Decarbonization Pathways,” and “Making, Measuring and Monitoring Progress,” sessions that focused on the policy approaches and technologies that can be employed to rapidly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Students engaged in a field activity to collect data on the biodiversity, water chemistry and sediment composition of Lake Bomoseen to assess the ecosystem and its health. 

From a methodology informed by the Tree Ring Lab at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, students collected tree cores from local specimens to analyze the tree rings as a proxy for past climatic conditions. 

Day 8 started with a half-day session, “Climate Change Policy and Negotiations,” a role-playing game premised on an international climate summit. Student groups played the role of delegates representing a specific nation, negotiating bloc and interest groups. Everyone worked together to reach a global agreement that successfully kept climate change well below 2oC and aimed to stay within 1.5oC. 

Ryan Lo, a sophomore from California, said that the best part of the program was being able to participate in their own version of United Nations Climate Negotiations. “I was picked as a journalist, meaning that I got to bounce to each table and see how personal interests, grudges and lobbyism affected each country’s policy decisions. Overall, I learned how difficult negotiation can really be and ended up writing an article on why the fossil fuel industry was so powerful in these conversations.”  

The group went on an excursion to the Darrin Freshwater Institute (DFWI) to learn about the regional climate impacts affecting Lake George. They learned about the Jefferson Project, a technological approach to studying fresh water with a goal of understanding the impact of human activity on fresh water and ways to mitigate those effects. 

The students had an introductory session to the circular economy led by Sandra Goldmark, senior assistant dean of Interdisciplinary Engagement at the Columbia Climate School. They then applied what they learned about the circular economy by choosing a currently linear product or system and making it circular. Projects ranged from a prom-dress swap to circular food take-out containers to biodegradable, natural mushroom coffins. 

The end of the program was dedicated to discussing pathways for change and the role young people can play in the climate movement in the session “Empowering Youth for Climate Change,” led by Laurel Zaima-Sheehy, assistant director of K12 and Continuing Education at the Columbia Climate School. Students had an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they gained from the program through the development of a climate action plan. These passion projects were intended to address the impact of climate change in students’ hometowns, with the idea that the work would continue long after the end of the program. There were a variety of projects, including the installation of solar panels on a school’s building, the creation of a bilingual climate education children’s book, the decarbonization of a school’s website and others.

Lo, the sophomore from California, said that this summer he’ll be teaching lower schoolers the fundamentals of climate justice in a summer camp, as well as attending a program to research climate justice and policy. “I wouldn’t be able to apply myself to these subjects without the inspiration from the Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains Program,” he said.

The students’ commitment to climate solutions and the successful completion of the program was celebrated with a congratulatory dinner with a plenary speech from the 81st governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin. 

The Columbia Climate School team has been blown away by the passion, engagement and knowledge that all our participants brought to the program. “These experiences and excitement in the Green Mountains Program have given me the knowledge and motivation I need to go deeper into climate activism,” said Lo. 

To apply to the 2024 Columbia Climate School in the Green Mountains program, visit our website to learn more about the process. Question? Feel free to reach out to Laurel Zaima-Sheehy, Assistant Director of K12 and Continuing Education Program at the Columbia Climate School (learn@climate.columbia.edu)

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