Announcing the Columbia Climate School

July 10, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

Anyone who has spent a long career in academia knows firsthand that fields, disciplines, and subjects evolve and change, as new opportunities for knowledge are revealed, as new people come into the academy, and as new generations of students enter the scene. Today, I am writing to share a profoundly important new chapter for Columbia University, in a field that deserves the scholarly brilliance and creativity that only we as a University can deploy.

At their core, all universities are public institutions, in the sense that we are created by public favor to enhance human understanding, educate our youth, and convert knowledge into public good. The genius underlying all of this is rooted in strong scholarly values that are reinforced daily, within the uniquely dynamic intellectual communities that universities represent. As scholars, we are inherently independent-minded, reflective, and committed to sustained and deep inquiry no matter the time frame.

But our legitimacy and, frankly, our intellectual energy derive from being more or less aligned with the world’s problems and needs. We are not free to ignore the issues of our age and pursue whatever we want. We are ultimately responsible to our societies and the world. To that end, we must answer the call to serve. And when necessary, we must evolve and change.  

At the beginning of the last academic year, I appointed a Task Force, led by Earth Institute Director Alex Halliday, to explore what more the University should be doing with respect to climate change. The fundamental question was, and is, whether the scale of our efforts (within our University and universities generally) in this area of massive human concern, is sufficient to meet the existential dimensions of the problem. In other words, as I wrote then, “Are we marshaling our academic resources in ways that are proportionate to the magnitude and gravity of the challenges civilization will face?” 

In addition, concretely, would our efforts be significantly enhanced by the creation of a school devoted to these matters? The answer of the Task Force to that question was yes, as is mine, and as was the unanimous vote of the University Trustees at our recent June meeting. It is my honor, therefore, to announce that Columbia is establishing the Columbia Climate School, the first new school in 25 years at the University, and an institution that I have every expectation will be the most important climate school in the United States.

The creation of a new school is an exceedingly rare and significant event at this or any university. The ability to hire faculty, to create a student body and grant degrees, and to nurture a strong community of intellectual collegiality inhering in the pursuit of a particular knowledge base is especially empowering in the academic universe. How this new School will evolve remains to be determined. However, we are hardly starting from scratch. Columbia is already at the forefront of academic discovery and involvement in the issues of climate and society.

The School, at least at the outset, will be somewhat unconventional in its structure, building capacity from a hub of existing, world-class research centers and programs, including the Earth Institute and its many centers: the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), the Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR), Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), and more. Additionally, even at the present moment, virtually every school and many departments within the University from the arts and humanities to medicine and engineering, already support work in the field of climate. The new Columbia Climate School will be able to draw upon and reciprocate support for those efforts. It will, therefore, work in partnership with the deans and faculties of other schools throughout the institution. It is also notable that the School will be able to utilize the capacities we have created to be truly global in character and focus, especially with the vibrant Columbia Global Centers, and to bridge the world of scholarly endeavor with that of action and implementation, especially with the burgeoning Columbia World Projects and the other components of what we are calling the University’s Fourth Purpose—our mission of being more present at the intersection of knowledge and change.   

Inevitably, given the breadth of the phenomena, impacts, and human experiences associated with climate change, the School will figure out areas of special concentration. There already is a rich roster of strategic capabilities, with fields of expertise for which Columbia is currently recognized as the world leader (e.g., climate modeling and forecasting), and others that we will seek to develop further (e.g., food security). We recognize, of course, that climate change is not simply a physical problem but rather one raising a host of societal issues, most notably those encompassed by the principles of social justice. The School will open our eyes to the fact that the accelerating damage caused by climate change is likely disproportionately to affect vulnerable populations in regions at heightened risk of diminishing benefits of health and life. 

With the Columbia Climate School, we are moving to take on in a scholarly way—as only a great university can—an area of tremendous public attention and increasing concern, as enduring as anything else we might conceive of. Like the problem itself, this effort may seem daunting, but it is most certainly a moment for institutional pride.


Lee C. Bollinger