Summer Semester Workshop Midterm Briefings Held July 16, 2008

Summer Semester Workshop Midterm Briefings Held July 16, 2008

On Wednesday, July 16, students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs gave their first formal workshop briefings of the academic year. This innovative public policy program includes a year long sequence workshop where students “learn by doing.” In the summer and fall semesters, the program’s 59 students are divided into five teams and analyze a piece of environmental legislation that has been proposed but not yet enacted. In the summer they analyze and communicate the science of the environmental issue in the bill. In the fall semester they assume that these bills have been passed into law and they develop a plan to implement the new programs. In the spring semester the program’s workshop features a capstone project that partners students with dedicated public and non-profit organizations on critical sustainability issues.

“The Summer Workshop is about the process of learning how to translate science and analysis into operational environmental policy,” said Director of the MPA-ESP Program Steve Cohen during his introduction of the Briefings.  He further explained that “decision makers have very little time to cover these [science] issues…but our students have the ability to take the high-points of these issues and summarize them for decision makers. Our goal is for students to learn about the process of communicating complex information and to think about the factors that contribute to effective communication.”

The midterm briefings presented summaries of the first three outputs of each project team. The presentations provided a summary of the legislation or international agreement—major goals and provisions of the statute or agreement—and provided details on the history and scientific dimensions of the environmental problem being addressed. The following is a description of the five student projects presented during this summer’s midterm workshop briefings:

H.R.2774 Solar Energy Research and Advancement Act of 2007
Faculty Advisor: Andrea Schmitz

Professor Andrea Schmitz is currently the Director of Environment, Health and Safety for Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. In her current role there, she oversees Con Edison's Environmental Response Team (ERT), which provides around-the-clock response to environmental and safety incidents. Professor Schmitz has been leading her cohort this summer in their study of applying solar energy as an alternative energy source. The Solar Energy Research and Advancement Act of 2007 supports the research, development, and commercial application of solar energy technologies. Specifically, the bill directs the Secretary of Energy to study methods to integrate concentrating solar power into regional electric transmission systems and to bring this power to growing electric power load pockets across the country. The Workshop group is exploring the problems with current power sources such as coal; issues such as the exposure to heavy metals and run-off from mines and the polluting air emissions of coal burning energy plants. 

The bill proposes an alternative to coal and other pollution emitting energy sources. The Solar Energy Research and Advancement Act of 2007 aims “to support the research, development, and commercial application of solar energy technologies.” The Workshop group’s next steps are to analyze the proposed solution of solar energy and learn to describe the science and applicability of the energy source to potential investors and policymakers.

Serving as an advisor to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NYC Parks, NY State DEC, NJ DEP, and several NGOs on conservation, restoration, and ecological management issues, Professor Matthew Palmer brings his wildlife conservation expertise to his Workshop group this summer. His research interests are primarily in plant community ecology, with emphases on conservation, restoration, and ecosystem function. Professor Palmer’s Workshop group is spending this semester learning about the Global Warming Wildlife Survival Act. This bill “requires the Secretary of the Interior to establish a national strategy for assisting wildlife populations and habitats in adapting to the impact of global warming.” The bill aims to assist wildlife in adapting to climate change through research and creating new coping strategies for impacted species. The goals of the bill center around imperiled species; enhancing the monitoring of current and prospective programs, guiding restorative efforts with its newly established advisory board, establishing corridors for wildlife, reducing threats that are not related to climate, and improving the management wildlife.

The group also outlined the breadth of why this act is so critical: economic interest, ecological impact, and moral commitment. The group’s next steps before they present their work at the August 13 Final Briefings are to study habitat protection and restoration, the management of migration corridors, relocation of species, and the monitoring programs that are being developed and implemented through this Act.

Title VII of the Water Resources Development Act: Coastal Louisiana Ecosystem Restoration
Professor Heikkila

With research in the fields of policy analysis and institutional theory, renewable and natural resource management and policy, and water governance issues with focuses on comparative analyses of public institutions and water resource management, Professor Tanya Heikkila brings a sea of knowledge to her group’s water-centered Workshop. The focus of her Workshop this summer is to examine Title VII of the Water Resources and Development Act of 2007. This act calls for the restoration of the Coastal Louisiana Ecosystem, namely wetlands, swamps and marshes, with the aim of protecting the local populations from the threat of storm surge and land loss, as well as modifying the existing flood control structures and channels. These human-made altercations to the landscape have severely affected the coastal hydrology and deltaic cycle in the region, leaving the population dangerously exposed to storms. By restoring the ecosystem to a more natural state the group hopes to ultimately protect and preserve a unique and vital economic region.

The group’s work thus far has been to examine the Title VII legislation, identify the problem outlined in the legislation and discover and clearly convey the science behind the problem.

S 2355 The Climate Change Adaptation Act
Faculty Advisor: Steven Cohen

Professor Steve Cohen is an expert in New York City, politics and policy, public management, environmental policy and management, solid waste management, and citizen participation. He authors a blog on the New York Observer’s Green Channel and has written several authoritative texts on environmental management and policy. Professor Cohen’s Workshop group is studying The Climate Change Adaptation Act, examining this climate change legislation and the environmental problems addressed in it. The Workshop’s emphasis has been on the impact of climate change on coastlines. The cohorts have also focused on understanding why government action is needed and what plans the government has developed and implemented. The Act is designed to assess impacts of climate change, ensure that the U.S. is fully prepared for these impacts, and focus on adaptation to climate change. The Act presents a variety of important impacts ranging from ocean acidification to shifts in the hydrological cycle. The key environmental problems identified in the legislation range from those affecting the oceans and coast lines to the effects of severe weather and storms.

Because about 50% of Americans live within 50 miles of coastline, areas of heightened vulnerability to climate change, this Act hits close to home. While natural disasters are already common in coastal areas, climate change has increased the risks of these. Natural ecosystems have been severely affected: wetlands have shrunk and disappeared. But climate change in coastal regions also impacts human infrastructure like roads, bridges, and subways through flooding, scouring and salinity. Due to the magnitude of climate change impact, The Climate Change Adaptation Act was designed to assess and prepare for the impacts of climate change at a national level, provide funding for research and assessments, establish a Grant program to support Coastal States’ plans, and develop a National Strategic Plan for Climate Change Adaptation every five years. The Workshop’s next steps are to analyze the proposed solution and the science behind it and to predict and learn scientific issues and controversies that are related to the problem and its solutions.

S. 2728 Twenty-First Century Water Commission Act of 2008
Professor Kathleen Callahan

With over 35 years worth of experience with the Environmental Protection Agency in a career that has spanned many of the diverse sections and departments of the EPA, Professor Kathy Callahan brings a unique perspective in leading her Workshop. She served as Region 2 Deputy Regional Administrator for the EPA and her insight is invaluable to her team. Her group has spent the semester thus far learning about the bill to establish the Twenty-First Century Water Commission. This Act, sponsored by Senator Johnny Isakson, aims to study and develop recommendations for a comprehensive water strategy to address future water needs.

Water quantity and quality are of such concern because climate change causes droughts and flooding. Water is needed to support the four greatest human demands: electricity production, agricultural needs, industrial needs, and residential needs. The Workshop group has learned that seemingly unrelated social trends – baby-boomer retirement, relocation choices – are amplifying already problematic scenarios of climate change by increasing demand in dryer areas. Pollution can also increase in areas where flooding occurs intensified by larger, less frequent single-event rainfalls. Suburban expansion also impacts the quality and quantity of available water.

The bill proposes to establish a commission to develop a national water strategy that will address water quality and quantity issues the United States faces and will face over the next 50 years.  The commission’s purpose is to study and project future supply, demand of freshwater in the U.S., and produce a comprehensive water-use strategy. The group’s next steps are to conduct analysis and discussion of the Act, explore the science behind the proposed solutions, predict issues and controversies, and track the program’s success.

For more information on the MPA-ESP program, please contact Louise Rosen, Associate Director of the MPA-ESP Program and, at 212.854.3142 or via email at