Elective Courses

Students in the MA in Climate and Society must take a minimum of four graduate course electives for a total of 12 credits. These electives can be taken at any of the graduate schools across the Columbia campus provided they allow cross-registration. Courses with course codes of 4000 and above are graduate level courses. 

Below is a list of Climate and Society electives. It should be noted that the following electives are not offered every semester or academic year, nor is this a comprehensive list of electives open to Climate and Society students. Students should check Vergil, Columbia's course directory, for courses being offered each term.

A Sample of Elective Courses

Air pollution is a major global public health crisis, contributing up to 4.9 million premature deaths per year around the world. Air pollution is the fifth leading risk factor for all mortality, and on average reduces life span by 20 months worldwide, rivaling the global impact of cigarette smoking. The majority of this air pollution health burden occurs in the Global South, a term coined to include Africa, Latin America, and developing Asia, including the Middle East. Despite relatively cleaner air in the Global North, around 131,000 premature deaths were attributed to air pollution in the United States in 2015. While effective policies and technologies have brought about an average decrease in pollution levels in the Global North (including the United States), there remains an unjust and unequal disparity in air pollution exposure in less affluent, nonwhite communities in the United States and other wealthy countries.

This course is intended as an elective on air pollution and environmental justice. Air pollution is a major public health crisis and also a justice issue, as the poor and non-white suffer the most severe consequences of poor air quality both in the US and abroad. We will explore historical and modern air pollution episodes from the lens of environmental justice. We will also explore efforts to address/solve air pollution injustices using community-based participatory research, sensor networks, and other approaches. We will explore the interconnectedness of climate justice and air quality.

Extreme climate and weather events can lead to cascading failures that can spread within and across socio-environmental systems and sectors, often disproportionally affecting underserved communities. Climate change is projected to lead to more frequent and more severe extreme weather events amplifying the likelihood of Complex Climate Risks through multivariate, concurrent and sequential climate extremes affecting societal systems (e.g., food, health, supply chains, finance) and critical infrastructure (e.g., water, energy, communication, transportation) in complicated ways that are challenging to anticipate and prepare for. This course will provide an  introduction to Complex Climate Risks by discussing recent frameworks developed to address them under current and future climate conditions. This course will provide the students with a thorough understanding of Complex Climate Risks, the typology of different compounding hazards and statistical approaches bridging the physical and societal spheres for a more integral climate risk assessment. Guided by recent literature quantitative and qualitative frameworks that aim at assessing current and future climate risks to turn them into actionable information for hazard prevention and climate adaptation are discussed. The course will end with a discussion about whether the challenges to managing complex climate risk relate to challenges in assessing them, or whether existing forms of management and governance need to be reconsidered.

African and African Diasporic peoples have been central to the creation and transformation of global ecologies and landscapes. As the birthplace of humankind, the African continent features the longest archaeological record in the world, with abundant, yet often underrepresented, material and historical evidence for remarkable Indigenous African innovations in the areas of technology, food production, and resource and land use. This course specifically examines Black ecologies preceding and then radically transformed by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, the enslavement of millions of Africans and their forced translocation to the Americas and Caribbean precipitated ecological transformations on all sides of the Atlantic, as African peoples, knowledge, resources and ecological inheritances were appropriated by the European mercantile system. Enslaved Africans transformed American landscapes via extractive industries of plantations and mines and suffered the emergence of toxic landscapes and disease alongside Native American communities. Africans also recreated African ecologies as they created livelihoods and landscapes of resistance and freedom in the Americas. The legacies of the Atlantic Era maintain a persistent dynamic in which African and African Diasporic communities experience disproportionate burdens of environmental injustice today. The concept of Black ecologies reflects the marginality, systemic racism and dispossession experienced by Black peoples and their landscapes. Black ecologies also allow us to understand African and African Diasporic ecological innovations, resistance and resilience, and the pathways to future sustainability and justice they promise.

Disaster management is a continuum that is affected by decisions, investments and dynamics that occur before, during and after disasters. The issue of equity in disaster management is emerging from an abundance of evidence that shows that societal inequities often translate into inequitable outcomes and disproportionate impacts from disasters. Community engagement strategies are often touted as a solution to the inequities, but many aspects of community participation are complex, with additional effort and investments required for working with vulnerable and marginalized communities. Further, power dynamics between disaster experts and vulnerable communities may bias approaches to disaster management as well as representation within relevant power structures. This seminar is designed to provide an introduction to some of the variables that impact vulnerability and inequity in disaster management, ultimately leading to inequitable outcomes. It also provides an overview of current and emerging strategies in community engagement designed to foster a “whole of community” approach to disaster management.

This course presents decision science to students, showing it to be a source of concepts and techniques to promote more extensive and effective climate action. It emphasizes the relevance of decision science to students who are planning professional careers in climate-focused organizations and sectors, while also being of value to students who plan future studies in academic and professional programs. As is widely recognized, there has been insufficient progress towards the goals of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at safe levels and of adapting to existing and projected climate impacts. Understanding how individuals and organizations make decisions is a key step to reducing this gap. Decision science can help design resources (finance, regulation, governance, information and communications) in ways that promote action. This course familiarizes students with central concepts and methods of decision science. The modules of the course focus on specific concepts and on techniques linked to them, drawing on concrete examples from climate-relevant domains such as disaster risk reduction, health, energy, water and food security.  The readings include studies which assess the effectiveness of specific techniques to support climate decisions. The course covers a range of different approaches. It shows that each of these can be useful to address obstacles to effective decision-making, but there is no silver bullet. Instead, the course provides students with means to select the decision techniques that are effective to address specific issues in specific contexts.

This course surveys the legal and policy mechanisms, and political and social forces, that can be utilized to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases and to adapt to a warming planet. We will start with a brief introduction to the kinds of policy challenges that climate change poses to international and domestic legal regimes.  The course will then consider the international, federal, state, and local legal regimes applicable to climate change, with an emphasis on U.S. law and policy.

In particular, the course will cover the negotiation, implementation, and current status of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord, the Paris Agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact, and the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan. The focus will then turn to the past and proposed actions of the U.S. Congress, the executive branch, and the courts, as well as regional, state, and municipal efforts. The Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act will receive special attention, as will the authority of an administration to reverse prior policy. We will examine efforts in the U.S. and other countries to use the courts to force action on climate change.

We will evaluate the various policy and legal tools that are available to address climate change, including cap-and-trade schemes; command-and-control regulation; litigation; and securities disclosures. Implications for international human rights, environmental justice, and international and intergenerational equity will be discussed. The course will conclude with an examination of proposals for carbon capture, sequestration, and geoengineering.

As climate related disasters continue to grow, the impacts of climate change and sustainable development on disaster threats and vulnerabilities are increasingly pronounced. Many of those in the field of disaster management are having to contend with increasing frequency and severity of disasters. Concurrently, disaster risk reduction and response frameworks are struggling to meet the challenge of 21st century disasters. At the same time, the field of disaster research is generating new insights into how the built environment, social structures, and ecological dynamics are intersecting to set the stage for disaster vulnerability, and thus can be better engineered for resilience. As this field continues to evolve, many who many not necessarily identify as disaster managers are also increasingly involved in disaster management in some capacity. With this, the dynamics of disaster risk reduction and disaster management are essential in working with communities and negotiating development activities in ways that are inclusive of a broad range of values, goals and incentive structures.

The causes and impacts of climate change play out very unevenly and inequitably.  Across the world, marginalized communities that have historically and geographically contributed the least are the most disproportionately impacted. In the United States, the consequences of historical land use decisions shape the racialized vulnerability to climate change that many communities are experiencing today, as well as the distribution of benefits from investments in green and resilient infrastructure.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. Eliminating inequities in climate risk requires understanding the social, economic, and political factors and processes that contribute to uneven vulnerability and shape adaptive capacity for historically marginalized communities. This course explores these issues framed by the concept of climate justice to better explain how and why the situation is what it is presently.

In this course, we will bring together scholarship, social science data, policy innovations, literature, and activism around the interacting themes of climate change and social justice.  Basic principles, theories, and lessons from scholars and practitioners, will all be combined to examine how climate change shapes society, and how social justice movements shape our efforts to address these grand challenges of the 21st Century.

This course aims to provide students with an understanding of the disproportionate impacts of climate change at both local and global scales, as well as the varying conceptions of climate justice that have emerged as climate change unfolds. In addition, the course explores existing tools and frameworks for evaluating environmental and climate justice with an emphasis on anti-racism as well as quantitative approaches for informing and characterizing equitable climate action. Case studies and group assignments provide students with real-world context and hands-on experience in applying the knowledge (e.g., systems thinking and analysis) gained from in-class lectures and readings. Guest lectures by experts in academia, as well as frontline communities, also serve to ground course topics in reality and allow students to engage with practitioners seeking to advance environmental and climate justice through their various professions.

It is widely accepted that climate factors can and do affect human mobility, though the degree of their influence varies depending on local contexts. In the case of population displacement, rapid onset climate extremes have a relatively direct impact on mobility, and for longer-term migration climate factors also have been shown to play a role, often mediated by more direct drivers. There is a growing recognition that underlying institutional and structural factors (i.e., root causes) shape the way the climate stressors impact local migration decision-making, and that cultural proclivities and inequitable access to resources, markets, and political power structures often set the stage for ensuing migration flows (domestic and international). This interdisciplinary course focuses on the social, demographic, economic, political, environmental and climatic factors that shape human mobility, while addressing the legal categories of international mobility (e.g., migrant versus refugee). We explore underlying drivers of the various types of migration – from forced to voluntary and those forms in between – in order to better understand current and future trends. The course brings to the fore equity, climate justice, and human rights considerations, as well as the mental health dimensions of climate displacement and migration.

This graduate-level course provides an overview of current and future anthropogenic climate change impacts on food systems and vice versa. The first half of the course will explore the relationship between climate change impacts across food systems and how we grow, transport, process, and consume food impact climate and environmental change. The second half of the course will explore mitigation and adaptation measures across food systems. Throughout the course, we will undertake deep-dive case studies to provide local context to this complex relationship between climate change and food.  

Asia accounts for 60% of the world population while producing more than 30% of the global GDP. The region is also known for its hot spots of greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution, forest degradation, and biodiversity loss, all of which invite large-scale disasters and climate change. The region has special vulnerabilities, including extensive coastal populations susceptible to rising sea levels, large river basins prone to flooding, and many workers in climate-sensitive sectors, such as agriculture and tourism. 

Nonetheless, prioritizing the environmental agenda is a challenge, especially in countries still suffering from domestic poverty and inequality. It is estimated that China alone has more than 100 million people living under $1 a day. It is not surprising, therefore, that governments place emphasis on economic development and infrastructure building at the expense of the environment. In this context, what role can relevant stakeholders, such as foreign donors, media, and civil society organizations/NGOs play in mainstreaming the climate agenda in local contexts where economic development or other political concerns are urgently sought after?

By delving deep into the context of societies in Asia, we explore the potential of existing efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change and the dilemmas that decision-makers are facing. By dividing the topics into problems, perceptions, and solutions, we try to grasp how politics matter in climate change policy and what we can do about it.  Greater emphasis will be placed on the use and conservation of natural resources (such as forests, minerals, water, and land) where “politics” affect the direction of climate mitigation and adaptation.

The purpose of this course is to prepare those entering the climate policy and practice workforce for addressing these challenges and solutions by providing an overview of the fields of economic and housing recovery within the context of climate change and climate driven disasters.

Effective climate adaptation requires the wise application of climate information to decision making on an everyday basis. Many decisions in society are at local scales, and regional climate information considered at appropriate scales and in appropriate forms co-developed by scientists, forecast providers and users is central to the concept of climate services. Students will build an understanding of the dynamics of climate variability and change at regional and local scales, along with the sources of modern climate information used to help manage climate-related risks and adapt to climate change. This includes hands-on Climate Data Analysis and proactive Risk Analysis using historical climate data, real-time monitoring, climate forecasts, and climate change projections. 

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, the international community vowed to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible,” and to achieve “rapid emissions reductions thereafter.” Despite that, however, global emissions continue to increase. The lack of progress has spurred interest in the possibility of removing greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere. Modelling by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that atmospheric greenhouse gas removal (GHGR) could help to combat climate change in three ways. First, GHGR could be used to reduce net emissions in the short-term, while countries are in the process of decarbonizing. Second, GHGR could be used to offset residual emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors (e.g., aviation) and thus achieve net-zero emissions. Third, in the longer-term, GHGR could be used to achieve net-negative emissions if deployed at levels exceeding residual emissions.

Scientists have proposed a variety of GHGR techniques, but questions remain about their efficacy, benefits, and risks. Technical feasibility is not the only consideration as large-scale deployment of GHGR could raise a host of social, ethical, and governance issues. This course will explore possible technique for large-scale GHGR. We will discuss the feasibility of deploying different techniques, with a particular focus on the ethical, social, and governance issues that large-scale deployment could raise. We will also consider strategies for advancing just and equitable deployment and explore the role of different actors (e.g., governments, the private sector, and civil society) in ensuring that occurs.

This course explores the relationship between corporations, society, and the natural environment. Specifically, it examines the ways in which governments, (for-profit and non-profit) organizations, and investors (fail to) have positive impact and manage issues where the pursuit of private goals is deemed inconsistent with the public interest.

This class is designed to equip students with the most effective means of communicating about climate change for various types of audiences in the context of the current media landscape. After learning key foundational concepts of communications; understanding different types of media, audiences, messengers, and framing; and developing one’s own theory of change to structure strategic communications narratives, students will produce their own communications materials that aim to animate or persuade people into taking various types of climate action.

“Toward Climate Resilience and Justice: Caribbean Basin is a (3) credit elective course offered in the Columbia Climate School Masters of Climate and Society Program. Taught in a collaborative format with GSAPP’s Water Urbanism Design (UD) Studio, this course will explore climate justice and action through the intersections of urban planning, design, and policy in support of communities and ecologies on the frontlines of the climate crisis.