Sir Alex Halliday, PhD

Designing a New School: Climate School Planners See CUIMC as Model

Sir Alex Halliday, PhD, professor of earth and environmental sciences and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, was asked last year to lead the design process for the Climate School at Columbia University, a new school announced in July following the recommendations of a University-wide task force on climate change. He spoke with the CUIMC Newsroom about the urgency of the school given the intersection of climate and health.

Halliday, who joined Columbia in 2018 following a decade at the University of Oxford, during which time he served as dean of science and engineering, described the design process and how the medical center—what he calls “perhaps the best model we have for this new school”—will be crucial to the University’s efforts to combat climate change. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Newsroom: What is the mission and significance of this new school?

Halliday: The Climate School is a new idea with massive engagement from the University. It’s the result of a task force of about 20 leaders from around the university, from all different sectors, who understood the importance of the challenge. It now involves taking the resources we already have at Columbia, which are huge, and building upon them to create something that is even more effective in tackling the climate crisis.

Building this school is a way of weaponizing the University and giving it what it needs to attack this problem with everything we can bring to bear. It’s no longer an academic issue to sort out climate change; it’s not something that we can just plan into the next 200 years of being a great university. There is an urgency about it, and a gravity about it, that demands we work very quickly with commitment and passion and absolute seriousness of attention.

If we just develop brilliant education programs, if we just graduate a whole lot of great students, if we just get many outstanding Nature papers published—if we just do those things for five or 10 years, we will look back and realize we have failed.

That’s why we’re calling the Climate School a school like no other. It’s being designed not just to develop an academic discipline and academic thinking, but to tackle a major challenge that requires a level of urgency and intensity that befits the magnitude of the challenge ahead of us. To do that, we need to leverage the entire university community and its diverse expertise.

You’ve said that one of Columbia’s greatest strengths is that it’s among the best places in the world for interdisciplinary work. How do you envision the medical center and other areas of the university contributing to the work of the Climate School?

Climate change is incredibly difficult as a problem. It’s not just a question of understanding the climate system or of developing innovative technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere or of switching to renewables. Those are all massive challenges in and of themselves. Climate change as a whole is such a wicked problem because it’s going to be very difficult to get society to change, to stop driving the planet further into a very, very dangerous condition.

How do you transition society in such a major way? How do you actually get hearts and minds behind an existential threat that’s on your doorstep right now—a threat that if you wait 10 more years to act, it will be too late? You need some clever thinking by some really bright people, and you get those in universities. You need people who cover a wide range of different subjects—including people who understand the physical impact on human lives—to be part of the solution.

This brings us to the medical sciences. There are so many considerations when we think about how people will behave differently in a different world with a different climate. We want to hear from our experts about the kinds of questions we can then work to answer. For example, are there ways in which the changes in climate will actually start to affect the way your body behaves or affect your metabolism? To what extent will certain illnesses change in response to a changing climate? Infectious diseases are going to be, without question, massively impacted by climate change, because they're going to migrate. Are we going to have to deal with malaria in southern Europe in the not too distant future? 

There are so many questions for us to address. Medical science really is massively important to this issue and will continue to be as the school takes shape.

You said that the Climate School will be a school like no other. How is the medical center providing a model for this new school?

The school we're building is really rather like a medical school for treating a sick planet. I think there's some striking analogies with the way the medical center operates with its different parts—be it medicine, dentistry, nursing, or public health. They all collaborate. They all go beyond scientific discovery and education. They have a very practical component that is about working with society. Clinicians do research and see patients. I imagine faculty with the Climate School will provide their services and expertise directly to communities, businesses, and government bodies, as well as the wider general public, locally and globally.  

As the leader of the Climate School design, you are in the process of defining programming, setting goals, and building engagement. What steps can CUIMC employees and students take right now to participate in the Climate School design process?

The single most important thing that people in the medical center can do, whether they are faculty, staff, or students, is to let us know their ideas. We’re open for ideas, and we're open for discussion. The roundtable discussions, whether the digital engagement circle or the Climate Cafe, are designed to provide a vehicle for people to connect and let us know what they think. Things are starting to ramp up quite fiercely as this process progresses, so we will be communicating with regular updates.

We really do want our partners at the medical school to participate. Again, the medical center is to me the closest analogy I can think of in terms of what we need to build for the climate crisis. We want our school to be quite nimble, and responsive, and able to change over time. Some of those core tenets we're going to copy from the medical center, especially when we’re thinking of how we are going to connect with communities and funding sources and how we are going to actually provide real service to people and society more broadly.

We haven’t done anything like this at Columbia for a very long time, and it’s going to be an especially complex process as we try to address a very complicated problem. We want to hear and learn from you.