Faculty Profile: Ben Cook

by |March 11, 2013

M.S. in Sustainability Management Professor Ben Cook

M.S. in Sustainability Management (MSSM) professor Benjamin Cook is an Adjunct Research Scientist at the Earth Institute’s Lamont-Dougherty Earth Observatory. In addition to his position at Lamont, Ben also serves as a Research Physical Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York where he researches drought, hydroclimate, and interactions between the land surface and climate system. Ben holds a BS degree in Environmental and Forest Biology from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and an MSc and Ph.D. in Environmental Science from the University of Virginia. This semester, Ben is teaching The Earth’s Climate System.

1. Why did you choose to teach at Columbia in the MSSM program?

First, I really enjoy teaching and interacting with students in a classroom setting. Second, I find that teaching actually makes me a better researcher by forcing me to think about (and explain) things that I learned long ago and usually just take for granted.

2. What is new in your area of expertise, drought dynamics?

This last year, the United States experienced the single most widespread drought since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. There is ongoing and rapid research going on now to try to understand what caused this drought, if there is a human fingerprint, and if this is the sort of event we can expect to see in a warmer world.

3. What course do you teach and why do you think that it is important to the field of sustainability?

I teach “The Earth’s Climate System”, an introductory course designed to give people a basic but fundamental (and quantitative) understanding of the Earth’s climate system. Since much of sustainability is concerned with either the mitigation of, or adaptation to, global warming and climate change, this class provides an important foundation for the physical science.

4. What is your favorite part of your job as a professor?

I love it when students get really engaged in the material and ask interesting questions.

5. What do you think that your students need to know about sustainability that they are not learning already in the classroom?

I think that my students need to understand that with any sustainability policy, there will be multiple stakeholders with their own interests, biases, and needs. Balancing the needs of all these stakeholders and getting a satisfactory outcome is no easy task, and will require a nuanced physical and social science knowledge base. In the class I teach, we focus on developing a solid understanding of the basic physical laws that govern our climate system, and how to connect these laws to the changes humans are making via greenhouse gases, land use, and other  factors.

6. What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the MS in Sustainability Management program has to offer its students?

The MSSM program provides its students with a foundation of knowledge in the physical sciences. This is a necessity that many people working in business, NGOs, and government lack.

7. What advice would you give to your sustainability management students who are not already working in the field of sustainability?

Know the science of your problem! Ultimately, any management or policy plan will have to balance multiple needs and interests, but any plan should be informed as much as possible by our best, most up to date understanding of the underlying science.

8. What kind of research are you doing now related to drought?

We are working hard to understand what caused the 2012 drought, and how different it was compared to other droughts over the last 1000 years.

The Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM) program, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The M.S. in Sustainability Management program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Please visit our website to learn more about the program.

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