About the alumni: Lauren Faber O’Connor
Lauren Faber O’Connor, a first-class graduate of the Climate and Society Program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, was recently awarded the 2023 GSAS Dean Award for Outstanding Achievement. The award is given to recipients for their profound impact on academia and the world at large. After graduating, Lauren worked for the British Embassy, the California Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Defense Fund, and most recently for the City of Los Angeles as a Sustainability Officer.
What first drew you to the Climate and Society Program in Colombia?
I was thinking about grad school my senior year of college at Stanford. I studied Earth Systems with a concentration and a minor in Economics, and I wanted to continue that interdisciplinary study of climate change—to be able to learn about the science, gather the expertise behind the scientific explanation of climate change, while really immersing myself in the solutions. At that time, 2004, it was very difficult to find a university that looked at climate change holistically and taught it in an interdisciplinary way. My sense was that the academic community was grappling with the question, “What does interdisciplinary study look like?”
I don’t even know how I got to know the climate and society, but I really clicked. I was very impressed with how quickly Columbia pulled in multiple disciplines, and provided students with a comprehensive view of the issue. I was really excited that this class will be divided between both domestic and international students.
And there were rigorous areas that I wouldn’t have pursued if I didn’t need to, but I’m glad I did – like atmospheric and ocean dynamics and modeling. Although they are not things I use every day, they give me the confidence to be able to share authentically and reliably.
How has the program shaped your career path?
When I started taking policy classes, I focused on cutting energy and emissions. My teacher was a practitioner who worked in Washington and worked in Congress. I was submitting required papers that were mostly focused on policies emanating from the European Union, mostly from the UK. And she said, “Oh, you must be really interested in British politics.” I never thought of it that way. At that time, the European Union was the leader, and within the European Union, Great Britain was already leading. So I found myself focusing more and more on Britain. My teacher said I should meet people at the British Embassy in Washington. “There’s a whole policy team working on energy and climate issues,” she told me, “and I’m going to introduce you.” I ended up working there for about five years after graduating from school, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was only because my teacher took an interest in what I was doing in her class, and I thought, How can I help?
What was also valuable was the organization of the class and my classmates, and the development of that network. I still keep in contact with and cross paths with many of the Climate & Society students from my junior class. We are in similar or contiguous domains, and we call out to each other for help.
What was it Your main responsibilities as the Chief Sustainability Officer in the Mayor’s Office?
Developing and implementing a sustainability program for a city is certainly where the rubber hits the road. It was my responsibility to develop a comprehensive sustainability plan for the country’s second largest city that not only served as the kind of traditional tough climate action plan, but also looked at improving people’s everyday experience. That runs through everything we touch – energy, water, transportation, the built environment, the way a city is planned, how people move about, housing, food, waste, economic development, and environmental justice. I had to come up with a plan where all of these things really cohesive and involve the stakeholders. And then actually, put the tools in place for all of our departments and community partners, while also acting as a leader in our community of cities across the country and the world.
I was fortunate enough to work for a Columbia University graduate – the Mayor of Los Angeles (Eric Garcetti). He himself credits Columbia University professors with influencing his passion for the cause of climate change. To work as a partner with someone who drives the city and sees it the way I see it was something very unique and special.
What is one of your proudest accomplishments in Los Angeles?
One area where we’ve really sought to model is the transition to renewable energy. We operate the largest municipal electricity and water utility in the country. I set out to chart our way to a completely carbon-neutral grid.
We are not part of the California Grid, which is very important when it comes to knowing how to work on zero emissions sources. I worked with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of the leading national laboratories in the Department of Energy. We have put together a proposal with the city’s Department of Water and Power to conduct a detailed and comprehensive study of what the transition to all zero emissions looks like, with a network as unique and complex as the one in Los Angeles. The DOE would say that this type of study has not been done before. And it was done in partnership with an advisory group of two dozen stakeholders across town, so it was really a user-directed study. A three-and-a-half year study showed that we could run our network on a completely zero emissions system, and it would be reliable and affordable. And we can do it 10 years earlier than we thought we could. This prompted the mayor and city council to raise our zero-carbon goal by 10 years to 2035, which is unprecedented across the country. The study has become a model for a number of DOE (laboratory) efforts to bring this approach to other cities and countries.
What would you like to do next?
When I look at the ecosystem around climate action now, I’ve never seen more willingness and desire from the private sector. So how can we help make it authentic and effective? I see investors trying to be more strategic and creative, and starting to understand the economic opportunities that are in front of them. It is time for the private sector to change the way it uses dollars – away from fossil processes and infrastructure, away from technologies and businesses that harm public health, and toward sustainability. I feel like my skills can really help distribute dollars in efficient ways. Public dollars are flowing in unprecedented ways, it is time for private dollars to flow. This is happening more and more in enterprise development, infrastructure, private equity, and venturing into new climate technology to not only fill the gaps in getting to net zero, but actually transform markets. I think there are some really exciting opportunities ahead.
This is probably the first time in my career where it wasn’t about pulling teeth and convincing people it was time. It’s an app, it’s publishing, it’s just that. And so when I think about the next step, it’s all in the name of getting the actual work done — getting the results.