Alumni Profile: Lauren Faber O’Connor
Lauren Faber O’Connor, a graduate of the first-ever class of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Climate and Society program, recently received the 2023 GSAS Dean’s Award for Distinguished Achievement. The award recognizes recipients for their profound impact on the environment. academia and the world in general. After graduating, Lauren worked for the British Embassy, California Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Defense Fund and most recently the City of Los Angeles as a sustainability officer.
What first attracted you to Columbia’s Climate and Society program?
I was thinking about graduate school during my senior year at Stanford University. I had studied Earth Systems with a concentration and a minor in economics, and I wanted to pursue this interdisciplinary study of climate change – so that I could learn more about the science, bring together the expertise behind the scientific explanation of climate change, everything by really immersing myself in the solutions. At that time, in 2004, it was very difficult to find a university that looked at climate change holistically and taught it in an interdisciplinary way. I felt like the academic community was struggling with the question, “What does interdisciplinary study look like?” »
I don’t even know how I discovered Climate and Society, but it really clicked. And I was so impressed with how quickly Columbia pulled out of multiple disciplines and gave students a holistic view of the matter. I was also very excited that this class was going to be split between domestic and international students.
And there were areas of rigor that I probably wouldn’t have pursued if they hadn’t been necessary, but I’m glad I did, like atmospheric and ocean dynamics and modeling. Even though these aren’t things I use every day, they give me the confidence to be able to engage authentically and credibly.
How has the program shaped your career path?
When I first started taking policy-related courses, I focused on energy and emissions reductions. My teacher was a practitioner who worked in Washington and had worked in Congress. I was submitting required research papers which mainly focused on policies coming out of the EU, and mainly from the UK. And she said, ‘Oh, you must be really interested in British politics. I had never really thought of it that way. At the time, the EU was in the lead, and within the EU, Britain was really in the lead. So I found myself focusing more and more on Britain. My teacher said I should meet the people from the British Embassy in Washington. “There’s a whole political team there working on energy issues and climate issues, and I’m going to introduce them to you,” she told me. I ended up working there for almost five years right out of grad school, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was just because my teacher paid attention to what I was doing in his class and thought, how can I help?
What was also valuable was the curation of the class and my classmates, developing this network. I am still in contact and I meet so many Climate and Society students from my very small class. We are in similar or adjacent areas, and we call on each other for help and assistance.
What was your main responsibilities as director of sustainable development in the mayor’s office?
Developing and implementing a sustainability agenda for a city is definitely where the rubber hits the road. It was my responsibility to develop a holistic sustainability plan for the second largest city in the country, which not only served as a traditional strict climate action plan, but also aimed to improve people’s daily experience. This extends to everything we touch – energy, water, transport, the built environment, city planning, the way people move, housing, food, waste , economic development, environmental justice. I had to come up with a plan where all of these things really fit together and engage the stakeholders. Then put the tools in place for all of our departments and community partners, while serving as a leader in our community of cities across the country and around the world.
I had the chance to work for a former Columbian, the mayor of Los Angeles (Eric Garcetti). He himself credits Columbia professors with influencing his passion for the issue of climate change. Working as a partner with someone who runs the city and sees it the way I see it was unique and special.
What was one of the accomplishments you are most proud of in LA?
One area where we really sought to create a model was the transition to renewable energy. We operate the largest municipal electric and water utility in the country. I set out to determine our path to a completely carbon-free network.
We are not part of the California grid, which is very relevant when determining how to operate with zero emission sources. I worked with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of the main national laboratories of the Department of Energy. We’ve developed a proposal with the city’s water and power department to do an in-depth, detailed study of what the transition to zero emissions looks like, with a grid as unique and complicated as Los Angeles. The Department of Energy would say that this type of study had never been done before. And it was done in partnership with an advisory group of two dozen stakeholders across the city, so it was really a user-driven study. The three-and-a-half-year study has shown that we can run our network on a totally zero-emissions system, and that it will be reliable and affordable. And we can do it 10 years earlier than we thought. This led the Mayor and City Council to raise our 10-year zero carbon goal to 2035, which was unprecedented across the country. The study became the model for a number of efforts the DOE (laboratories) is undertaking to apply this approach to other cities and countries.
What are you looking to do next?
When I look at the ecosystem around climate action now, I have never seen more preparation and will 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 available to them. Now is the time for the private sector to change the way it deploys dollars – away from fossil-fuelled operations and infrastructure, away from technologies and businesses that harm public health, and towards sustainability. I think my skills could really help deploy dollars effectively. Public dollars are flowing in unprecedented ways, it’s time for private dollars to flow. This is increasingly happening in project development and infrastructure, private equity and risk as new climate technologies are not just filling the gaps to reach net zero, but are actually transforming markets. I think there are some really exciting opportunities ahead.
It’s probably the first time in my career where it’s not about pulling teeth and convincing people that it’s time to go. It’s implementation, it’s deploying, it’s doing. And so when I think of a next step, it’s all about doing the actual work, getting results.