May 30, 2014

Steven Cohen is a professor in the practice of public affairs at SIPA and director of the MPA program in environmental science and policy. Among other positions he is also the executive director of the Earth Institute.

Since joining SIPA as an assistant professor in 1981, Cohen has taught courses in public management, policy analysis, environmental policy, management innovation, and sustainability management. He also has served as associate dean for faculty and curriculum, as vice dean, and as director of the MPA program.

The second edition of his book Understanding Environmental Policy has just been released by Columbia University Press. He recently spoke to SIPA News about the book and about teaching environmental policy at SIPA.

How did this book come about?

The original book—the first edition—grew out of a lecture I gave in Bogota about 15 years ago. Publishers would come to me from time to time to discuss book ideas, and I told Columbia Press’s science editor, Patrick Fitzgerald, that I had given a talk that I thought I could turn into a book. And he encouraged me.

One of the things that has always struck me about environmental policy is that it’s very interdisciplinary. It incorporates law, politics, environmental science, engineering, and more. At the same time, most of the experts only know one field: economists consider the environmental problem one of market failure and engineers think of environmental protection as an issue related to pollution-control technology. I wanted to develop a framework that explicitly looked at all the factors I considered important to environmental policy—the underlying values, science and technology, economics, public policy and management.

I actually borrowed a technique that [political scientist] Graham Allison used in a book about the Cuban missile crisis. What Allison did was view the same set of facts through a series of what he called “conceptual lenses” and interpret the same facts using the different lenses. I tried to do same thing with different environmental issues through the analysis of case studies.

What distinguishes the second edition from the first? Is it a substantial revision?

The first edition established the framework that I apply to various environmental issues. The idea is that the framework helps [the reader] understand environmental problems from different perspectives, and different aspects of the framework shed more light on particular issues.

In the first edition, I examined a series of issues including New York City’s handling of garbage; underground storage tanks and leaks; cleaning up toxic waste sites; and climate change. In the second edition I’ve revised material dealing with climate change and replaced the other issues with chapters on congestion pricing, electronic waste, and fracking. It’s the same framework applied to different issues, and the new or revised cases in the second edition let me see if the framework held up.

How has studying the environment changed over time?

The environment as an issue has evolved. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries [in the United States], it was Teddy Roosevelt preserving the west, preserving wild areas, and creating national parks. In the 1960s and ’70s it became an issue of public health. People like Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson talked about the spread of toxics through the ecosphere. By the time I got to the EPA in the late 1970s the health aspects of the environment were starting to dominate. And in the last decade, the field of economic development and the environment seem to have combined; we talk about sustainability and protecting the environment because it’s the source of our [collective] wealth.

You can look at [former New York City mayor] Mike Bloomberg as an illustration of this. He’s didn’t enter office as an environmentalist. But in the middle of his first term, his planners said the city will gain a million people by 2030. He quickly understood the impact of that growth on our quality of life and insightfully asked: How does that kind of growth affect the city’s use of energy and water? How will it affect traffic? So Bloomberg developed PlaNYC 2030 [which took these factors into consideration]. A lot of environmental policy is about preserving scarce resources, and in New York City one of the scarcest resources is surface space on streets south of 59th Street.

The field has really morphed over the years. I use the word environment and sustainability almost interchangeably now. We have to preserve the planet because we’re all biological creatures. You can’t build a gated community to keep out bad air.

What do see as the audience for the book?

There are two audiences. On the academic side, it’s a contribution to the advancement of knowledge. And it’s also marketed as a textbook. I consider it a primer, and I think it’s used that way around the country. The framework is sophisticated but it’s written in a way that’s accessible.

You’re one of SIPA’s longest serving faculty members. How has the School changed over the course of your tenure?

I’ve been at Columbia for over 30 years. When I became SIPA’s associate dean of curriculum in 1987 we had no faculty and 400 students. [Ed.: SIPA used to be a unit of the Arts and Sciences and did not have its own faculty.] When I left the dean’s office in 2001 we had a real faculty and over 1,000 students. It’s indescribably different today.

I’ve had a lot of opportunities at SIPA. In 1985 I became the second director of the MPA program, which was created in 1977. I started a workshop program that evolved into capstones; I started the public management course; I started the environmental policy concentration in late 1980s. It’s a very interesting place, and I have a lot of affection for it—I love the students and what the school stands for.

You’re also known outside of school, in part, through your columns for the Huffington Post. Has that helped you expand your audience?

I used to write for the New York Observer, they had green pages [devoted to environmental issues]. At some point they ended those pages and the Earth Institute communications folks suggested I move to the Huffington Post.

Peter Kaplan [who edited the Observer for many years and died in November 2013] in a meeting once taught me how to write a column. He called it “writing off of the news.” Just read the newspaper, and ask yourself, “What’s going on that I have something to comment on?” The world is an endless source of inspiration, you just have to run with it.

I got in the habit of writing every week; it’s easy to do once you get in the habit. And the Earth Institute distributes it to an e- mail list of 3,000 or 4,000 people.

It’s an interesting medium. It’s informal, and you’re not fact-checked. Of course, you still have the responsibility to avoid saying things that are untrue, plus you have an academic reputation to consider.

I try to write on topics people are interested in. Public education is part of the responsibility of the university—there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Part of our job is to educate our students, our field, and the public.

— interview conducted May 22, 2014