Earth System Science for Public Policy Professionals – Why?

I’ve posted on LinkedIn, class by class (mostly) about the Fall 2023 class on “Earth Systems Science for Public Policy Professionals” that I taught at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs. Now that it’s over, stepping back a bit to think about the big picture. (Syllabus and links posts at the bottom, if you want to see it all in one place).

Where it started: as an effort to provide a *very* compressed tour of major topics in earth system science, with an emphasis on dynamics, interconnectedness, and spatial/temporal scales. How energy imbalances flux through air, water, land; how carbon, water, and nitrogen cycle through different parts of the planet; biodiversity as a matter of genes and ecosystems, not just species. Etc. I tried to provide a peek at the sometimes surprising (at least to people who largely study people, economics, politics) ways that the non-human environment around us works. Why? Well, because it’s different and sometimes at odds with the way that we’ve set up institutions to divide up resources, tasks, territory, etc.

In September 2023, I gave public policy students four reasons to take the time to learn a little about ESS.

  1. The dynamics open up new terrain for creative policy as well as institutional design.
  2. It will help you keep categories and metrics in perspective, as imperfect representations of underlying more complex realities.
  3. It will help you anticipate (and thus design policies to contain) side effects.
  4. It will help you assess (and re-assess) risks and priorities. 

How it went: I think we did all of that – and I still think those are valid reasons. But I’d add a fifth. It will help you be more humble in the face of what you don’t know. What nobody really knows. But what we can see is important and worth learning more about. Many of the papers we read covered the state and evolution of the science. The findings were new to students – but also in many cases new to the world, and explicitly contingent upon data and assumptions that were known to be incomplete. These were descriptions of phenomena that were real and ongoing regardless of what humans thought, believed, or knew – but also still a bit of a mystery.

Public policy, the institutions we design and grow, and we as a species in a time of environmental change need to acknowledge and adjust to living on the edge of imperfect, yet evolving knowledge. Small things for 2024.

Links to More:


Water Cycle; Biodiversity; Science-Policy-Agency; Air Pollution; Regional Climate Change; Earth’s Energy Imbalance;