New Columbia Climate Center Mobilizes University's Expertise on Climate Science and Policy

April 1, 2009Bookmark and Share
Jeffrey Sachs and Ted Turner
Jeffrey Sachs and Ted Turner discuss "Meeting the Climate Challenge."
(Watch the webcast here.)
Image credit: David Wentworth / Columbia University
The University officially launched the Columbia Climate Center at a Mar. 31 event in Low Library Rotunda that included University President Lee C. Bollinger, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs, businessman and philanthropist Ted Turner and a number of leading experts in climate science from in and outside Columbia.
 
“Today marks a high point in Columbia’s longstanding leadership in climate research,” said Bollinger in his opening remarks, at the launch. “Our researchers have played key roles in expanding our understanding of climate change and its impact on our world, our health, our communities and right here at the University. This is an example of what great research universities should do in bringing together scholars across academic disciplines to create new knowledge and generate ideas that make a difference in the world.”
 
The new center is part of Columbia’s Earth Institute and will bring together scientists and engineers, public health and foreign policy specialists, economists and sociologists, and legal and business experts from some 20 schools, centers and academic departments across three campuses. Building on the University’s long history of research and education in earth and environmental sciences, its goal is to create an interdisciplinary hub for Columbia’s diverse expertise to advance scientific knowledge on climate change and develop policy solutions to real-world problems.
 
Robert Orr
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Robert Orr
Image credit: David Wentworth / Columbia University
Robert Orr, the United Nations assistant secretary-general for strategic planning and the principal policy advisor to the Secretary-General on climate change, called Columbia a “key leader in the world on the question of climate change” and described the new center as a “sign of hope” and recognition that an interdisciplinary approach is required to tackle the challenges of climate change. “This cannot be solved by any group of experts in any specific area.”
 
He was followed by Sachs, who emphasized the seriousness of climate change. “We need to help the world to appreciate that the science is deep and rich and that the uncertainties of the science are not measures of comfort,” he said. “They’re measures of deep risk for the world as well and should be taken seriously.”
 
The center will work to influence policymakers and educate the general public. The center’s director is Peter Schlosser, Vinton Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science and Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. He is also the associate director of the Earth Institute.
 
Only a few years ago, Schlosser said, there was debate at the highest levels as to whether global warming existed. Now, he said, as more people accept the idea that climate change is a problem, “science and academia has to adjust to that shift and pay more attention to solutions without giving up on the excellence of basic science that leads to the solid understanding of what we’re dealing with.”
 
To illustrate the breadth of the Climate Center’s work, experts delivered presentations on a diverse set of topics related to climate issues. Patrick Kinney, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, for example, discussed the human factor, such as how climate change can interact with malnutrition and water shortages, affecting migration patterns and conflicts between countries. Sabine Marx, associate director of the University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, spoke of how people understand climate information and then make individual and group decisions about such issues. Another Columbia expert who spoke at the event was Walter Baethgen, director of the Program for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, located at Columbia's Lamont campus in Palisades, New York.
 
As part of the event, Sachs also interviewed Turner, the founder of CNN and philanthropist who focuses on issues like the environment, nuclear disarmament and population.
 
Turner’s U.N. Foundation, established 11 years ago, works with the Earth Institute on several projects on the environment and on malaria control. He credited Columbia for its work to advance environmental research and awareness at a time when “humanity needs all the help it could get.” With the launch of the new center, he added, the University is taking a stand on climate change and “saying ‘we could help and we are going to help to the best of our ability.’”
 
Asked what needs to be done for climate change, Turner quipped, “We just have to stop doing the dumb things and start doing the smart things.” More seriously, he added that “we are essentially at the apex of human civilization now” and we have the ability to “make [this world] whatever we want, a heaven or hell.”
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