New Center for Climate and Life to Bring Latest Science to Business and Finance Worlds

November 18, 2015
 Peter deMenocal, oceanographer, Columbia professor of earth and environmental sciences

Peter deMenocal, founding director of The Center for Climate and Life. Photo by Eileen Barroso.

The Center for Climate and Life, a new research initiative based at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will focus on how climate change affects our access to such basic resources as food, water, shelter and energy.

“Climate is changing faster than our ability to keep pace,” said the center’s founding director Peter deMenocal, an oceanographer and professor of earth and environmental sciences. “At a time of decreasing federal support for this basic research, we will mobilize our considerable talent to generate the knowledge we need, and to put it to use in the marketplace. The idea is to change the way we do and fund climate science.”

Federal funding for research has been declining for the last two decades, “just when we need it the most,” he said. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, federal spending for research and development declined from 5.5 percent to 3.4 percent between 1990 and 2015. Funding for climate research has been subject to larger, targeted cuts in recent annual budgets. Columbia is providing $3.1 million in funding for the center’s first five years.

Planned research at the new center includes studies of climate-related changes in crop yields and grain prices, changes in fresh water access, ocean acidification and marine food webs, and understanding rates of sea level rise and coastal infrastructure. “The advantage of this model is that we can target key issues that matter to people and generate results quickly,” deMenocal said. A goal of the new center is to transfer emerging scientific knowledge to global business and finance institutions.

Columbia is a recognized global leader in climate science, with more than a hundred researchers on its Lamont-Doherty and NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies campuses. Lamont, located in Palisades, N.Y., and housed within the University’s renowned Earth Institute, received $57 million in government research funding during the last fiscal year.

“Our new Center for Climate and Life is a critical next step in applying interdisciplinary environmental scholarship to the social and finance sectors,” says G. Michael Purdy, executive vice president for research, a marine geophysicist and professor of earth and environmental sciences. “The center complements Columbia’s existing strengths in the environmental sciences and policy by highlighting ways that interventions from the business and finance communities can powerfully improve our current state of human sustainability.”

The Center has attracted support from private donors and is establishing partnerships with corporate and financial institutions. University President Lee C. Bollinger plans to include the Center for Climate and Life and other climate initiatives in the upcoming University capital campaign.

Several corporate partners already have expressed interest and agreements are being negotiated. For example, aerospace giant Airbus is in discussions to launch a program called AirBridge for Science that would provide an Airbus fuselage altered for scientific research to fly pole-to-pole missions, studying changes in the Earth’s ice sheets, oceans, atmosphere and ecosystem health. Another potential partner is the World Surf League, a company that organizes global surfing competitions and broadcasts them live. The company, which has a mandate to be “good stewards of the environment,” approached deMenocal about developing a research program to study how the oceans are changing.

The Center for Climate and Life also is supporting education and outreach for students at various levels. A donor-led initiative funds several high school students each summer to work alongside Lamont scientists for hands-on research experience. The center is developing a multicourse curriculum with the School for Professional Studies to engage life-long learners.

“Knowledge is power on a changing planet, and understanding the winning (and losing) opportunities gives business advance, actionable knowledge that improves both sides of the ledger,” said deMenocal.

— By Marley Bauce