State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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17th Annual International Sustainable Development Research Conference

Can we feed 9 billion people? Will we run out of water and other natural resources? When and how will we truly begin to act on climate change? What if our economic and political models are too broken to respond? Have policy makers really forgotten about our future generations?

“We have in the world today two dangerously different views of the future,” the view of natural scientists and the view of economists, says Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute. Brown was a keynote speaker at the 17th annual International Sustainable Development Conference held at Columbia University in May, hosted by the Earth Institute and the International Sustainable Development Research Society.

Those two views Brown cites represent both conflict and opportunity: the need to control our appetites for natural resources, and the need for economic development and the reduction of crippling poverty. Earth has big problems that need creative, informed and integrated solutions, and that’s what the speakers and other participants in the conference were talking about. And, they looked ahead to an important international gathering next spring, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio +20.

Rio +20 will come 20 years after the breakthrough international meeting in Brazil that pushed governments to understand the role of civil societies and scientists in understanding what is at stake for the planet.

Watch a compilation of this year’s conference sessions highlights here.

Here are some highlights from the conference plenary sessions. We encourage you to watch and discuss.

“Sustainable agriculture for 9 billion people: Is this an oxymoron?”

Peter Schlosser, associate director and director of research at the Earth Institute, Columbia University and Robert Welford, chairman of the ISDRS, welcomed participants. Nina Federoff, president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, spoke: “While there is a growing belief that organic and sustainable agriculture are one and the same, there is no necessary connection.”

Pressure, Limits, Solutions

Speakers introduced the five major conference themes:

  • Pressure on Earth’s natural and socioeconomic systems (Peter Schlosser)
  • Limits of Earth to support future development (Upmanu Lall)
  • Solutions to the problems created by continued development (Klaus Lackner)
  • Adequacy of existing local, regional and global institutions and governing structures (Marc Levy)
  • Assessment of existing pilot programs (Peter Dobers)

“None of these [great] civilizations survived the destruction of their natural resources … nor can we.”

After Peter Schlosser welcomed participants to Day Two of the conference, Lester Brown, spoke: “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.”

“We are in a period not only of crisis, but of failing institutions.”

Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “Beyond the Tipping Point: Global Governance in an Era of Environmental Upheaval.”

Klaus Töpfer, founding director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and former director of the United Nations Environment Program: “There is a direct correlation between biodiversity and cultural diversity. Losing one is directly linked with losing the other we need to look beyond the sectoral approach.”

Panel Discussion — Action for a Sustainable Future

Moderator: Klaus Töpfer

Panelists: Ashok Khosla, Vijay Modi, Alissa Park, Anbumozhi Venkatachalam and Morten Wetland.

“Rio +20 could and should be a moment where humanity comes together…”

Achim Steiner, director-general of the United Nations Environment Programme: “Rio+20—Refocusing the Economy and Catalysing Global Governance and Institutional Reform.”

“Have we discussed the issues too much and done too little?”

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: “You Can’t Solve One Without the Other: Moving Forward on Climate Change and Sustainable Development.”

Panel Discussion on Rio +20 Goals

Jeffrey D. Sachs led a panel discussion on goals for the Rio+20 conference. Panelists were: Tariq Banuri, Lester Brown, Ruth de Fries, Ambassador In-Kook Park and Laurence Tubiana.

This final panel clearly puts forward a number of questions and solutions, but at the end of the day how will we move forward?

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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