State of the Planet

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Faculty Profile: John Mutter

John Mutter’s career path has an unusual twist to it.  He first trained in physics and mathematics as an undergraduate at Melbourne University in his hometown in Australia.  He moved to the U.S. to undertake a Ph.D. in geophysics at Columbia and stayed on as a research scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in the mid-1980s and then became a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.  The twist came in 2005 when he was jointly appointed to the faculty of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Mutter’s original research interests are in the natural sciences, with a focus on the use of marine seismology technologies to study processes in the formation of the Earth’s crust and mantle at mid-ocean ridge and continental rift settings.  He has studied active rifting in the Woodlark Basin off Papua New Guinea and spent most of the summer of 2008 as chief scientist aboard Columbia’s research vessel, the Marcus G. Langseth, conducting the first 3-D seismic imaging experiment of seafloor spreading at the East Pacific Rise.  This study helped reveal how magma rises from deep in the Earth’s interior to create new crust and controls the distribution of biological communities at hydrothermal vent systems.

That may seem a long way from the sort of studies that go on at SIPA, where he works among economists and other social scientists and is director of graduate studies for the Ph.D. in sustainable development.  He teaches Science for Sustainable Development at the graduate and undergraduate level as well as Disasters and Development and Climate Change, Development and Human Rights.  In this teaching and research, Mutter uses his natural science training and social science intuition to examine the role of natural disasters in economic development and human welfare. A question he is addressing is: How much of the global inequality in development status can be attributed to the particular burden that the poorest people face from natural extremes such as hurricanes and earthquakes?  Mutter believes that this question has gained particular importance as meteorological extremes are expected to increase as a result of human-induced climate change, and he is working to help those who are most vulnerable to horrific natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

His studies range from the global analysis of disasters and development to an examination of the immediate and long-term mortality impacts of Hurricane Katrina, where he has established a program to assess the specific vulnerabilities of communities of different social class, race, age and gender.

In 2015 he published a book on the subject titled The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make The Rich Richer And The Poor Even Poorer published by
Palgrave Macmillan through St Martins Press.  A review is available at and an interview with Mutter at  He is currently preparing a short textbook on Climate Science for Columbia University Press that is intended as a primer for students with little background in science.  He is also working on a second trade book with the tentative title Straight Talk about Climate Change – For a Change.

Mutter also examines these questions through the lens of human rights, asking whether rights attainment can predict disaster outcomes, such as the response to Cyclone Nagris in Myanmar, and how the norms and principals of human rights can provide guidance for climate adaptation strategies.  The general theme of his research follows the relationship between natural systems and human well-being, with a particular focus on the vulnerability of poor societies to natural variations and extreme environmental conditions, as this could inform an understanding of the human response to natural changes at all scales and intensities.  So a joint appointment in a natural science department and social science department, though unusual, makes perfectly good sense.

How scientific advances in developed countries can be used to help people in developing countries is another major focus for Mutter.  “I am increasingly compelled to think about science and its role in the elevation of the world’s poor,” he says.  “Science is the engine that drives economic progress in the developed world, but little science is practiced in poor countries, and the benefits of science have not come to the poor. How can science, which has brought so much prosperity to some, help elevate the poorest people on Earth? With a third of the world’s people still living in poverty, this has become an urgent question.”

Mutter served as deputy director of the Earth Institute for five years until 2007 and is a member of the faculty of the Earth Institute. He has also served as interim director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory on two occasions and as Lamont’s executive deputy director. He directs the Earth Institute’s postdoctoral Fellows Program in addition to the Ph.D. in Sustainable Development. “Building a strong group of young scholars dedicated to research in sustainable development is one of the most important things I hope I can do for the future,” he says.  The Ph.D. program started in 2004 and is the first of its kind.  The program has since graduated over 30 students who work in universities, the private sector and the World Bank.

Mutter was also one of the principal investigators on the Earth Institute’s National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCE program, which was designed to improve the opportunities for women in Earth science and engineering at Columbia.

Mutter has authored or co-authored more than 90 articles in scientific journals in the natural and social sciences and many popular publications including Earth, Foreign Affairs and Slate.  His fieldwork includes over three years at sea in all parts of the world’s oceans. He holds a dual passport for both Australia and the United States.  He has five children from two previous marriages, “and they are all wonderful,” he says.

Mutter received his B.Sc. in physics and pure mathematics from the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 1969; his M.Sc. in geophysics from the University of Sydney, Australia, in 1978; and his Ph.D. in marine geophysics from Columbia University in 1982.  He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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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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