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Science And Sustainability Management: 20 Years of Columbia’s Earth Institute

This fall, Columbia University’s Earth Institute will mark its 20th anniversary. I have been reflecting on what we have accomplished in both research and education over these past twenty years. There were two central ideas that animated the creation of this university-wide institute. The first was to promote basic understanding of earth system science, and the second was to apply that knowledge to decisions made by governments and businesses around the world. To build the institute, we began the process of creating a community of environmental scientists, social scientists, lawyers, policy and management analysts, health experts, and engineers who came to know each other and together engage in scholarship. What we have twenty years later is a uniquely interdisciplinary institute and a world leader in the basic and applied knowledge required to achieve sustainability.

The Earth Institute seeks to match the complexity of the challenges of global sustainability with a holistic approach that transcends particular academic disciplines and the traditional intellectual boundaries of schools and departments. We now offer a model for the collaboration of faculty and researchers that is unique in its reach and effectiveness—not only within our university, but also globally. We have a long history of research focused on understanding the planet; at our core is the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which has been seeking fundamental knowledge about the natural world since 1949. Lamont is the scientific heart of the Earth Institute. Another key aspect of our work is our willingness to engage directly with stakeholders in practical efforts to improve environmental quality by introducing new approaches to addressing real-world problems. We evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies and try to learn from our successes and failures.

We also created a number of education programs that require students to learn environmental science and social science along with applied policy and management analysis: the Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Environmental Science and Policy, the undergraduate major in Sustainable Development, the Master of Science in Sustainability Management, the Master of Arts in Climate and Society, the MPA in Development Practice, and the PhD in Sustainable Development. Another new science-based master’s degree is now under development by research faculty at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which will apply cutting-edge environmental science, observation, and analytic methods to the real-world sustainability challenges faced by government and industry.

Each of these educational programs requires master’s students, undergraduates, and doctoral students to learn about the physical dimensions of sustainability. The curriculum of these programs recognizes the need for corporate and government decision makers to know enough science to manage the work of scientists. In a world that is constantly increasing its organizational and technological complexity, we need managers who understand both management and science. This requires education programs that emphasize the complex and systemic nature of sustainability issues and focus on the practical skills necessary to deal with such issues.

CEOs are expected to understand complex business models, finance, performance measures and supply chains, but now also need to learn more about the science and technology the modern global economy depends on. They also need to learn how to gauge the impact of their operations on the ecosphere and the risks posed by ecological disruption on their organizations. Our education programs are an effort to address the needs of the growing renewable resource-based economy and the important role of today’s professionals in engaging, managing, and regulating sustainability practices.

This same theme of increased complexity also drives our interdisciplinary research agenda. We produce the science that’s necessary to understand how the planet works and how human beings are affecting natural systems. From my perspective, this basic science must form the foundation for the actions that we take to safeguard the planet and to sustain our economy. The Earth Institute’s research ranges from the basic science of paleoclimatology, in order to understand the long history of climate change, to hands-on work with local governments to help them improve their daily water supply. We develop earth system models and vulnerability assessments to help adapt to the climate change now underway, as well as forecasting tools that help us develop methods to mitigate climate change. Our research involves an ocean-going vessel that collects data on the ocean and the earth beneath it. We use big data analytics, social impact assessments, economic models, legal evaluations, and mobile applications. We measure arctic ice sheets, conduct fieldwork in rainforests, and strap air monitors on the backpacks of urban high school students. We study earthquake hazards in Bangladesh, melting ecosystems in the Antarctic Peninsula, conservation in Myanmar, forests in Puerto Rico, and sewage in the Hudson River.

But while environmental research is important, so too is the communication of what we learn. When I was in graduate school, the environmental disaster at Love Canal was underway and I observed New York State’s health and environmental officials struggle to communicate toxicity data to the residents of Love Canal. When I went to EPA, I was charged with developing a program to manage citizen-government interaction at Superfund’s toxic waste sites. We conducted dozens of case studies around the country, and everywhere we looked we observed miscommunication. The political, economic, scientific and emotional dimensions of toxic waste cleanup made reasoned conversation impossible. It was as if stakeholders spoke different languages and required a translator. Misunderstanding and conflict was rampant. As good bureaucrats, we created a new position to help bridge the gap between scientists and non-scientists: the Community Relations Coordinator. Their job was similar to that of a social worker, but instead of navigating the social service system to help people in need, Superfund Community Relations Coordinators would explain environmental science to non-scientists. They would also explain community concerns and values to scientific experts. This need to understand and communicate the basic science of environmental issues was important in the 1980s and is even more important today.

Many of the people leading our corporations and our governments do not have much background in science and technology. Economists, policy scholars, and lawyers who do not understand ecology or environmental science conduct much of the research on environmental policy issues. On the other side of the divide, while environmental science research often has profound implications for public policy or corporate management our scientists struggle to bring that information to bear on decision-making.

You can see that misunderstanding is a two-way street. Scientists are not experts at communicating with decision makers and decision makers are rarely scientific experts. Many scientists do not have a deep understanding of politics, economics, finance or management. Some scientists’ lack of sophistication and understanding of how the world is governed has contributed to the denial of climate science by decision makers. When climate scientists present their information and projections on global warming, they often present it along with proposed solutions that are politically or economically infeasible. Before approaching decision makers with scientific results, we need to involve economists, political scientists, lawyers and management experts to develop realistic solutions.

The idea of the Earth Institute was to conduct research that integrates science, policy, and management, and to train students to understand enough science to communicate with scientists and manage their work more effectively. In twenty years we have had many successes and many failures in attempting to work across fields and integrate our efforts. We have also been joined by scores of similar schools and institutes around America and the world. We still have a long way to go, and this task seems more important to me than ever.

It is more important because there are several billion people who want to live like we do in the United States, but do not. Their demands create political pressure for rapid economic development. The World Wide Web has guaranteed that even the poorest people on the planet see the wealth of the developed world. And they want it; if not for them, for their children. So the pressure on the planet’s finite resources and on the earth’s ecosystems, climate, and water will only increase over the next several decades. To manage the increasing level of economic output without destroying the planet will require a sophisticated understanding of the planet’s ecological and environmental dynamics. More importantly, it will also require that this knowledge influence and constrain management decision-making. The Earth Institute’s central mission is to work with colleagues around the world to research and develop this base of knowledge. Related to that central mission is our goal of educating students to apply that knowledge in practical, day-to-day decision making.

As exciting as all of this is, our goal is to ensure that the type of questions we ask, the data we collect, the models we build, and the analyses we produce become routine parts of public, NGO, and corporate decision making all over the world. The less novel we become, the more successful we will be. My hope is that business schools, law schools, and public policy schools all over the world start adding science to their curricula. Our goal is for the sustainability offices in many organizations to be integrated into the regular functions of CEOs and COOs. In the 1990s many companies had “international desks” to help navigate the emerging global economy; by 2010 those offices were largely gone. Today, every desk is an international desk. In the next generation I believe that sustainability will become as routine as “international” is today. Managers will need science literacy along with knowledge of global finance, and all competent managers will be sustainability managers.

The key is not to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math in a vacuum. These fields must be connected to creative arts, communication, law, management, and policy analysis. The Earth Institute is trying to make those connections. It’s not easy to do, but I believe we are succeeding, and if we are to make the transition to a renewable resource-based economy, we need to develop decision processes and social systems that are rooted in scientific reality.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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