News Archive

posted 03/08/02

Economists Join Effort in Understanding Earth to Enhance Sustainability

Building on a 70-year tradition in environmental economics, Columbia University has established The Center for Economy, Environment & Society. The Center formally integrates economic research with environmental and social sciences, furthering Columbia’s goal of understanding Earth to enhance sustainability.

Geoffrey Heal, Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility at the Graduate School of Business, heads the emerging center at the Columbia Earth Institute, an interdisciplinary enterprise that brings together natural, biological and social scientists focusing on Earth systems science.

"With his roots in the Business School, recent appointment to the School of International Public Affairs and path-breaking scholarly achievements, Geoff Heal is a recognized leader of this new faculty-based economic initiative," said Michael M. Crow, executive vice provost of Columbia University and chair of the Columbia Earth Institute Directorate. "Dr. Heal’s work on bundling, valuation and incentive structures will be an immeasurable asset."

Environmental economists study the interaction between natural and economic systems with a focus on renewable and non-renewable resources, pollution management and sustainability. Their work bridges many disciplines. Joining Heal are economics faculty from the Mailman School of Public Health, the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Graduate School of Business and Barnard College, as well as from the Economics Department, and the environmental science group, which is made up of the Departments of Earth and Environmental Science; Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology; Earth and Environmental Engineering and the Barnard Department of Environmental Science.

Together, these scholars will focus on developing a Ph. D. program in environmental economics, and delve into research about:

  • The economics of climate change,

  • Management of greenhouse gases,

  • Environmental risk management,

  • The economic aspects of conservation,

  • Socially and environmentally responsible investing, and

  • The environmental and social responsibility of corporations.

Columbia’s roots in environmental economics date back to the 1930s when Professor Harold Hotelling first espoused the idea that natural resources were exhaustible. According to Heal, Hotelling formulated principles to optimize management of the planet’s finite resources. William Vickrey further contributed to the field through analysis of the demand for public goods, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1996.

"It is exciting to extend the work of Hotelling and Vickrey, and to move off in new directions," said Dr. Heal. "We aim to sharpen the discussion of the connections between economics and the environment, and bring new insights to bear on this. The opportunity to develop a unique Ph. D. program combining rigorous analytic economics with serious training in the environmental sciences is itself a worthy goal." The Center will eventually offer a master's degree program and a variety of undergraduate courses.

The Center’s faculty group includes three other economists who work on environmental issues: Joshua Graff Zivin (Public Health and Medicine), Alexander Pfaff (Economics, SIPA and the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation,) and Arthur Small (SIPA and Earth Institute). Other participating faculty are Prajit Dutta (Economics), Marc Henry (Economics and Statistics), Giulio Pontecorvo (Professor Emeritus at the Business School) and Rajiv Sethi (Barnard Economics).

In addition to its role as a forum for interdisciplinary cooperation, the Center will initiate and support a range of new activities, including service and outreach. The Center becomes a point of contact between Columbia and other entities with interests in environmental economics and related fields, such as businesses, media, government agencies, international organizations and NGOs. The Center may also cooperate with such groups to promote activities that advance scholarly and social initiatives.

About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit