Two central ideas led to the creation of the Earth Institute in 1995. The first was to advance the basic understanding of earth science. The second was to apply that knowledge to decisions made by governments and businesses around the world. In the ensuing years, we have created a new kind of academic institution: a community of environmental and social scientists, lawyers, policy and management analysts, health experts and engineers who collaborate across schools and disciplines. Today, the Earth Institute has become a world leader in the basic and applied knowledge required to achieve sustainability.
The Earth Institute is made up of scholars spread out across dozens of research centers and programs at Columbia University. These researchers are refining our understanding of how the planet works and how humans are affecting natural systems. The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which has been seeking fundamental knowledge about the natural world since 1949, 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 the environment. We introduce new approaches to address real-world problems, then evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies and try to learn from our successes and failures.
We have also created a number of education programs that require students to learn environmental science and social science along with applied policy and management analysis. In a world that is constantly increasing in complexity, we need managers in government and the private sector who both understand issues in science and sustainability, and have the practical skills necessary to deal with such issues. We are educating students to apply scientific knowledge in practical, day-to-day decision making.
The Earth Institute’s research ranges from 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 ways to reduce the effects of climate change in the future.
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.
The need for this research, and for integrating it with public policy and sustainability management, is more important than ever. There are several billion people who want to live like we do in the United States, but do not. As they push for rapid economic development, the pressure on the planet’s ecosystems, climate, water, and finite resources will only increase over the coming decades.
To manage this growth 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 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 we believe we are succeeding.