Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • Date submitted: 1 Nov 2011
  • Stakeholder type: Major Group
  • Name: Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • Submission Document: Download
Keywords: Water (44 hits),

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Compilation Document Input from The Earth Institute, Columbia University Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development November 1, 2011

Contributors: Lauren Barredo, Claire Bulger, Mary-Elena Carr, Nancy Degnan, Glenn Denning, Gregory Fienhold, Terri Harris, Tim Johnston, Klaus Lackner, Upmanu Lall, Art Lerner-Lam, Andrew Miller, Vijay Modi, Carolyn Mutter, Shahid Naaem, John Peacock, Lisa Phillips, Tamara Plummer, Richard Plunz, Rita Ricobelli, Carey Russell, George Sarrinikolaou, Peter Schlosser, Eve Solomon, Samantha Tress.


The Earth Institute, Columbia University welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the compilation document being prepared in advance of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

We are now a crowded, interconnected, global society, with seven billion people struggling to find a foothold on a highly vulnerable planet. The challenges of feeding the world, keeping it safe from persistent epidemic diseases such as malaria and AIDS and new and emerging diseases such as Swine Flu and SARS, conserving biodiversity, mitigating and adapting to climate change, Water and food scarcity, and combining economic progress with local and global environmental safety are the defining challenges of our time. Hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation often are underlying causes of conflict and violence.

We are in a new global era, termed the Anthropocene, and one that will come to be known as the Age of Sustainable Development. Our security, even our survival, will depend on the world forging a triple commitment: to protect the environment, to end extreme poverty; to ensure human rights for all.

In 2012, world governments will reunite in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the historic conference at which they signed the first comprehensive treaties to fight human-induced climate change and to stop the loss of biodiversity. There have been modest achievements, especially in developing the basis for these challenges, but far too little has been accomplished.

The programs of the Earth Institute are underpinned and guided by the premise: the world has the scientific and technological know-how and resources to raise living standards in a sustainable manner and solve humanitys most urgent problems, ranging from ending extreme poverty to mitigating and adapting to climate change, to managing freshwater scarcity and reversing biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. The Earth Institutes complex transdisciplinary work, which is grounded in hundreds of research projects carried out and implemented in locations worldwide, validates this perspective and highlights the pressing sectoral priorities and exciting and innovative initiatives that are described in this document.

The Earth Institute believes that the priorities of the Rio +20 Earth Summit ought to be the following:

1. Re-double efforts to stabilize the human population by encouraging countries to take responsibility for rapidly growing populations. Human population can be stabilized by decreasing child mortality rates; providing free or affordable contraception; empowering women to make their own choices, and promoting well-being through education and jobs.

2. Set an international policy goal to create new, better technologies with the capacity for global sustainability. Six priority sectors requiring new technologies in order to begin to act sustainably are (1) power, (2) transport, (3) agriculture, (4) natural resource management (e.g., Water, fisheries, biodiversity), (5) infrastructure and development, and (6) industry. This technological overhaul requires new public-private partnerships and governmental commitments to generate and allocate resources sufficient to achieve the necessary scale of technological and behavioral change.

3. Develop a global framework that supports existing and future technological development. Market forces alone are not strong enough to support widespread change.

4. Achieve economic growth at a lower impact on the planet by targeting public-private partnerships to achieve shared global goals.

5. Approach global environmental challenges, such as climate change, Water depletion, emerging disease, and biodiversity loss, by engaging in joint problem solving and brainstorming with countries instead of pursuing negotiations.

6. Create an indicative, but not rigid or central, plan of action for dealing with the global sustainability crisis.


1. Biodiversity

Proliferate increased understanding of the role of ecology in long-term sustainability in order to inform political, social and economic decision making. The Earth Institute is particularly concerned with the effect of climate change on biodiversity loss; mass extinction; emerging diseases such as West Nile Virus, Hanta Virus, Swine flu and Avian flu; habitat loss due to conversion, fragmentation, and degradation; and the unsustainable use of ecosystem services.

2. Climate Change

a) Delineate options for mitigation and adaptation so societies can respond proactively to anticipated impacts of climate change and variability;

b) Develop a framework to provide policy analysis and advice to stakeholders and policymakers;

c) Optimize climate and energy policies by studying and comparing real or modeled results of different international policies;

d) Delineate and share mitigation opportunities for high-emitting industries, such as aluminum, iron and steel, cement, and natural gas and oil systems;

e) Develop and implement proactive strategies for near term climate prediction and risk mitigation, as a central path for adaptation;

f) Develop the next generation of carbon capture and storage technologies; and

g) Develop country-specific methodologies for systematic assessment and comparison of the costs and benefits of adaptation options across diverse regions and sectors.

3. Energy

Focus on technologies that will improve energy efficiency and thus reduce carbon emissions. The abundance of fossil fuels that are low in cost, but high in carbon emissions, provides a strong incentive to explore opportunities for capturing the carbon dioxide that is produced in the combustion of fossil fuels and keeping it out of the atmosphere.

4. Natural Hazard Risk Reduction

Given the increasing frequency of occurrence of natural hazards and disasters, the Earth Institutes priorities for understanding and mitigating the risks caused by natural disasters are as follows:

a) Advance predictive and forecasting capability for hazard and risk;

b) Build sustainable hazards monitoring networks;

c) Build local research and applications capacity for natural hazards risk reduction;

d) Provide worldwide access to information about human and environmental systems in order to predict, prevent, and respond to environmental risks;

e) Assist in establishing well-designed mechanisms, which are built into sustainable development strategies, in order to transfer dynamic and evolving scientific knowledge to policy discussions;

f) Enable governments and humanitarian organizations to better locate need and allocate resources in the aftermath of disasters;

g) Assist the international community in shifting from a culture of response to preparedness by outlining key measures of preparedness, response, recovery, and rebuilding incentives that can help mitigate risk and exposure, and impacts on a nations GDP.

5. Sustainable Agriculture Priorities

a) Help scale up the African Green Revolution to reach one-quarter of smallholder farmers in Africa producirter of smallholder farmers in Africa

b) Ensure long-term food security and poverty reduction through diversified and value-added agriculture;

c) Improve nutritional security, diet diversity and food safety in rural communities by developing food- based solutions that are embedded within a wider food systems framework and respect cultural preferences;

d) Communicate evidence-based science on agriculture, the environment, and human nutrition to the general public;

e) Provide education, capacity strengthening, and professional development for students, faculty, scientists, and practitioners engaged in issues around agriculture and food systems;

f) Accelerate the adoption of effective and appropriate sustainable agriculture initiatives by providing funds for smallholder farmers, especially those in developing countries. Minimize negative impacts of the global food system on the environment while increasing positive impacts, without compromising food security; and

g) Accelerate the adoption of effective and appropriate sustainable agriculture, environmental, and nutrition policies - and necessary financing - by international organizations, national governments, and aid agencies through high-level advocacy;

h) Develop data driven models to assess and manage the food system at multiple scales;

i) Ensure long-term food sovereignty through enhancements of local- and regional-scale food system infrastructure initiatives.

6. Sustainable Water Priorities

As worldwide populations grow and affluence increases, the demand for food and Water is on the rise. At the same time, climate variability and change are making it difficult to provide Water where and when it is needed. Floods destroy communities in one part of the world, while in another people trek miles every day just to get enough Water to survive. The pervasiveness of Water scarcity makes it one of the most difficult challenges we need to address in the 21st century. Principles of Water allocation, planning, and governance need to be revised to promote efficient Water use as part of a sustainable development strategy. The Earth Institute considers global Water management priorities to be the following:

a) Develop a predictive capability for Water resource assessment on the local, regional and global levels that recognizes changing climate, demographics and Water needs;

b) Develop a capacity for the analysis of public and private investment in Water resource development;

c) Develop appropriate technologies for the storage, treatment and conveyance of Water to improve reliable, cost-efficient access, as well as policy instruments that encourage efficient and equitable Water use, and test them in real world settings to substantiate their applicability;

d) Develop and disseminate the results of research on Water use, in order to support global Water resource development and decision-making, through direct engagement with decision makers and through media that influence the behavior of farmers and others who ultimately determine Water use and pollution; and

e) Address sustainable Water challenges in key hot spots. The Earth Institute is currently focused on Water challenges in the Indian subcontinent, Brazil, Africa, China, and the United States.

7. Education

Educate a new generation of students dedicated to the fundamental links among the natural sciences, technology and social practices, and the values and beliefs that influence decision-making in a world where economic development, globalization, and a fast-growing population has led to significant pressure on the environment.


1. Food security

a) The Agricultural MOdel Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP)

The Earth Institutes Center for Climate Systems Research and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies are spearheading the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP), a major international effort to assess the state of global agricultural modeling and to understand climate impacts on the agricultural sector.

The goals of AgMIP are to improve substantially the characterization of risk of hunger and world food security due to climate variability and change, and to enhance adaptation capacity in developing and developed countries.

To achieve these goals, AgMIP is establishing a robust and rigorous research framework that connects climate, agriculture, economic, and information technology communities; this open framework encourages collaboration and provides a useful test bed to investigate climate products through the lens of agricultural impacts. AgMIP is also establishing significant research opportunities to engage interdisciplinary teams in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The three-year project places regional changes in agricultural production in a global context that reflects new trading opportunities, imbalances, and shortages in world markets resulting from climate variability and change as well as other driving forces of the food system. It also builds capacity for continuing agricultural assessment and management in developing countries under variable and changing climate conditions. AgMIP is supported by the United Kingdom Department for International Development in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture.

2. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

When 189 world leaders met at the United Nations in September 2000, they were inspired to adopt the Millennium Declaration, which included bold targets in the fight against poverty, disease and hunger. In 2002, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked Jeffrey Sachs, Earth Institute director, to direct the UN Millennium Project and identify feasible approaches to achieving these ambitious goals. Since then, under his leadership and with the help of a global network of partners, the Earth Institute has achieved both in rural and urban areas of African countries by the universally endorsed target date of 2015.

By harnessing the efforts of over 700 scientists, researchers and staff and developing thirty cross- disciplinary centers, the Earth Institute has become the worlds academic leader in developing innovative approaches to address complex problems with a special emphasis on the needs of the worlds poorest citizens. Scientists at the Earth Institute have focused on basic human needs such as food security by introducing innovative technology, management and policy tools to improve environmental quality, nutrition and farmers' incomes through sustainable agricultural practices, examined Water pollution and groundwater depletion and developed strategies to combat climate variabiliuality, nutrition and farmers' incomes through sustainable agricultural practices, science-based interventions and local ownership is an effective means for alleviating extreme poverty, regardless of agro-ecological or political conditions; (2) reaching the benchmarks proposed in the MDGs the-ground, concrete investments that enable communities to lift themselves out of extreme poverty; and 4) scientific evidence can and should be used to impact policies at the local, national, and international levels.

This emphasis is evident in the results of the Earth Institutes demonstration projects: physicians and epidemiologists from the health team working in close collaboration with engineers on information technology designed to provide real time data management and monitoring that will improve information systems; agronomists and nutritionists studying the linkages between health and nutrition to better improve both agricultural systems and health outcomes; and all of our teams developing ground-breaking systems and tools that are dramatically improving the quality of life in developing communities, and which will continued to be scaled up and made sustainable through joint advocacy and national policy efforts.

3. Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Basic research at the Earth Institutes Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory is focused on developing the forecasting and predictive skill for several hazardous phenomena, using observations from global, regional and local monitoring networks, computational modeling from first principles, and, in some cases, bench work in laboratories. Generally speaking, it is instructive to separate the discussion into impacts olity of life in developing and the expected events that follow well-understood probability distributions. The former can be understood with comprehensive scenario modeling, while the latter are nearly constant reminders of the need for effective preparedness.

a) Building Sustainable Hazards Monitoring Networks The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is part of an international effort to build sustainable earthquake monitoring networks, which combine national network operations with well-developed global technological infrastructure.

The past few decades have seen an explosion in global environmental monitoring, comprising both synoptic satellite observations, as well as in situ technologies deployed on land and in the oceans. National monitoring strategies play a critical role in global observations. In the best case, national monitoring capacity is part of the global federation of networks, which reduces the technical barriers to data sharing and international research and educational collaborations. National networks are frequently capitalized after a major disaster, when global financial assistance is readily available. Under such circumstances, little thought is given to the sustainability of these modern technologies given the inherent capacity of national institutions to run them. Thus it is important to develop the national education and training programs that in the long run are needed to maintain and utilize the critical information supplied by monitoring networks. It is axiomatic that international research and education collaborations, coupled to indigenously-developed, nation-specific scientific strategies, provide rationale and motivation to support the operations of national monitoring networks.

For example, in Bangladesh, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory geophysicists have combined forces with faculty from the University of Dhaka and several government institutions to deploy modern seismological and geodetic instrumentation to support national earthquake hazard assessments. This activity is supported by the United States National Science Foundation and the United States Agency for uake hazard assessments. This research and international development assistance. The Earth Institute has initiated preliminary discussions about building sustainable earthquake monitoring networks with Latin American Countries, several south and East Asian countries, and African countries. Support is provided by the United States National Science Foundation, the US Geological Survey, US AID and other institutions.

b) Building local research and applications capacity for natural hazards risk reduction Research and education collaborations, including specialized training programs, promote a long-term, sustainable approach to building the local science and technology capacity required for national natural hazard risk reduction programs. Such programs are aided by developed-nation investments in international research. Lamont has participated in the NSF-USAID PIRE and PEER initiatives, as well as basic international collaborations. In particular, a team from Marine Geology and Geophysics led by Donna Shillington is working to develop an earthquake program in Malawi funded by the NSF Continental Dynamics Program; the Seismology and MG&G divisions, led by Michael Steckler, are working in Bangladesh with Continental Dynamics and USAID funding, to address the issues of earthquakes and sea level rise; and the Tree Ring Lab, led by Brendan Buckley and others, is working in uakes and sea level rise; and the on monsoons, extreme storm events, climate change.

c) Developing predictive and forecasting skill for natural hazards Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists are conducting basic research across all potentially hazardous phenomena, namely: earthquakes, tsunami, volcanoes and landslides; tropical cyclones and severe storms; flooding; and drought. Under the rubric that the past is the key to the future, Lamont has built perhaps the worlds best group in paleoclimate. In particular, there is research on developing chemical and biogeochemical proxies for past atmospheric temperature and chemistry, which are providing new understanding of climate over the past several million years, encompassing several cycles of glaciation and deglaciation. There is basic research on earthquake cycles, which may soon offer robust, decadal-scale forecasting skill. And, of course, there is considerable research on current day ocean and atmospheric interactions, directed toward an understanding of the physical and chemical parameters that control climate. There is no uniform approach to natural hazard predictability. Each potentially hazardous process comes with its own collection of observational and theoretical constraints. However, Lamont researchers are adept at rectifying probabilistic estimates of multi-hazard exposures so that a full-spectrum hazard assessment can be done at national levels.

d) Knowledge transfer

Institutions such as the Lamont Doherty earth Observatory can act as honest brokers in establishing well-designed mechanisms, which are built into sustainable development strategies, in order to transfer dynamic and evolving scientific knowledge to policy discussions, either with international development organizations (such as our work on the "Natural Hazards Hotspots" report for the WOrld Bank and the UN) or with individual countries (work in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Bhutan). The 2010 Haiti Earthquake demonstrates the need to expand this kind of work around the world.

The fault that ruptured in the 2010 Haiti earthquake was identified as a potential hazard in a 2008 publication in the scientific literature. Although the results of that work were communicated to the highest levels of the Haitian government, there was neither the institutional capacity, nor the local technical resources to pursue preparedness and mitigation strategies. Scientific results are deeply embedded in traditional means of communication, but there are few international or national frameworks to transfer this knowledge into actionable advice. Training, and research and educational collaborations can help, in part. More importantly, there should be mechanisms to integrate scientific knowledge and policy.

To help avoid a similar situation in the Dominican Republic, the Earth Institutes Urban Design Lab is leading a national risk assessment project with the President and many state agencies, which can be replicated in other disaster-prone areas. Flooding, hurricanes and earthquake risks can reduce a countrys capacity for infrastructure development, but by quantifying a countrys risk exposures and applying figures to their current national plans of action, governments can reduce the actual and perceived impacts of natural disasters. The UDLs work in the DR attempts to re-focus the country from a society of response to a culture of preparedness by outlining key measures in:uantifyipangr aedness, (2) impacts on the nations GDP

4. Water

The Earth Institutes Water mission is to creatively tackle the issue of global Water scarcity through innovations in technology, public policy and private action.

a) Climate Variability

The Columbia Water Center and the International Research Institute for Climate & Society are developing predictive tools and analytical methods to help stakeholders make better-informed decisions on cropping choices, infrastructure design, and Water resource management. In much of the world, the high variability of precipitation creates significant challenges for the appropriate management of Water.

These challenges are likely to increase in an era of long-term climate change. Groundwater provides a natural buffer to drought, but it is currently being mined in many places leading to a long-term disaster that has to be addressed. The role of climate in determining where and when floods occur is an emerging research area with potential benefits in risk mitigation.

b) The Global Flood Initiative:

Floods and storms cause the most average annual damage and loss of life of all natural hazards. As climate changes, intense rainfall events are expected to increase in frequency, and coastal flooding to become more rampant. The Earth Institute is launching a new initiative on the climatic prediction of the space and time occurrence of floods across the globe, and of strategies to address these risks through technological, financial and communication instruments. The growing threat of floods to global supply chains has been shown by the recent events in Pakistan, United States, Japan and Thailand. An integrated approach to prediction, response, recovery and engineering design from a global scale is sought to address both local and global risks.

c) Water Resources in India

India is facing a massive Water crisis. The roots of the crisis in the region are in efforts to achieve food security through intensive, yet inefficient agriculture. The result is the largest groundwater mining in the world, at the same time that surface Water canals experience high losses. The energy used for pumping groundwater contributes to loss of access for other sectors. Water, energy, and food availability are linked concerns in India, and must be addressed as such. The Columbia Water Center research is working to change this situation by working with farmers, governments, and corporations, through innovation in irrigation strategies for farmers, changes in national cropping patterns, and changes in electricity pricing policy.

d) Water Resources in Brazil

The Columbia Water Center works with partners in Ceará, Brazil to address the dual challenges of inefficient Water management and the high cost of supplying Water to rural areas. Climate forecasts and developed decision tools are being used for regional Water allocation in order to reduce risk. A process for planning and building efficient, inexpensive Water infrastructure for rural communities was developed and implemented. This has been adopted by state agencies to scale up rural Water development.

e) Safe Water Access

The Earth Institute fosters research on how to address persistent natural pollution of groundwater in Bangladesh and elsewhere that has created a massive health crisis. Researchers have explored the pathways of exposure as well as behavioral and other methods to supply safer Water. Earth Institute researchers also target novel methods of biological wastewater treatment that are efficient and contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gases


The Earth Institute is committed to promoting green economy by strengthening the interplay among scientific research, government and the private sector. One powerful way to combine the strengths of each of these sectors is through government support for basic research in renewable energy, waste treatment, recycling and Water filtration. As the ensuing technologies enter the marketplace, they become engines for greater environmental protection, green job creation, sustainable urban design, and prosperity.


As resource use is exploding, Water consumption is rapidly increasing around the globe, and earth systems nearing tipping points, hundreds of millions of lives are now at stake. A technological road map is needed toward sustainable production and consumption, but such a guide does not yet exist even in a basic form. Depending on the setting, the solutions may involve the need to deploy technology or to change behavior of key actors through appropriate incentives. Innovative mechanisms such as a carbon levy tax, payments for ecosystem services, an African green revolution, as well as a plan to fund research and development and to aid the required transition for poor economies. To meet these pressing needs regional cooperation is required. The complexity and global nature of the problems we are confronting make country-by-country efforts insufficient. Indeed, a massive intellectual effort led by the expert community worldwide is whats needed. Scientists must plot a path toward de-carbonizing the global economy, preserving and restoring natural resources, rebuilding and investing natural as well as built and human capital, answering questions about climate change, determining which technologies are viable, and ultimately coming up with a plan that takes the world toward energy and food supplies that are much less dependent on fossil fuels by mid-century. The Earth Institute, Columbia University is committed to this endeavor through its research initiatives and education programs, as well as its unparalleled global reach across all sectors and a network that encompasses all levels of government, multinational organizations, academia, NGOs, cultural institutions, and the private sector.
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