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New climate centre launches at Columbia

Guest contribution by Bill Hewitt

Yesterday saw the launch of a new climate research center in New York City. The Columbia Climate Center is the offspring of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, itself the brainchild of its founder and director, the influential and prolific economist, Jeffrey Sachs. The CCC has defined an ambitious mission for itself: to integrate the work of various world-class centers and institutes at Columbia, to develop strategies for mitigation of and adaptation to global climate change, and to communicate the science and best policy thinking to the public and decision makers. The affiliates of the CCC include such leaders in climate science as NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), led by Jim Hansen, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO).

Jeffrey Sachs is something of a force of nature. He led the task force that recommended the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals and is now President of Millennium Promise. He is ubiquitous in the op-ed pages of publications like the FT and at blogs like the HuffPo. His latest book, among several, is Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.

Speaking at the launch yesterday, Sachs said that climate change activists “wouldn’t know what we were doing without the brilliant and painstaking work of scientists.” He noted, for example, the “foresight and prescience” of Wally Broecker, one of the pioneers of climate science and a mainstay at LDEO for nearly 50 years. (Broecker spoke later, recounting six decades of climate research.) Sachs said that scientists have been “not only correct, but correct in their worries” and that, at this point, the “uncertainties of science are only of the depth of the risk” we are facing.


Robert Orr, the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN for Strategic Planning and a key advisor on climate change to the SG, cited the conclusions of the recent International Scientific Congress on Climate Change, noting that the IPCC’s AR4 report may now be seen as “quaintly conservative.”

He reminded the large audience that this was a critical year and that even though we are in a global economic downturn, it is imperative to remember that our globalized economies and the many strands of energy and climate change are “deeply intertwined.” Orr cited one of Copenhagen Congress’s key conclusions that “inaction is inexcusable”, but said that having worked with world leaders for several years on this issue, in his view they now have “dramatically increased consciousness”.

The event included a series of presentations by Columbia climate experts. Among these was one by Richard Seager, an LDEO senior research scientist, who gave us a look at some of the post-AR4 science. Patrick Kinney, the director of the Mailman School’s Program in Climate and Health, talked about the some of the impacts on health, including how warming will exacerbate smog in the Northeast US. (Kinney was involved in the landmark Harvard Six Cities Air Pollution and Health Study.) As I noted above, the old lion, Wally Broecker, wound up the proceedings with a short but interesting overview of some of the key climate science work of the past 60 years.

A highlight of the event was the discussion between Sachs and entrepreneur and philanthropist Ted Turner on how to address climate change, and the importance of the media. Turner created the United Nations Foundation as well as the media empire that includes CNN, which Sachs said ‘invented the global news system’. Turner called for “a renaissance, a new burst of knowledge”, while Sachs lamented the intransigence of the Wall St. Journal on climate change. They agreed that Turner would talk to Rupert Murdoch about that and straighten him out. The webcast of Sachs’s remarks and his entertaining conversation with Turner is well worth watching.

Bill Hewiit runs the Foreign Policy Association’s climate change blog and is an adjunct professor at NYU’s MS in Global Affairs program.

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