Monthly Archives: November 2012

Cities Are Where the Action Is, Post-Rio

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Aug. 16, 2012

Rio, sustainable development

Rio has undertaken a major renovation of its port to create a sustainable development, encompassing residential, commercial and industrial uses, along with improved public transportation, green spaces and other public services. Photo: City of Rio

Two months after the UN’s landmark conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, has anything changed?

For many, the official document that was a principal outcome of “Rio+20” is an extreme disappointment – little more than a reaffirmation of the problems and desires stated at the first Earth Summit in Rio 20 years ago, with no firm commitments, no tangible goals and no timetables.

Its defenders note that the document, titled The Future We Want,” sets the stage for further deliberations on a set of sustainable development goals, and that it makes important statements about protecting oceans, providing people access to energy, and establishing human rights to food, safe drinking water and sanitation. In the midst of financial crisis, they say, it’s too much to expect 190 nations with often diverging economic interests to agree on what to do – but at least, those nations are still talking.

And indeed, the UN secretary general has appointed a special panel to begin the debate over sustainable development goals, and launched a new project, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, to focus research worldwide on solutions to some of the daunting social, environmental and economic problems we face. Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs will lead that effort.

The real bright spots in Rio, however, had more to with what happened outside the formal UN conference June 20-22, in meetings of ordinary citizens, corporations, non-governmental organizations and local government groups. There, the sense of urgency about the world’s social and environmental problems resolved into action, including a long list of voluntary commitments.

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The New Climate Dice: The Odds Have Shifted to Hot

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Aug. 6, 2012

This year’s Midwest heat wave and some other recent extreme weather events are no fluke of nature, but a consequence of a warming planet, according to an analysis of climate data by NASA scientists. The odds of an unusually hot summer have doubled since mid-century, according to the research by NASA’s James Hansen and two colleagues, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Land temperature anomalies, showing a shift to warmer events since 1981. Source: NASA-GISS

Land temperature anomalies, showing a shift to warmer events since 1981. Source: NASA-GISS

Furthermore, the researchers found that the extremes of heat are getting even hotter, creating in essence a new “normal” for climate. On average, 10 percent of land area across the planet now experiences these more extreme temperatures, a more than tenfold increase from 1951 to 1980, when less than 1 percent of global land area reached this extreme.

“This summer people are seeing extreme heat and agricultural impacts,” Hansen said. “We’re asserting that this is causally connected to global warming, and we present the scientific evidence for that.”

Hansen and colleagues analyzed mean seasonal temperature in June, July and August during the last 30 years and showed that the odds have increased for an anomalously hot summer – a period of average temperatures that reach more than 0.43 standard deviations from the norm. Specifically, 75 percent of global temperature anomalies now fall into the hot category, compared to just 33 percent from 1951 to 1980.

Hansen has used the “climate dice” analogy to explain this: In the 1980s, he looked at the summers between 1951 and 1980; he put the 10 hottest into one category, the 10 coldest into another, and the 10 falling in between into a third. These, he said, could be characterized by the six sides on dice: Two sides red for hot summers, two sides blue for cool, and two sides white for “normal.” For the period there was an equal chance of any of the three occurring.

Compared to that 30-year period, the dice now are loaded for hot summers: Four sides red, one blue and one white.

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One Planet, Too Many People?

Mumbai, India. (Photo: Deepak Gupta)

Mumbai, India. (Photo: Deepak Gupta)

This was first posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on March 7, 2012

Professor Joel E. Cohen stood at the lectern, looked out over the crowd with his round, mischievous eyes and, with a click, posted a slide on the large screen to his right that brought a world of problems down to a more human scale.

There appeared two photos of door handles: one, a simple round knob, the second, a lever. This commonplace device, he explained, set the scale of the engineering challenge for a society whose population grows increasingly older: For the elderly who may have lost the hand-power of their youth, these two designs illustrate the difference between getting out and staying put.

The solution is a simple engineering fix, but on a daunting scale, when you think of all the doorknobs in all the cities of the world. But it’s possible. And that theme drove an Earth Institute-led discussion at Columbia Monday about the challenges faced in a world projected to reach 9.5 billion people by the year 2100.

Three-quarters of these people will be crowded into increasingly unmanageable cities. In some regions, such as North America and Europe, they will be older; in others, such as Africa, predominately under 30; many will be desperately poor. They will have different, and rising needs. Continue reading

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U.S., 5 Nations to Cut Methane, Soot Emissions

This was first posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Feb. 17, 2012

emissions, cook stoves, black carbon soot, climate change

Redesigning cookstoves is one of the ways to cut emissions of black carbon soot. For a slide show from NASA showing 14 ways to curb emissions that add to global warming and harm human health, click on the photo. (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The United States and five other countries agreed this week to fund an effort to cut emissions of methane, soot and other pollutants to start to slow the rate of human-induced climate change.

The effort, for which the nations pledged $27 million, will use existing technologies such as improved cook stoves and capturing methane from landfills in an effort scientists say could slow global mean warming 0.5 degrees C by 2050.

The other countries who have pledged to join the fight include Canada, Mexico, Bangladesh, Sweden and Ghana.

The program was spurred in part by a recent paper in Science co-authored by Drew Shindell of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, affiliated with the Earth Institute, and a June 2011 report from the UN Environment Programme, chaired by Shindell, and the World Meteorological Organization. (A recent story about the report appears on the Earth Institute web site, and a related piece on the State of the Planet blog.) Continue reading

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Goals for Rio: A Path to Sustainability

First published on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on June 8, 2012

World leaders and thousands of citizens representing public and private sectors will convene in Rio de Janeiro next week for Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The goal: to exchange ideas for solving some of the world’s most pressing problems; and, to create a roadmap for the future.

India, drinking water

Pupils in India drinking rainwater from an underground store. Photo: Dieter Telemans/Panos Pictures

The agenda is broad: economic development, environmental sustainability, social inclusion. The participants in the formal talks June 20-22 are hoping to produce a document outlining how the world should move ahead to achieve these things. That could include a set of “sustainable development” goals and commitments – ways to help people climb out of extreme poverty, and to keep our growing population from consuming the planet’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

Perhaps even more important will be all the interactions going on around the formal talks – meetings of business and civil society groups, non-governmental organizations, local government representatives and others. They will exchange ideas and policies, make their own commitments to move ahead, and forge new and productive partnerships.

In an article published today in The Lancet, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs outlined his own ideas for sustainable development goals – the SDGs. He writes about how these goals can build on the Millennium Development Goals, the UN’s set of targets that aim to reduce extreme poverty and boost social well-being in many other ways by 2015.

“The SDGs are an important idea, and could help finally to move the world to a sustainable trajectory. The detailed content of the SDGs, if indeed they do emerge in upcoming diplomatic processes, is very much up for discussion and debate,” Sachs writes. “Their content, I believe, should focus on two considerations: global priorities that need active worldwide public participation, political focus, and quantitative measurement; and lessons from the MDGs, especially the reasons for their successes, and corrections of some of their most important shortcomings.”

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For Rio+20, a Call to Preserve Biodiversity

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on June 6, 2012.

Deforestation, biodiversity


An estimated 9 million species of living things inhabit the Earth — plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms such as algae and bacteria. But those species are disappearing at an alarming rate, and this loss of biodiversity appears to be a major driver of environmental changes that can affect the biological and chemical processes that humans rely on, according to a new paper in the journal Nature.

“No one can agree on what exactly will happen when an ecosystem loses a species, but most of us agree that it’s not going to be good. And we agree that if ecosystems lose most of their species, it will be a disaster,” said Shahid Naeem of Columbia University, who was one of 17 scientists from around the world who worked on the paper, a review of 20 years of ecological research published this week.

The 7 billion people living on the planet now depend on those ecosystems, and the diverse array of life that comprise them, for our own existence: for food, water, fertile soil, fuel, clean air and protection from pests and disease. The ways that those organisms absorb, utilize and recycle nutrients also play a key role in our climate.

“There is now unequivocal evidence that biodiversity loss reduces the efficiency by which ecological communities capture biologically essential resources, produce biomass, decompose and recycle biologically essential nutrients,” the authors write in the paper, “Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity.”

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