Category Archives: Sustainable development

Battling ‘the Largest Mass Poisoning in History’

By Kevin Krajick and David Funkhouser

International health experts have called it the largest mass poisoning in history, and it is still underway. Some 100 million people in southeast Asia have been drinking from shallow wells originally drilled to provide germ-free water; but many turned out to be contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic.

Despite efforts to understand the natural processes at work, and provide safer water, many are still being poisoned, due to scant resources, poor information at local levels, and the sheer numbers of people and wells involved. The result: a slow-burning epidemic of heart disease, cancers, lung problems and compromised child development.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Mailman School of Public Health have been on the front lines of the issue since 2000. They are currently leading a wide range of initiatives, including long-term health programs, continued drilling of safer wells, education and continuing investigations into the geology of arsenic contamination.

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Join the Earth Institute for Climate Week NYC 2014

STATUE IN WATER SIMPLIFIED(First posted on State of the Planet Sept. 15, 2014.)

From heads of state to ordinary citizens, thousands of people will gather for more than 100 events during Climate Week NYC. They’ll be talking and debating the rights of nature, corporate leadership, the threat from rising seas, innovations for social good and innumerable other topics. The activities in and around Climate Week — officially Sept. 22-28 — are meant to engage people in tackling the problems posed by worldwide climate change, and to encourage leaders to take concrete steps toward finding solutions.

Two major events will punctuate all the days of panel discussions, screenings, art exhibits and educational activities: a “People’s Climate March” on Sunday, Sept. 21, and the United Nations Summit on Climate on Sept. 23 (more on these below).

The Earth Institute and its centers will be engaged in several events:

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Making Sense of Climate’s Impact on Food Security

From warmer temperatures to natural disasters such as flooding and drought, changing patterns of climate are having billion-dollar impacts on our food-growing systems. But scientists are struggling to find ways to measure and predict what may happen in the future—and to translate that into policies to help feed a bulging world population.

“Agricultural risks are growing, including climate change,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, an Earth Institute affiliate. “At the same time, a consistent approach is needed to enable the agricultural sector to analyze these issues.”

She spoke Friday at a panel on food security at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. Also on the panel were Thomas R. Karl of the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, Paul R. Ehrlich of Stanford University, and Felix Kogan of NOAA.

Cynthia Rosenzweig, GISS, Paul Ehrlich, AAAS 2013

Cynthia Rosenzweig of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Paul R. Ehrlich from Stanford University answer questions at a panel on climate and food security held at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Rosenzweig detailed a new effort to mesh climate science, agricultural expertise and economics to help make better forecasts, titled the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project—“AgMIP.” The multi-disciplinary effort involves scientists, economists and food experts on five continents.

“What’s been done over past decades is a whole cornucopia,” she said. “It’s hard to compare studies, and it’s hard to understand what all the studies are actually projecting. We need a consistent approach, and we need to set it up long-term.”

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Rosario’s Farm: Rising Tides, Shrimp from the Forest

The video above tells the story of Rosario’s farm, located on the banks of a light brown river in the lush rainforest of the Amazon delta. This story was first posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Jan. 23, 2013.

Rosario, right, and her brothers Alvino, left, and João.

Rosario, right, and her brothers Alvino, left, and João.

Rosario Costa-Cabral and her brothers harvest hundreds of products from the rainforest: woods like pau mulato and pracuúba, oil for cosmetics from the pracaxi tree, palm fronds for thatch, and fruits like açaí, bananas, guava and cupuaçu. Twice a day, tides swell the delta’s lacework of rivers and streams, flooding the forest and creating a rich nursery for shrimp and dozens of species of fish that serve as an important source of food and income. Without the forest, they say, you lose the fish and shrimp.

But now the tides run higher than in years past. The spring floods that threaten delta communities last longer and cause more damage; and the dry spells in late fall are growing drier. The climate is changing.

A team of scientists, led by Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez of Columbia’s Earth Institute, has come to the delta to find out how Rosario and her fellow caboclos—the people of mixed bloodlines who live here—are adapting. The researchers want to understand how the climate is changing, and how they can help with better forecasting and strategies for adaptation.

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Glenn Denning’s Road to Bali, and the Earth Institute

This post first appeared on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Dec. 2, 2012.

Glenn Denning, Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development

Glenn Denning. Photo: Winston Baltasar

Glenn Denning grew up in Brisbane, Australia, loved the outdoors and hated the idea of working in an office. And, he really didn’t have any urge to go to other countries. While studying at the University of Queensland, he thought a career in agriculture might suit him well.

Then he happened to overhear a conversation in a hallway between two students. That bit of serendipity sent him on a road to a life overseas; to key roles in “green revolutions” in Asia and Africa; and eventually to an office at Columbia University, and the Earth Institute.

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‘This is a wake-up call – don’t hit the snooze button’

Superstorm Sandy, New York City

Adam Sobel: “I was inside all day Monday, watching the tide gauge data at the Battery along with all the other observations. At 10:30 p.m., I couldn’t stand it anymore and went down to the Hudson, down by Fairway, to see the historic storm surge, just a couple hours after high tide.” This is his photo, looking under the elevated Riverside drive towards the river.

This story was first posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Nov. 2, 2012

We have to stop thinking in terms of ‘100-year events.’ It’s not going to be another 100 years before we see another extreme storm such as Sandy.”
Art Lerner-Lam, deputy director, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

For years before Hurricane Sandy charged ashore on Monday, researchers from the Earth Institute knew what was coming. In a rapidly urbanizing world, where hundreds of millions of people now live in low-lying coastal areas, those scientists have been urging policymakers to appreciate the threats posed by such natural disasters and find ways to make our cities more resilient.

As the region struggles to recover from this “superstorm,” we asked several experts from the Earth Institute to consider the lessons we can learn as we move forward.

Art Lerner-Lam

Art Lerner-Lam

Art Lerner-Lam watched the storm surge lap at the front door of his apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen on Monday, at the boundary of the evacuation zone. Lerner-Lam serves as deputy director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and also directs the Earth Institute’s Center for Hazards and Risk Research.

“We have to stop thinking in terms of ‘100-year events.’ It’s not going to be another 100 years before we see another extreme storm such as Sandy,” he said. “The statements by Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg affirming the need to address the long-term trends in storm severity are welcome and politically courageous; but the true test will be whether we can muster the popular will to do something about it. …

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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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