Research News

Building the Earth Institute Through the Cross-Cutting Initiative


As threats from climate change become more visible, two critical issues that cannot be ignored are energy and water. Supply and demand are key indicators to gauge the current and future availability of these resources. In recognizing the need for further analysis and cross-disciplinary action in these fields, the Earth Institute’s Cross-Cutting Initiative (CCI) allocated funding toward the development of research and communication in and across these fields in the form of the Columbia Water Center (CWC) and the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy.

During the April 9th CCI conference, CCI Director Peter Schlosser said of the programs, “The success in building centers is due to the fact that there has been a certainty of time of a few years where the concepts could be formulated, and, using the CCI funding source, we have been able to get ideas off the ground.” Indeed, initiatives like the Columbia Water Center and the Carbon Colloquium have paved the way for further research in the areas of water and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Upmanu Lall, director of the newly established CWC, received a CCI seed grant to develop an interdisciplinary center on water and sustainable development in the fall of 2006, which led a year later to a three-year, $6 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation to found the CWC. Issues of human and ecological health, resilience to flooding, access to clean water for sanitation, and allocation of water across competing demands are topics that the center will address.

“We want to figure out ways to improve water tables while also reducing water usage. Depending on where you are in the world, the amount of water used for agriculture varies greatly; this particular problem needs to be addressed,” said Lall.

The center is also looking at identifying the long-term problems with water and which particular aspects of these problems must be addressed, whether the issue is pollution or overuse, or both. Lall pointed to the complexity of the water issue: “In managing one short-term risk, you are creating a different long-term risk; if you invest in infrastructure now, it may get wiped out by a flood later. The risks must be distributed.” Indeed, several factors are at play in the global issue of water shortages and pollution, and short-term needs versus long-term consequences will have to be mapped out.

Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, which was incubated through CCI support and established with a generous grant of $5 million in May 2006 from the Lenfest Foundation, is also looking at the energy issue from a cross-disciplinary, supply-and-demand perspective. He said, “If you provide the world with the amount of energy that we in the developing world demand, we would wreak environmental havoc, so the CCI project started by focusing on how this would be possible without destroying the environment.”

Lackner’s team has also been focusing on both the technological and the policy issues that need to be worked out with renewable energy sources. “Energy started to define a clear vision around the theme it wanted to drive. This is what made it successful as a CCI effort,” said Lackner, referring to influence that focusing on energy as a cross-cutting theme has had in shaping the vision of the Earth Institute and the development of the Lenfest Center.

The CCI continued support of the development of the Lenfest Center through a seed grant in the fall of 2006 to hold the Colloquium on Carbon Regulation and the Diffusion of Low-Carbon Technology. The colloquium brought together researchers from across Columbia University who are working in relative isolation on the issue of carbon regulation, and it was aimed at spurring new research projects and collaborations.

At the conclusion of the presentations, Lackner said, “Having somewhat autonomous centers that talk to each other is critical to solving a problem with more than one nucleus.” Indeed, the Earth Institute and the Cross-Cutting Initiative are a breeding ground for ideas, different modes of problem solving, and the chance to look at a multifaceted issue such as climate change from a multicolored lens.