Climate Change and Innovation

Forty-seven years ago, Barnard grad Marilyn Laurie helped to found Earth Day – as a part of the organizing committee, her efforts established April 22 as a day dedicated to sustainability. On this Earth Day, Columbia continues her work with alumni talks, featured stories of Lions who are committed to helping the planet on ColumbiaYou, and a look at Earth Day “then” and “now”.

Columbia’s tradition of innovation and leadership in sustainability is a long-standing one, and StartupColumbia paid tribute to it this year with its panels, keynote, and startups that tackled such questions as:

  • How can scientists help people adopt earth-saving behaviors?
  • What is the role of scientists in pushing the public policy debate? And,
  • What are some new solutions to the climate problems of today?

Innovating Now for the Future

A panel featuring Peter Kelemen, Dept. Chair, Earth & Environmental Sciences and Adam Sobel, Author, “Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy & Our Changing Climate”, with moderator  Kate Sheppard, Senior Reporter, Huffington Post examined the challenges of motivating behavior and innovation when any impact can be distant in both time and space. After all, it’s hard to get a handle and stay focused on an issue that affects people you have never met – and often does so at some point in the future. It can be even harder to justify the costs that any changes may take.

This is why, Professor Sobel noted, it is only so helpful to focus on individual weather events and results. These events can make climate change more tangible in the here and now, but they can also be a distraction from the bigger picture, which needs bigger ideas.

A New Role for Scientists

The need for big-picture thinking, data, innovative storytelling, and meaningful demonstrations were consistent themes during the climate talks at StartupColumbia. For Professor Kelemen, scientists are in a unique and powerful position to take a stand and make personal sacrifices that demonstrate how important the issue of climate change is to 2017. The upcoming March for Science is one example of a new platform for engaged scientists. And the hope is, as Ms. Sheppard noted, that young scientists will continue to feel drawn to the earth sciences, bring their fresh perspectives to the table – and not have their dedication dampened by anything happening in the political sphere.

As with the first Earth Day, politics can’t help but play a role in a discussion on climate change. Professor Kelemen pointed out that if this were “local climate” change rather than “global climate” change – each city impacted by its own activities – no mayor would be able to win a bid for office without addressing climate-changing behavior in their cities.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, economics professor, senior UN advisor, and columnist also spoke of the links between choices, energy policy, and climate change, diving in to how political structures often entrench behaviors that need to be disrupted by creative scientists in order to reverse course.

Creating Tomorrow

StartupColumbia had no shortage of creative scientists – Columbia startups developing creative solutions for environmental problems were causing a stir.

In the Columbia Venture Competition, SunCommunity, a platform that connects consumers & supplies of solar tech in developing countries, took home a prize in the SIPA Dean’s Public Policy Challenge, and  Allied Microbiota, which has developed a cheaper, more effective way of cleaning up pollutants, took home third place in Global Technology Challenge sponsored by Columbia Engineering.

Check out more StartupColumbia winners here, and stay tuned for videos of these panels and more.

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