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Earth in the Balance: Researchers Gather at C250 Climate Symposium

On the first day of the symposium "Earth's Future: Taming the Climate," G. Michael Purdy, director of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, could not have stated the urgency of the problem of global warming more bluntly. Short of nuclear holocaust or a large meteor colliding with Earth, he said, there is little that "will more directly determine the future of our planet than the changing climate."

Wallace Broecker, Columbia's Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Science, spoke just as passionately. "If we continue adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere for 100 years -- business as usual -- we're really giving the beast a jolt. The beast has shown that he or she can respond violently. To take a chance and say that these changes won't occur in the future, I think, is pure madness." Broecker advocated capturing carbon dioxide and putting it away as the ultimate solution.

The two-day symposium at Roone Arledge Auditorium, which appropriately began on Earth Day, April 22, drew a wide range of researchers, policymakers and politicians, including New York Gov. George Pataki, Law '70, and the Argentinean Ambassador to the U.S., Raul Estrada-Oyuela, to address the social, political and economic implications of global warming.

Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs, in his opening remarks, outlined the daunting issues involved in dealing with climate change. Describing it as "probably the most complicated public-policy challenge we face," Sachs noted several problems: that the climate system is so extraordinarily complex, that the costs and benefits of climate change will be profoundly different around the globe and that climate change, and the possible solutions, have such long lead times.

Sachs, however, is hardly a pessimist. Call him a hard-boiled optimist. He offered several reasons for not abandoning hope, among them the fact that incentives can make a huge difference. "Market approaches to this issue could be enormously powerful—carbon taxes, cap-and-trade schemes, subsidies for carbon sequestration," he said.

Sachs also cited "growing stakeholder leadership. Politicians, like Governor Pataki, are getting seriously engaged. California Governor Schwarzenegger announced the intention to roll out a massive program of hydrogen transport in California during the next decade. Senator McCain and Senator Lieberman sponsored [environmental] legislation that almost won a majority in the Senate."

One of the "stakeholders," Pataki, spoke on the second day of the symposium, calling for energy conservation and the development of renewable energy sources, such as fuel cell technology, photovoltaic technology, wind technology and geothermal energy. Citing his administration's support for renewable energy, Pataki said, "Let us set a national goal that by the end of the next decade, we will break our dependency on foreign oil and replace it through conservation and through renewable energy technologies that we develop here in America."

Columbia's Mark Cane, G. Unger Vetlesen Professor of Earth Climate Science, however, took a more somber tone, offering an historical overview of how climate change has resulted in the collapse of civilizations, such as the Mayan culture in the Yucatan. But he then entered a note of levity at the end of his talk by noting that global warming won't be bad for everyone. "One of the groups of winners will be people in certain wine-growing areas in Europe, which is something I suppose we can all look forward to."

The Columbia 250 symposium was organized by Purdy and John Mutter, deputy director of The Earth Institute.

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Published: May 27, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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