Policy at the Earth Institute


The Earth Institute aims to generate a wealth of information for both the public and its students. However, the Earth Institute is unique in that it also aids in policy influence and implementation all over the world, with scholars utilizing their research and expertise to create a more sustainable future for all.

Urban development projects can overlook the needs of those who rely on walking and public transport, particularly in developing nations. One of the core mandates of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CSUD) is to address just this. Led by Elliott Sclar, professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, CSUD is working in Nairobi to devise and implement urban projects that attempt to incorporate the needs of this demographic, as it represents the majority of the city’s residents. Additionally, public transit is expensive for many residents, claiming a significant portion of their scant income. Through a contribution of $175,400 a year for two years, the Volvo Research & Educational Foundations will support the center’s efforts to transform Nairobi into a more accessible, livable city. This project aims to ameliorate the problem by partnering with institutes in Nairobi and providing policy recommendations advocating improved nonmotorized public transport.

Some Earth Institute initiatives target urban mitigation projects closer to home. Climate change poses significant risks to New York City’s communities and infrastructure, and Earth Institute experts are contributing their expertise to the City’s effort to lessen such risks. Cynthia Rosenzweig is a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where she heads the Climate Impacts Group. She is also co-chair of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the mayor to advise the city on adaptation for its critical infrastructure. While the first panel was convened in 2008, Superstorm Sandy brought the panel’s goals into clearer focus, and this year’s panel produced a set of climate projections specific to New York City.

Other Earth Institute experts are poised to influence national policy. With support from the Earth Institute, climate change and sustainability experts Caswell Holloway, deputy COO at Bloomberg LP; Carter Strickland, vice president and program manager for water and natural resources at HDR; Michael Gerrard, director of the newly expanded Sabin Center for Climate Change Law; and Daniel Firger, head of the Climate and Energy Program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, recently published “Solving the CSO Conundrum: Green Infrastructure and the Unfulfilled Promise of Federal-Municipal Cooperation” in the Harvard Environmental Law Review. The authors examine how local and federal governments can work together to implement green infrastructure systems in the context of water management, proposing locally led infrastructure initiatives aimed at environmental improvements.

Additionally, several experts lead initiatives in partnership with the Earth Institute that guide and influence global public policy. At the Earth Institute’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Dr. Irwin Redlener directs an initiative aimed at furthering U.S. understanding and adoption of improvements in disaster preparedness and post-disaster relief efforts. This year, leading NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen founded the Program on Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions, thanks to a generous gift from the Grantham Foundation. The core mandate of the program is not only to lead the way in climate science research, but also to effectively disseminate the research findings directly to high-level policymakers and the media. And while Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, headlines many Earth Institute initiatives, his appointment as director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in 2012, is one of the most prominent. The SDSN is working closely with UN agencies, multilateral financing institutions, and the public and private sectors to mobilize expertise in finding sustainable development solutions at local, national, and international levels.

Similarly, the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management examines the mechanisms behind sustainability management in order to develop and promote more effective public policies and organizational practices. In January 2015, Steve Cohen, Bill Eimicke and Alison Miller will publish a new book, Sustainability Policy: Hastening the Transition to a Cleaner Economy, which presents an overview of the opportunities for government to encourage sustainability in the public and private sectors. The book is a fundamental guide to sustainability policy development, implementation, strategy, and practice. Featuring detailed cases highlighting innovative sustainability initiatives, it explores the elements that constitute effective policy, and the factors that can help or hinder implementation and adoption. The authors feature policies in effect at the federal, state, and local levels across all areas of environmental sustainability. Emphasizing politically-feasible policy tools, this work demonstrates current and potential applications and focuses on public sector actions that spur innovation and organizational change in the private sector and behavioral change at the individual level.