Research, Education, Practice

Executive Director Steven A. Cohen

Two central ideas animated the creation of the Earth Institute two decades ago. The first was to promote basic understanding of earth system science, and the second was to apply that knowledge to decisions made by governments and businesses around the world. In the ensuing years, we have created a new kind of academic institution: a community of environmental scientists, social scientists, lawyers, policy and management analysts, health experts and engineers who collaborate across schools and disciplines. Today, the institute has become a world leader in the basic and applied knowledge required to achieve sustainability.

We have a long history of research focused on understanding the planet. At our core is the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which has been seeking fundamental knowledge about the natural world since 1949. Lamont is the scientific heart of the Earth Institute. Another key aspect of our work is our willingness to engage directly with stakeholders in practical efforts to improve environmental quality by introducing new approaches to addressing real-world problems. We evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies and try to learn from our successes and failures.

We also created a number of education programs that require students to learn environmental science and social science along with applied policy and management analysis. In a world that is constantly increasing its organizational and technological complexity, we need managers in government and the private sector who understand both management and science. This requires education programs that emphasize the complex and systemic nature of sustainability issues and focus on the practical skills necessary to deal with such issues.

We produce the science that’s necessary to understand how the planet works and how human beings are affecting natural systems.

The Earth Institute’s research ranges from the basic science of paleoclimatology, in order to understand the long history of climate change, to hands-on work with local governments to help them improve their daily water supply. We develop earth system models and vulnerability assessments to help adapt to the climate change now underway, as well as forecasting tools that help us develop methods to mitigate climate change.

Our research involves an ocean-going vessel that collects data on the ocean and the earth beneath it. We use big data analytics, social impact assessments, economic models, legal evaluations and mobile applications. We measure arctic ice sheets, conduct fieldwork in rainforests, and strap air monitors on the backpacks of urban high school students. We study earthquake hazards in Bangladesh, melting ecosystems in the Antarctic Peninsula, conservation in Myanmar, forests in Puerto Rico and sewage in the Hudson River.

The need for this research, and for integrating it with public policy and managing for sustainability, is more important than ever. There are several billion people who want to live like we do in the United States, but do not. Their demands create political pressure for rapid economic development. The internet has guaranteed that even the poorest people on the planet see the wealth of the developed world. And they want it; if not for them, for their children. So the pressure on the planet’s finite resources and on the earth’s ecosystems, climate and water will only increase over the next several decades.

To manage the increasing level of economic output without destroying the planet will require a sophisticated understanding of the planet’s ecological and environmental dynamics. More importantly, it will also require that this knowledge influence and constrain management decision-making. The Earth Institute’s central mission is to work with colleagues around the world to research and develop this base of knowledge. Related to that central mission is our goal of educating students to apply that knowledge in practical, day-to-day decision making.

The key is not to focus on science, technology, engineering and math in a vacuum. These fields must be connected to creative arts, communication, law, management and policy analysis. The Earth Institute is trying to make those connections. It’s not easy to do, but I believe we are succeeding, and if we are to make the transition to a renewable resource-based economy, we need to develop decision processes and social systems that are rooted in scientific reality.


Steven A. Cohen
Executive Director