A Discussion on a Sustainable Planet, City and Campus

It has now been almost a half century since the idea of a global and interconnected biosphere was popularized by environmental pioneers such as Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner. It’s been about four decades since astronauts broadcast the first images of our small, fragile bright blue planet from outer space. Until then, the idea of an interdependent planet was an abstraction. Those photos made the idea of our connectivity quite real.

Today, the issue of global sustainability has moved front and center in our political process, and it is reflected in the way we think about economic development, poverty eradication and even in the way we live. Movie stars and politicians have to think about their carbon footprint-and so do the rest of us.

There is increasing evidence that we humans have damaged the planet that sustains us. We see species dying along with poisoned air, polluted water and degraded land. The issue of global climate change is the first widely recognized example of a problem that is created locally, but impacts all of us globally. This is the first of these problems we have come to recognize, but it will not be the last one that we will discover.

Here in New York City we are fortunate that an increasing number of our local leaders have figured out that we need to move our city to a more sustainable future. On October 23, I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion here at Columbia University about sustainability in New York City and around the world. Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger hosted the latest of his World Leaders Forum events and the panel discussion focused on environmental stewardship through Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative, Columbia’s contributions to the city’s sustainable future, and the role that New Yorkers play in the global effort. Panelists included:

  • Rohit T. Aggarwala, Director of the Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability in the New York City Mayor’s Office.
  • Kelly Kleinert, a student at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University.
  • Klaus S. Lackner, Ewing-Worzel Professor of Geophysics at Columbia University and Director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at The Earth Institute.
  • Lionel McIntyre, Founding Director of the Urban Technical Assistance Project at Columbia University

Our discussion focused on a number of key questions:

  • How does the unique infrastructure of New York City change the way we approach environmental stewardship? Does New York City have a heightened responsibility to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable design and encourage innovative development concepts in cities around the world?
  • What are the distinct problems, and opportunities presented by New York City as it seeks to mitigate its climate impact and adapt to global warming?
  • How is Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative being enacted in New York, and what does it mean to be a PlaNYC 2030 Challenge Partner? How are the PlaNYC goals related to the unique urbanization and architecture of the City of New York?
  • What distinct responsibilities do institutions of higher learning have in environmental stewardship? What role is Columbia University playing in reaching the PlaNYC 2030 goals?
  • How can each individual at Columbia play a greater role in the push toward environmental sustainability?

The discussion highlighted the advantages New York City has as a green city. Our mass transit system, our water system and our population density make New York City one of the most energy efficient and sustainable places in the United States. Columbia, like many of the city’s larger institutions, is working to improve our energy efficiency, reduce our carbon footprint and increase the amount of waste it recovers. Our goal is to reduce the environmental impact of our activities.

One of the insightful contributions to our panel discussion on the 23rd was introduced by Professor McIntyre. He made the point that sustainability needed to be connected to other important goals, such as increased employment opportunities, poverty reduction and elimination of homelessness. If sustainability does not include economic development for those who are struggling to make a living, then it is not a sustainable idea itself. As Professor Lackner mentioned, we can’t very well tell poor people in the developing world that the way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is for the rich to continue to consume at current levels and the poor to remain poor. Other panelists agreed, and Rohit Aggarwala from the Mayor’s office also made the point of connecting sustainability issues to education, quality of life and the city’s effort to reduce homelessness and poverty.

Our conversation concluded with a discussion of what individuals can do to promote sustainability. Kelly Kleinert, a medical student who is active in a number of campus environmental groups, discussed the many initiatives that students are undertaking to make the campus more sustainable.

In the end, the issue of global sustainability requires all of us to think about the effect of our lifestyles on this planet. We need our government to develop incentives to go green, we need our institutions-in this case our universities– to deploy those incentives and build sustainability into our buildings, work processes, and transport systems. We also need everyone to take personal responsibility for their own environmental impacts. Kelly and her fellow students give me hope for the future. It is our responsibility to ensure that the planet we leave to them will be a livable one. A Discussion on a Sustainable Planet, City and Campus