Yale and climate change: A world of research

Solar panels at Yale West Campus.
Yale’s solar array at West Campus has 4,400 panels, covering nearly two acres of rooftop.

In his first press conference after winning the 2018 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work connecting climate change to the global economy, Sterling Professor of Economics William Nordhaus took a moment to reflect on how Yale helps him address one of the world’s most pressing problems.

It came near the end of his remarks. Nordhaus paused at the podium and told the assembled reporters there was one more thing he needed to say. He talked about Yale’s commitment to recruiting excellent students and faculty, its tradition of nurturing big ideas, and its ability to create an environment of rigorous intellectual discussion.

One of the things that is underappreciated is the role of great institutions, or of institutions in general, in providing the support — not just financial support, but emotional support and intellectual support — for doing the kind of work that this prize recognizes,” he said.

Yale’s climate-change and environmental research is a clear case in point. Throughout the university, there are faculty, students, and staff fully engaged in analyzing the geophysical forces at play in global warming, developing and testing economic policies and behavioral tools that might reduce carbon emissions, exploring innovative technologies in energy production, carbon dioxide removal and clean water, collecting and evaluating hard data on the relationship between global warming and public health, and parsing the public’s ever-evolving opinions on climate change.

Home to multidisciplinary research, dynamic educational programs, and forums for convening diverse experts, Yale is uniquely positioned to help the world understand and mitigate climate change,” said President Peter Salovey. “We face an historic obligation to respond boldly, creatively, and meaningfully to build a more sustainable future.” Salovey has appointed a task force to determine how quickly Yale can reach its goal of net zero carbon emissions.

William Nordhaus
At his press conference after winning the 2018 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, Sterling Professor of Economics William Nordhaus talked about Yale’s role in aiding his work.

Climate change presents one of the great challenges of our time; to address it, we’re going to need creativity, expertise, and people who can think across disciplines and beyond boundaries,” said Indy Burke, the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).

Yale scholars are at the forefront of research on climate change and are examining it from a wide range of perspectives,” Burke continued. “Whether they are studying its profound ecological, economic, and health implications, the costs and potential benefits of increasing urbanization, possible technical innovations, the critical carbon storage benefits provided by the world’s forests, or climate justice and the impacts on vulnerable populations, members of this community are producing world-leading research on this critical issue.”

Today Yale announced the formation of the Yale Carbon Offset Laboratory (COLAb), headed up by Dean Takahashi, who is stepping down from his role as senior director of the Yale Investments Office. COLAb will take a multidisciplinary approach to develop and support innovative technologies that sequester and store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale, with methods that can be tested and validated quickly and inexpensively.

The lab, based at F&ES, will aim to offset more than 1 billion tons of global carbon dioxide emissions over the long term, targeting more than 10 million tons in emissions offsets by 2030.

Yale is a place where we should be coming up with big ideas that have global impact,” Takahashi said in announcing COLab. “We want to find the kinds of projects that could reduce global carbon emissions safely at a large scale but at a low cost.”

From international indexes to a campus carbon charge

Nordhaus, considered by many to be the world’s leading economist on climate change, earned his Nobel for a body of work that treats carbon emissions and other aspects of climate change as important variables in the global economy. 

One concept often associated with Nordhaus is carbon pricing — a fixed price used as a way to account for carbon emissions within any plan for long-term economic growth. It would ultimately reduce carbon emissions, the theory goes, as manufacturers become motivated to find better alternatives to products that are carbon-based.

At Yale, Nordhaus chaired a task force that recommended Yale institute a carbon charge on campus. The Yale Carbon Charge, the first of its kind at a college or university, launched in 2017. Its work testing the impact of carbon pricing on emissions has been cited as a model for other institutions around the world.

Each month we share with campus financial managers and facilities superintendents an energy report that includes the financial impact of the carbon charge. Several have responded with initiatives to reduce energy consumption,” said Casey Pickett, director of the Carbon Charge. “We continue to learn from the carbon-charge experiment. It is making clearer which actors in the institution can access which levers of change to reduce carbon emissions.”

Likewise, Yale has drawn national and international attention from its involvement in other climate change initiatives:

  • The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), a research center within F&ES, has conducted groundbreaking work polling the American public on climate change. YPCCC, led by director Anthony Leiserowitz, has disseminated its research via a series of widely seen reports, videos, and innovative audio programs.
  • The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a biennial report produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. Daniel C. Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Hillhouse Professor at Yale, is the driving force behind EPI, which ranks countries on 24 performance indicators in 10 categories that cover environmental health and ecosystem vitality.
  •  The Kerry Initiative at Yale, an interdisciplinary program led by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, addresses global challenges via teaching, research, and dialogue. The Kerry Initiative hosted a Yale Climate Conference in 2017 that convened business, political, and diplomatic leaders to set a policy agenda for addressing climate change.
  • The Max Planck-Yale Center for Biodiversity Movement and Global Change, founded in 2018, is bringing new technology and expertise to bear in advancing scientific knowledge of species movement through time. Walter Jetz, director of the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change, is co-director of the center.
  • The Yale Environmental Dialogue (YED), a new F&ES-based initiative, builds on the university’s ability to convene experts across disciplines to advance new climate strategies. YED is hosting a series of U.S. events, including during Climate Week in New York, to promote conversation on potential climate solutions. Next month, YED will publish a book, “A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future,” in which a range of experts propose new solutions, from utilizing the potential of genomics, to advancing solar-fuel technologies, to developing strategies for corporate sustainability, to building public will for new climate policies.

Putting the science in climate science

Yale researchers are also in the laboratory and the field making discoveries.

The Department of Geology and Geophysics (G&G) has been a hub of climate-change research. “I would say our biggest strengths, both historically and now, include research on the physics of how climate affects the circulation and heat budgets in the ocean, atmosphere, and cryosphere, which are all of the physics at the heart of climate predictions,” said David Bercovici, the Frederick W. Beinecke Professor of Geology and Geophysics and chair of G&G. “Another strength is research on the geochemistry of climate proxies, which are used to infer climate in the geological past. This is important for having observations and data for what Earth was like when it had CO2 levels similar to where we’re heading now, something not seen since 3 million years ago.”

Alexey Fedorov, professor of ocean and atmospheric sciences, received a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship for his leading work on climate and ocean dynamics. His research into Arctic sea ice melting, El Nino events, and the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation has contributed a growing body of knowledge about how global warming may alter major climate systems.

In July, Mary-Louise Timmermans, professor and G&G director of undergraduate studies, received the President’s Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to researchers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology. Timmermans has done extensive work on Arctic Ocean heat and freshwater storage and transport in that region, including a 2018 study showing that warmer water had penetrated deep into the interior of the Arctic.

At Yale’s Energy Sciences Institute (ESI) on West Campus, a variety of disciplines converge to focus on environmental challenges. Directed by Gary Brudvig, the Benjamin Silliman Professor of Chemistry and professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, the center is exploring multiple approaches to finding new methods and materials for energy production and storage. ESI conducts research on solar energy, alternative fuels, and carbon mitigation, while tapping into expertise from Yale chemists, engineers, geologists, and physicists.

Menachem Elimelech, the Roberto Goizueta Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has made major strides in clean water research. Since coming to Yale in 1998, Elimelech has focused on water desalination technology, improving water and sanitation in developing countries, understanding the environmental implications of nanomaterials, and creating sustainable production of water and energy generation with engineered osmosis.

Meanwhile, F&ES remains another campus focal point for climate change research. For example, associate professor of industrial environmental management Marian Chertow is a co-principal investigator for an upcoming project that will look at whether humans can collaborate with robots to solve the “impurity” issues that threaten the global recycling industry.

Last year, F&ES introduced a new curriculum specialization for students on climate change science and solutions, which will focus on the science of climate change and effective ways to address it. The school also created a visiting professorship in climate change.

Other recent F&ES studies are looking at new ways to track the migration of salt marshes as a result of sea level rise, trends in global water usage, and an analysis of how storms and other factors influence the release of greenhouse gases from inland waters.

The Yale Center for Business and the Environment, a collaboration between F&ES and the Yale School of Management, trains future business and environmental sector leaders with an eye toward applying novel business solutions to systemic environmental problems.

Adding people to the equation

Some of Yale’s greatest strides in climate change research have involved the human element — ways in which global warming is affecting human health today and also how major climate events altered human behavior in the ancient past.

Since 2016, the Climate Change and Health Initiative (CCHI) at the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) has taken a multidisciplinary approach to study different facets of the issue. “We see climate change as the biggest public health challenge of the 21st century,” said Robert Dubrow, director of CCHI.

Dubrow said public health intersects with climate change at many points, from heat waves, air pollution, and drought to hurricanes that disrupt medical care for months or even years, to infectious diseases that spread because of flooded sewage systems or the presence of disease-carrying insects that are able to live in higher elevations that are becoming warmer.

Kai Chen, an assistant professor who joined CCHI this year, is conducting innovative research on the health effects of climate change and air pollution, as well as their interactive effects; Jodi Sherman, an associate professor of anesthesiology at the Yale School of Medicine and associate professor of epidemiology in environmental health sciences at YSPH, has gained attention for her work in uncovering the oversized environmental footprint of the healthcare sector and in making this sector more sustainable.

Last December, the university established the Yale Institute for Global Health (YIGH), a university-wide effort to address global health issues, including those affected by climate change. YIGH is led by the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health, working with global partners to improve the health of populations worldwide.

In the Department of History, environmental historian Joseph Manning heads up an interdisciplinary project to study the link between climate change and human populations in the ancient world. Specifically, the National Science Foundation-funded project will look at how volcanic eruptions affected the Nile watershed in historic times, altering Egyptian history for 2,000 years.

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, an administrator of the award, will develop a traveling exhibition program as part of the project.

Yale Farm
Yale’s sustainability efforts on campus reflect the urgency of its relevant academic research.

Sustainable Yale

Yale’s on-campus sustainability efforts reflect the urgency of its relevant academic research.

President Salovey has formed a task force to examine how quickly the university can achieve net zero carbon emissions. In 2016, Yale set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2050, working with the Yale Office of Sustainability and a host of individual programs to take both immediate and long-term climate action. Those efforts range from nurturing new, progressive approaches to building design, to implementing smart irrigation systems, to piloting a “pay as you throw” program to encourage recycling and reduce waste.

Current work has yielded reductions in greenhouse gas emissions despite growth in campus size, but President Salovey noted that around the globe, carbon emissions are at an all-time high. “We have a responsibility to do more to create a better future and to show others how to address a problem we all share,” he said.

Yale also has a solar array at West Campus and plans to expand the use of solar on campus. The West Campus installation has 4,400 panels, covering nearly two acres of rooftop, and generates 1.6 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.

For the 2019-2020 academic year, Yale’s 14 residential colleges have adopted sustainability action plans tailored to each campus community. These come on the heels of action plans implemented by Yale’s professional schools and a number of departmental units in 2018.

Yale is committed to building a better world, and that includes the sustainability decisions we make here on campus as students, faculty, and staff,” said Virginia Chapman, director of the Yale Office of Sustainability. “We have ambitious sustainability goals, as outlined in our Yale Sustainability Plan 2025, which echoes the pathbreaking work being done by our research colleagues. This is the defining issue of our time.”

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Media Contact

Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332