Yale puts its might behind solutions for a planet in need

(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

Yale University has launched a campus-wide initiative that will unite institutional leadership and academic experts across the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, professional schools, and the humanities in an intensive effort to tackle the environmental challenges threatening life on Earth.

The Planetary Solutions Project will identify and advance solutions for an array of the most pressing environmental problems caused by human activities — especially climate change and biodiversity loss — through enhanced resources, expanded collaborations, and boundary-pushing problem-solving.

Specific challenges before Yale’s research community include society’s need to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, develop cleaner energy sources, collect and analyze data, devise and implement public policy that promotes a sustainable future, and protect public health — particularly for communities and populations now being disproportionately harmed.

University leaders kicked off the initiative with a three-day online symposium, held Dec. 2 to 4, which was attended by nearly 300 scientists and scholars from across campus. Over three days, they exchanged research findings and ideas that will help shape this ambitious project.

The university’s strategic emphasis on planetary solutions “epitomizes Yale’s approach to tackling global problems,” Yale President Peter Salovey said. “We are rich in excellence across many fields and disciplines. We have remarkable collaborations in place, and insights from one field drive breakthroughs in another.”

Across Yale, dozens of programs and hundreds of researchers are already taking on problems related to the environment. They are fighting for environmental justice, unlocking the ways that nature sequesters carbon, and creating new methods to provide clean water. The Yale Planetary Solutions Project will bolster, broaden, and broadcast those efforts — and many others — in a sustained, prominent way.

University leaders aim to inspire cross-disciplinary collaborations that fuse technical innovations with a deep understanding of culture and behavior, new data tools for modeling and monitoring, and the best scholarship in many fields, including science, engineering, law, economics, medicine, history, architecture, and public health.

This is about big ideas,” Yale Provost Scott Strobel said during the symposium. “Big ideas related to big problems for which we’re still trying to define the parameters. Big problems that need solutions. I’m convinced that in order to do this, we need to bring the full weight, breadth, and attention of the entire university to bear on these problems.”

Yale’s vision for the Planetary Solutions Project falls into three main areas: mitigating ongoing damage to the planet; engaging with colleagues, policymakers, and the public in ways that transform ideas into fair, equitable, and effective policies; and adapting human society to climate change through new materials, energy technologies, and urban planning strategies that create a healthier world.

Mitigation

Strobel noted the dramatic stresses that human-induced climate change has brought to the planet already, from record-breaking temperatures in the Arctic to intensifying drought and hurricanes across the world.

Yale research efforts already under way are looking at strategies to mitigate these and other destructive patterns. They include ideas that could remove harmful greenhouse emissions from the atmosphere — some by mimicking or taking advantage of natural processes. For example:

  • Noah Planavsky and other geologists from the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences are looking at the processes by which rocks, forests, oceans, and croplands are able to absorb and store harmful CO2.
  • Climate scientist Mary-Louise Timmermans studies ice loss and accelerated warming in the Arctic, and the possibility of using sea ice as a platform for making precise observations with ice-tethered profiler instruments.
  • Climate scientist Alexey Fedorov investigates global weather systems and phenomena such as El Niño patterns that influence flooding and hurricanes worldwide.
  • Karen Seto, a professor of geography and urbanization at the Yale School of the Environment, has pioneered the use of data-driven models of urban growth to help shape strategies for new cities with sustainable building materials and urban forests, and which promote public health equity for all residents.
  • Erika Edwards from the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and a host of colleagues across disciplines are searching for ways that biodiversity can speed up or slow down evolution — designing hardier crops, curtailing invasive species, or, for instance, studying the iridescence of giant clams as a blueprint for new biofuels.

The natural world is going to provide us with a lot of the solutions we need,” said Edwards, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, curator of botany at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and director of Marsh Botanical Garden.

We have barely scratched the surface of what’s out there.”

Engagement

Collaboration and communication are also critical for solving the global environmental challenge society faces, and they will be key parts of the Planetary Solutions Project.

Yale scholars across many fields are working together to support research that stimulates new ideas and are engaging with the public and policymakers to transform these ideas into scalable solutions.

We at Yale must be willing to cross boundaries,” Nobel laureate and Sterling Professor of Economics William Nordhaus said during his symposium address. “The solutions are from around Yale and they’re in this audience.”

A prime example of Yale’s environmental leadership is the notion of establishing a “social price of carbon” — a critical concept in modern environmental management that Nordhaus developed. It incorporates elements of macroeconomics, mathematics, climatology, and computer science.

Carbon pricing has become one of the most widely discussed ideas in climate policy in the U.S. and around the world, and it factors into sustainable business practices on a global scale. The concept is at the heart of the Yale Carbon Charge, a campus-wide initiative that promotes innovative strategies to reduce carbon emissions and that studies best practices for implementing carbon pricing programs.

Field-leading ideas to strengthen engagement and collaboration also permeate Yale’s scholarship in the humanities and social sciences:

  • Historian Joseph Manning has done extensive research connecting global volcanic activity and cultural records from ancient Egypt.
  • Anthony Leiserowitz and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication have conducted groundbreaking work pinpointing how the public perceives climate change, its cause, and related policies.
  • Political economist Kenneth Scheve studies the role of political support in implementing carbon pricing.
  • Sociologist Justin Farrell has explored the financial underpinnings of climate change denial and the way environmental messages are received in the American West.
  • Deborah Coen, chair of the History of Science & Medicine Program, focuses her research on modern physical and environmental science and the need to reckon with the sometimes-unintended consequences of scientific advances.

Environmental problems and their solutions can only be fully understood, engaged, and addressed if we tackle their human dimensions,” said Paul Sabin, professor of history and American studies. “Our humanity is at the heart of the challenge as to why we’re struggling to resolve them.”

Adaptation

Resilient, adaptive technologies and innovations will also be essential to finding planetary solutions, Yale leaders said.

Indy Burke, the Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean of the Yale School of the Environment, said Yale must advance the capacity to model, monitor, and analyze environmental data. The university, she said, also must inspire innovation and nimbleness to deal with environmental “surprises” that are likely to emerge.

Our vision for planetary solutions, particularly for adapting, is that human ingenuity has dramatically advanced human well-being,” Burke said. “But these advances have had, and will have, unintended consequences that are sometimes irreversible. Yale University will contribute the knowledge and leadership for planetary solutions for continued well-being for humans on the globe.”

An array of Yale research projects and programs have begun this work: 

  • Epidemiologist Saad Omer and colleagues at the Yale Institute for Global Health are taking an interdisciplinary approach to alleviating health inequities in several parts of the world, including inequities exacerbated by climate change.
  • Robert DuBrow, director of the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health at the Yale School of Public Health, has led an assessment of how climate change is affecting the health of Connecticut residents.
  • Chemists Gary Brudvig and Judy Cha, along with dozens of researchers at the Energy Sciences Institute at Yale West Campus, are helping to create new materials and catalysts to revolutionize clean energy storage.
  • Environmental engineer Menachem Elimelech is conducting breakthrough research in nanotechnology-enabled water treatment and finding new sources of fresh water worldwide.
  • Julie Zimmerman and Paul Anastas are helping lead a wave of “green chemistry” that, among many other things, envisions chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate hazardous substances.

What sets us apart is the breadth of excellence at Yale,” said Omer, a professor at the School of Medicine and director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. “There is this ability to come together to solve problems across disciplines.”

In closing remarks at the symposium, Strobel said Yale is already conducting world-class research on Earth systems that have been pushed beyond safe functioning limits, and on the impacts to biodiversity, ecosystems, human health, and justice.

Now is the time to connect those efforts, and to find new collaborators and methods of inquiry,” he said. “We are convinced that human innovation was the cause of these problems, and human innovations will provide the solutions.”

Share this with Facebook Share this with Twitter Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643