Future of Climate and Energy Policy: Constructing Columbia University's Climate Task Force

Alex N. Halliday is the Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He is also a scientist who pioneered developments in mass spectrometry, helping shed light on processes that affect Earth’s surface environment. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Halliday about the Earth Institute, Columbia University’s new climate taskforce, and the future of climate and energy policy.

Sir Alex Halliday
February 11, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): You are a scientist with over 400 published research papers. But you are also involved in a lot of different efforts that are not necessarily explicitly tied to science. How do you simplify your technical knowledge to reach the layperson, especially when it comes to climate change?

Alex Halliday (AH): My background is very broad scientifically; even though I’m a geoscientist, I have ended up working on things as different as mineral deposits, the origin of the earth, planets, and the moon, research on the oceans and air circulation, and studies of volcanoes. Most recently, we have been involved in work on cancer, on pollution and on human nutrition. Much of this is because my work builds upon technical innovations in isotope geochemistry, specifically mass spectrometry. The applications of those techniques can be diverse. 

That variety is actually very helpful. When you develop new laboratory techniques and apply them in different ways, you start thinking about opportunities they afford where their usage might benefit society. For example, this has allowed me most recently to use new isotopic techniques for measuring tungsten to study the formation of Earth’s core, but also the modern oceans. Similarly, we have been studying zinc isotopes on the Moon, but also in pancreatic and breast cancer. 

When I was the dean of science and engineering at Oxford, my focus had to be even broader. I realized was that we needed to work together across the university in order to more effectively engage on the issues of climate change and energy. We also needed to work on things like biodiversity, water, and so on. So I proposed that we establish the Oxford Networks for the Environment or ONE,which got the university working across these issues. We realized how powerful this was when we discovered that we had 200 research groups across Oxford University working on energy; something we had not appreciated before. So there was far greater strength within the university to do things than had been jointly harnessed. 

When I worked with the Royal Society, I also held discussions about energy related issues and climate. We provided advice to government on certain policies, including negative emissions and carbon capture and use. I found that this breadth of my past work has meant I can engage with many different communities here at Columbia. 

To make progress on issues like climate it is necessary to also engage with the public, politicians, businesses, and local stakeholders. Much of my focus has been on asking how to get the broader public engaged in what we are interested in and what we think is important. In reality of course it is a two way thing where as academics we ourselves can learn so much from engaging and listening. 

There are both complications and tricks associated with this. One is that to make discoveries, scientists have to do a deep dive into a specific topic. They have to know a lot of technical jargon, and it is quite hard to communicate that more broadly. The trick is that people are just fascinated by science and by discoveries that raise interesting questions. People also love to hear about big scientific challenges. They also have their own thinking about the issues we face. The things we don’t know, the things we’d like to know. Sometimes people come at these from a religious perspective, sometimes they come from a fundamental view of what’s right and wrong in society. 

There are many opportunities to engage and connect. It is a question of communicating the amazing science to people in a way that is relevant and captures their imagination. I think we need to do much more of that, whether it is with politicians or more broadly in society. 

JIA: How can science and public policy work together to come up with solutions to climate change? 

AH: I think one of the reasons the Earth Institute is so successful is because it brings together scientists, medical experts and engineers who understand many things about the physical and biological environment with policy, legal and business experts who understand how to affect and effect things at the government level nationally and regionally. We also bring in individuals from architecture and planning who can design more resilient infrastructure to reflect the need to adapt to climate change. I think that this trans-disciplinary working is a wonderful strength of Columbia and the Earth Institute in particular. 

The School of International and Public Affairs is a great school to have as part of an inventory of amazing academic organizations here. Based upon what I know around issues of climate and energy, we need more policy people. At Columbia, we have many who understand important aspects of climate change but who then need to feed that work into policy. For example, it is necessary to understand climate modeling, feedbacks, changes in the biosphere, food security, water security, urban development, technology, and how they all relate to each other in a climate context. Columbia University can take science, engineering, policy, ethics, law, culture and ask, “what will this do for society?” It is a complicated interplay. There is nowhere else to sort out this question except at a University where people can work in a cross-disciplinary fashion. There is a danger that universities become or remain ivory towers, disconnected from real people and communities. Generally speaking, universities are dominated by people from the middle to upper classes. It is great and hugely important to strive to be more inclusive than that. However, it is essential to do this for a topic like climate where under-privileged groups and communities are disproportionately impacted. There need to be deep discussions around societal adaptation with communities more broadly so they feel they are part of the discussion. Additionally, universities need to frame the discussions not in terms of what just works for the United States but also what works globally. 

JIA: Climate change science is often politicized in the U.S. How do you deal with this in your work? Is this something different from what you experienced in the UK? 

AH: In Europe, politics is not really a factor in the climate discussion. There are major political issues around climate change, but there is bipartisan support for action. The science is providing important indicators of what society has to be prepared for. There also is respect for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a cautious body, that carries both a high degree of integrity but also a concern not to over-hype its findings. 

In the U.S., rather surprisingly, climate has become a political issue between parties. I think this may be because one party saw it as an important issue to raise many years ago. So it became something the opposition had to dismiss. Another aspect to it is that the U.S is now the number one producer of oil and gas in the world. 

We now are energy independent. We also are a major producer of automobiles and aerospace technology. Therefore, significant parts of the economy are built upon America’s exploitation of hydrocarbons. This becomes an issue when it comes to people’s jobs and livelihoods in the context of climate policy. 

An important part of the solution to the climate crisis is the way communities themselves approach decarbonization and renewable energy. Some see this as an interesting opportunity. For example, there has been tremendous growth in wind power in Texas. There are some who see renewables as a way to get away from the grid, a chance for independence. On the other hand, there are people who are going to lose their jobs as a result of changing the way we are doing energy. There are also going to be manufacturing practices that are going to have to change. 

It’s also possible, for example, that the oil and gas industry could play a major role in the solutions, for example by helping us figure out how to take carbon dioxide and store it safely underground. They’re the only ones who really know how to build that kind of infrastructure. 

It is a question of how to create incentives to do things differently, but a key part has to be responding adequately to people’s concerns and to make things work for communities. 

It is pretty clear talking to Republicans that many do “get” the climate change issue and polls done by a variety of organizations show that opinion is shifting. People are starting to recognize that climate change is an important problem across America. So there is still a difference between Republicans and Democrats on average, but that is evolving. 

JIA: The Columbia University Task Force on Climate Change was announced recently, which you will head. Where did the idea of the task force come from? What will it consist of and what are your plans? 

AH: Since arriving at the Earth Institute a year and a half ago, I have noticed that the university’s leadership is especially interested in climate change. There is enthusiasm and engagement. The Trustees wanted to know what Columbia is doing in the area of climate change, so I invited a group of faculty to join me in talking about the subject around a presentation that we put together. Columbia University has a strong climate portfolio, as we have great labs, energy engineering, public health, and economics that give us a varied ability to take on such a diverse subject. President Lee Bollinger could see the argument that Columbia University might be the best major university in the world for taking action on climate. 

The climate crisis is multifaceted and all-encompassing. Columbia has the ability to help solve these problems and convene the discussions that are needed. If you have the capability and the opportunity, you also have a responsibility. Universities are sources of learning where we all pursue our own academic interests; the place where we educate others. But we should also have a strong focus on what else we do for the world. So if we have great climate science, energy engineering, environmental health, and policy, we need to ask ourselves, how involved are we in decision making? How do we develop subjects like climate ethics or law or justice? How big are we in terms of the narrative around climate change in the arts and the humanities? Could we draw upon our expertise in anthropology and history more effectively to explore the human impacts of climate change? What about the psychological impacts of the looming climate crisis on young people? Columbia is very strong in climate research and education but we have the capacity to do, and be, much more. 

If we can find a more effective way to harness Columbia’s disciplines, we could be hugely impactful. If we do this right, we also have the chance to influence other universities around the world. Universities are intensely competitive institutions. They compete with each other for students, who’s going to get a Nobel Prize, and so on. But this is a situation where we need universities to work together. We can get institutions to collectively think about climate change in a way that we have not been able to do previously. 

Overall, the task force will focus on creating something new that will make a real impact, given how distributed the subject is. One of our ideas is to start a climate school. This seems like a radical idea. As we have talked to people, we have had various reactions. Some people believe it is fantastic. Others are worried about what it might mean for their own schools at Columbia. If we develop this idea, it needs to work for the university and be extremely broad while focusing on major issues. Setting up a task force is not to represent every view, because climate change is too dispersed as a topic. Representing every constituency would be challenging. Therefore, we need to connect directly with a number of constituencies and ask them for their ideas and feedback, which is what we have been doing. So I am talking with each school about the ideas, what they might be willing to do, and to find out what they see as the real opportunities we can create. 

JIA: You mentioned that one challenge is being representative of the entire community. Do you foresee other challenges? 

AH: Columbia University’s got a model for working that is quite evolved. Much of the power goes to the schools. They decide what should happen, how they are going to do things, who to appoint to different positions etc. To some extent the structure of those schools reflects their discipline. So in order to develop something new, one of the things to consider is how to create a fluid structure. We need these different bits of the university to work together even though they have different ways of working. We need to think of connecting people, making it easy for them to work together and making it non-bureaucratic. Our structure has to be adaptable, nimble and able to evolve, because we will be tackling climate change for decades. 

We want to have real application in the world. We have opportunities and, at the same time, we must support the university. We have not got it all figured out, but that’s what the taskforce has been thinking about. Our preliminary findings our being delivered in a report to President Bollinger. It is exciting, but also important.