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Sustainability pioneers: Renewable energy, new tech and social sciences needed to tackle climate change

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Jeff Tyson

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released a landmark report on the state of global warming that emphasizes the need for “unprecedented” actions to control climate change and avoid a crisis by 2040. The following Cornell researchers are available for interviews to discuss what is needed to mitigate global warming:


Natalie Mahowald

Faculty director of environment at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Natalie Mahowald is a lead author of the U.N. report and faculty director of the environment at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. She says sustainable sources of energy such as wind and solar, as well as new technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, will be needed to keep global warming at bay.

Mahowald says:

“Ambitious mitigation will be required to keep climate change below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This means conversion to sustainable energy (wind or solar for example) and sustainable agriculture as quickly as possible. Changes in behavior such as energy conservation or shifts in diet can make a huge difference in cutting emissions. In addition, development of new technologies or methods to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere may well be required to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“We are already seeing the result of climate change on extreme events, for example an increase in the intensity of precipitation, increased heat waves and droughts. The climate impacts from 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming are less than that from 2.0 degrees Celsius or higher temperatures. The lower we can keep the global warming, the less climate impacts there will be.”

Jonathon Schuldt

Jonathon Schuldt

Assistant professor, Department of Communication

Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University and a faculty fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, researches environmental communication. He says it’s important not to forget the "political and social aspects" of climate change mitigation.

Schuldt says:

“It is crucial to bear in mind the political and social aspects of addressing climate change. Avoiding 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees warmer will require technological and systems innovation, but there are profound social dimensions of climate change that will need to be addressed as well, and social science is teaching us more about those every day. 

“As just one example, there is a persistent narrative that members of the major U.S. political parties disagree on the basic belief that climate change is really happening. But if you look at polling data, that’s not actually true: a majority of Republicans and Democrats alike report believing that anthropogenic climate change is real. Nevertheless, this narrative of disagreement can still have a pernicious effect if it leads us to assume there’s less public will for climate action than there really is. To be sure, members of the public disagree on climate change, but that disagreement is increasingly focused on which actions we should take, rather than whether the problem exists."

Karen Pinkus

professor of Italian and comparative literature

Karen Pinkus, professor of Italian and comparative literature at Cornell University and faculty fellow in the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, has worked for over a decade in the field of environmental humanities with a focus on climate change. She says the U.N.’s report highlights the need for comprehensive action on climate change that accounts for the “human dimension.”

Pinkus says:

“The report confirms what many of us already know. Reforms through democratic political channels or through the courts, energy transitions, shifts in the behaviors of individuals — none of these measures up. None of these addresses the carbon already in the atmosphere now and for millennia to come. Radical change is coming whether we like it or not.

“We need immediate research into how different actions to mitigate the effects of climate change or to remove carbon from the atmosphere might be governed, how they might potentially be bottom up rather than top down, how they could be run by communities and new social organizations.

“This work requires imagination and speculation about every aspect of the future, from how we might work to how we might produce food, to where we would choose to build housing or rebuild housing destroyed by extreme weather events; from immigration policies to the way we raise children.”


Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.