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Climate roundtable sparks insight and invites collaboration

The effects of a warming climate are already being felt across societies and ecosystems: people become more violent on hot days, plants fix less carbon under heat stress and current electrical grids can’t support the heavy loads needed for decarbonization. To address those and many other challenges, Cornell researchers gathered Feb. 1 for a Climate Solutions Roundtable sponsored by The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative.  

“The impacts of climate change are now; we are past the point of projection,” said Benjamin Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-chair of The 2030 Project. “2023 was the warmest year on record, and the data tells us that we've never seen this kind of temperature on the planet before with this level of human population.” 

As scientists, policymakers and citizens respond to the climate crisis, “We have to be very much aware that this is as much a sprint as it is a marathon,” Houlton said, citing the intersecting needs to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and adapt to a warmer climate. 

The Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and The 2030 Project convened the roundtable to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration between Cornell scholars, and to facilitate external partnerships, with support and funding from The 2030 Project’s new Climate Solutions Fund. Requests for proposals are being accepted now through March 29.  

“Cornell’s researchers are distinctly positioned to support the world with their innovations and insights as we seek to reduce emissions, prepare ourselves for the climatic changes to come and build a more just and sustainable world,” said Ben Furnas, executive director of The 2030 Project. “The roundtable was an opportunity to catalyze collaborations to accelerate the transformations we need for the long-term.” 

Fifteen researchers from six schools and colleges gave brief “lightning talk” presentations on the work they’re doing to advance basic science and invite collaboration. Three rounds of lightning talks included: 

  • Developing novel, nature-inspired strategies to convert abundant carbon dioxide into beneficial products such as pharmaceuticals or fuel sources. For years, scientists have experimented with strategies to transform CO2 into useful products, but because the molecule is so stable, it requires huge expenditures of energy to activate. Song Lin, Tisch University Professor of chemistry and chemical biology, said his lab is trying to mimic the way plants fix CO2, via the abundant enzyme Rubisco. In plants, Rubisco performs the first step of photosynthesis by fixing carbon dioxide.  “Instead of directly reacting or activating the highly inert CO2 molecule, you take a detour and activate something else that's easier to activate. And then use that molecule to react with CO2,” Lin said.  

  • Understanding how extreme heat impacts human behavior. Very few Mississippi prisons have air conditioning and some parts of the state see average daily temperatures above 80 degrees F for a quarter of the year, said Nicholas Sanders, associate professor in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. Indoor heat indexes can reach as high as 150 degrees F, and confined populations have no way to escape heat stress. On very hot days, “there’s about a 20% increase in the probability that there’s a prisoner-involved violent interaction” severe enough to be recorded by prison officials, he said. “Prisons display an extreme version of what we could expect in a world where there is no mitigation and there is no adaptation.” 

  • Strategies to encourage and sustain private investment in the green transition. Andrew Karolyi, the Charles Field Knight Dean of the Cornell S.C. Johnson College of Business, presented the first global study that examines the returns to investment portfolios of over 20,000 companies around the globe over the past decade, sorted by “green” and “brown” stocks. US-based companies have seen “tangible, meaningful” gains from green relative to brown investments, but there has been no similar returns spread anywhere else in the world, including in Europe, where sustainability investing so dominates, Karolyi said. “This is a paradox we need to unravel,” he said. “It is important to help motivate private capital to invest since government budgets are strapped. If you’re going to achieve long-term climate resilience, we’re going to need our capital markets to join the party.” 

  • Advancing materials for energy applications. It normally takes 10 years to create new, novel materials suitable for commercialization, but Atieh Moridi seeks to halve that timeline. An assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Moridi uses additive manufacturing, rapid screening and artificial intelligence to discover radiation-resistant materials for practical fusion reactors.  Sadaf Sobhani, also assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, studies alternative combustion technologies, with the aim of substituting carbon-based fuels for low- or no-carbon fuels, such as hydrogen, ammonia or biologically derived fuels. She uses 3-D printing to create porous structures that can tolerate more diverse fuel sources while retaining most of the heat in the device, increasing fuel efficiency.  

  • Modeling building and energy systems to support policymakers in accelerating decarbonization. Shifting energy needs from fossil fuels to clean-generated electricity will place enormous strain on electrical grids, while at the same time making those grids more dependent on fickle weather patterns.  Lindsay Anderson, professor and chair of Biological and Environmental Engineering, built a high-resolution digital simulation of the New York state grid and ran the system for 22 years with historical weather data to assess how well it coped with factors like temperature change, wind speed and solar insolation. She found that New York may need twice as much clean and controllable electrical capacity as estimated in the state’s climate legislation.  Jacob Mays, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is tackling the same issue from the angle of market reforms. Current electrical markets were designed to accommodate natural gas development. Mays hopes to develop reforms that can support investment in clean generation and storage, and support transmission infrastructure and electrification.  Timur Dogan, associate professor of architecture, seeks to address the demand side of the decarbonization problem, by developing digital twins that can help urban planners reduce energy use in buildings – which account for 33% of greenhouse gas emissions.  “There are solutions,” Anderson said. “But we need to get ahead of those solutions and think very intentionally now about how to avoid things that might set us back instead of moving us forward.” 

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.   

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