News & Events

The latest climate change news from Cornell and beyond.


Vietnam — a microcosm of a globally changing climate

Mike Hoffmann, Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, Faculty Fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a professor in the Department of Entomology.

Mike Hoffmann, Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, Faculty Fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a professor in the Department of Entomology.

By Mike Hoffmann, Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, Faculty Fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a professor in the Department of Entomology. Originally posted on Cornell’s site.

As I mucked my way at sunrise to the mess hall I saw the horizon rise up miles away — the result of tons of bombs dropping from B 52’s. At the time, I was a young Marine witnessing the formidable firepower of the U.S. military in action during the war in Vietnam — a tiny country about the size of New Mexico. In total, the U.S. dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia along with defoliants sprayed on millions of acres of forests and agricultural land.

During a visit last year I stood on what was left of the An Hoa U.S. Marine base airstrip near where I trudged to breakfast 47 years ago. I had returned to Vietnam for two reasons; one was personal, just to see what it looked like today. The second was professional: As the executive director of the Cornell University Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, I wanted to see first-hand how climate change was affecting Vietnam. This is an important mission, because our combined carbon footprints not only impact our home nations, but all nations, including Vietnam. Looking at this issue from another perspective: While bombs are no longer dropping from B-52s in Vietnam, the U.S. has contributed more than a quarter of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So even though the war ended decades ago, we are still altering the landscape of Vietnam and affecting its people — seas are rising and it is getting hotter.

With 2,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam faces extraordinary challenges due to our warming climate — and it could serve as a bellwether of future climate-change impacts on agriculture and infrastructure everywhere. Continuing on our current path of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions will take us into dangerous territory: We are looking at a future world of more violent storms, mass displacement of people, and increasing social and economic turmoil. Record-breaking heat, forests devastated from fires and insects, and ominous changes to our oceans and glaciers — all very obvious to those who are willing to see. Vietnam has a new battle to fight, but it is part of a battle we all must fight if we are to sustain the environment that sustains us.

In Vietnam, the impacts of climate change are particularly intense for the Mekong River Delta, a region about six feet above sea level where Vietnam grows 50 percent of its rice — and home to more than 17 million people. Salt water intrusion caused in part by sea-level rise, along with higher temperatures, is making the region less suitable for production of rice and other crops. Even the farming of shrimp, a salt-tolerant creature, can be challenged by excessively salty conditions.

Vietnam grows much of its own food but is also an important agricultural exporter; it is the second largest producer of coffee and one of the top exporters of rice in the world, and a major exporter of fish and shrimp valued at more than $6 billion per year. Vietnam is also one the fastest growing markets for importing U.S. food and agricultural products such as cotton, soybeans, nuts and dairy, and is an important link in our interconnected and interdependent global food system.

The Vietnamese are a resilient people, having survived centuries of war and conflict — but what about climate change with its wide-ranging impacts? How do you keep back the seas? How do you cool down the atmosphere? Where will all the people move to as the seas begin to swamp the vast Mekong Delta, the coastal cities, and other low-lying areas? Take this a step further and think about how Manhattan would react to rising sea waters lapping at its streets.


The Mekong Delta, just six feet above sea level, seems a world away, but much of New York City is less than 16 feet above sea level, and parts of lower Manhattan are just five feet above sea level.

To make things worse, some climatologists predict that seas around New York would rise twice as much as the rest of the U.S. coast. New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Boston, Honolulu and hundreds more US cities are at risk as the seas rise.

Some of the challenges facing agriculture in the Mekong are being addressed by development of more salt and heat-tolerant rice varieties and by using a three-pond shrimp and fish farming strategy, in which one pond holds fresh water that is used to dilute water in the other two ponds when they become too salty. A number of Vietnamese and global organizations are supporting these efforts and others intended to help sustain food production in the Mekong. These efforts are showing positive results, but unless the world comes to grip with the production of CO2 and methane that drive climate change, the plight of agriculture will worsen, whether it is in Vietnam, Kansas or the Ukraine. And neighborhoods around the world, from Saigon to SoHo, ultimately could face encroaching sea levels.

We have much to learn from Vietnam. For other veterans of the war, I encourage you to return. It is moving on. It is so different today. For all others — visit. Enjoy the amazing food, the rich culture and take in the remnants of the war — but also see and learn from this new environmental battle that ultimately will affect us all, no matter where we live on this planet: A rapidly warming climate that is approaching a ‘point of no return.’

Author Michael Pollan to deliver Iscol lecture April 27


Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Cornell Chronicle [2017-04-11]:

Michael Pollan, environmentalist and best-selling author, will present “Out of the Garden” at the 2017 Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture April 27 at 5 p.m. in Kennedy Hall’s Call Alumni Auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public, and will be livestreamed on CornellCast.

For a quarter-century, Pollan has written about the spaces where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment. He is the author of five New York Times best-sellers: “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” and “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.”

In his recent Netflix documentary based on his book “Cooked,” Pollan explores the primal need to cook – through the lenses of fire, water, air and earth – as he surveys the history of food preparation and its universal ability to connect us.

He has written about the environment, food safety, health and obesity, meat, plants, seeds and sustainable agricultural practices. Pollan connected climate change to modern farming in “A Secret Weapon to Fight Climate Change: Dirt.”

Pollan grew up on Long Island and earned a bachelor’s degree from Bennington College and a master’s degree from Columbia University. In 2003, he was appointed the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.

The Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture – hosted by the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future – brings eminent scholars, scientists, newsmakers and opinion leaders to Cornell to address environmental issues. The lecture series was established in 1999 and it recognizes interdisciplinary scholarship on the frontier of scientific inquiry.

Last year, the series brought Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author Sheryl WuDunn; in 2015, the series featured actor and environmental activist Ted Danson. Other noted lecturers include environmentalist Bill McKibben and Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway and former director-general of the World Health Organization.

In the news: Students take to Capitol Hill and more


Becky Cardinali, clockwise from bottom, Tiana Le, Kerry Mullins and Jeff Fralick in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.

Becky Cardinali, clockwise from bottom, Tiana Le, Kerry Mullins and Jeff Fralick in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.

Students share tales of global climate change on Capitol Hill [Cornell Chronicle 2017-04-04] - After traveling through Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in January, examining climate change through the lens of another country, four Cornell students toured the halls of Congress in late March to tell legislators all about it. “Society is facing huge problems with a changing climate, and it’s important to remind representatives that their actions not only affect Americans and the world today, but these actions can have long-lasting implications for future generations,” said Kerry Mullins ’18, one of the students on the trip.

Survey details impact of 2016 drought on New York farming  [Cornell Chronicle 2017-04-06] - A survey of more than 200 New York farmers late last summer – during the worst drought in two generations – found that more than 70 percent of unirrigated, rain-fed field crops and pasture acreage had losses between 30 and 90 percent, according to a new report published by the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions. “New York’s farmers have asked if they should expect more dry summers like the one we had in 2016. The answer is: We don’t know,” said Shannan Sweet, a postdoctoral associate in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, working with David Wolfe, professor of horticulture. “Climate scientists forecast that the number of frost-free days will continue to increase and summers will be getting warmer, increasing water demand for crops.”

Engineer Max Zhang awarded Engaged Scholar Prize  [Cornell Chronicle 2017-04-06] - Max Zhang, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who has devoted his career to the development of sustainable communities, is the recipient of Cornell’s second annual Engaged Scholar Prize, Vice Provost Judith Appleton announced April 6. Zhang directs the Energy and the Environment Research Laboratory (EERL) and is a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. His current research is supported by agencies such as the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the National Science Foundation.

In the news: Tapping Traditional Wisdom and more

Tapping Traditional Wisdom to Cope with Climate Change [Inside Science 2017-03-28] - From the mountains of Tajikistan to Standing Rock in the Dakotas, scientists are collaborating with indigenous people to study climate change and predict the future. ”The irony of climate change is that the people that are at the vanguard of climate change are the people who did not contribute to it,” says Karim-Aly Kassam, a human ecologist at Cornell University. Kassam is part of a Cornell team helping communities in Asia’s Pamir Mountains recalibrate their seasonal-indicator ecological calendars to reckon the future effects of climate change. Read more.

In other recent news:

Marine microalgae races through a "photobioreactor" at Cellana's Kona Demonstration Facility in Hawaii.

Marine microalgae races through a “photobioreactor” at Cellana’s Kona Demonstration Facility in Hawaii.

Microalgae could play key role in relieving climate warming [Cornell Chronicle 2017-03-28] - Think better living through marine microalgae, as it may become crucial to mitigate atmospheric greenhouse gases, reduce carbon dioxide emissions from commercial agriculture and steady the global climate, Although more solar farms, wind turbines and hydro systems are creating fossil-free electricity, Charles H. Greene, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, reminds us that aircraft and ships still require liquid fuels. In a green way, biofuels made from marine microalgae could wean industrialized society from carbon-based fossil fuels, according to this new report, “Geoengineering, Marine Microalgae and Climate Stabilization in the 21st Century.” Read more.

Cornell leaders discuss Earth Source Heat at Ithaca forum [Cornell Chronicle 2017-03-30] - Members of Cornell’s Senior Leaders Climate Action Group (SLCAG) presented highlights of their report, “Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus by 2035,” at a public meeting March 28 in downtown Ithaca. Cornell’s large campus and northeastern location present challenges to achieving carbon neutrality. In its report, the group considered sustainable energy technologies and a multipronged approach to reducing demand and increasing supply. SCLAG ultimately recommended moving ahead with enhanced geothermal, wind, water, solar and biomass. Read more.


What the climate change executive order means for clean energy

David Wolfe

David Wolfe

In a commentary on the Fortune Magazine website [2017-03-28], Horticulture Section professor David Wolfe weighs in:

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump is expected to release an executive order that rolls back Obama-era environmental protections. This plan should worry anyone who cares about the environment or America’s economic future, as it takes the country backward in global climate change leadership. Instead of galvanizing public and private forces to meet today’s energy and environmental challenges, Trump will essentially surrender that responsibility to other nations.

The order will reportedly expand energy extraction on public lands and gut the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce emissions from outmoded and heavily polluting power plants and provide businesses with financial incentives for expanding new technologies such as wind and solar farms. Trump’s latest actions come on the heels of a proposed 31% cut in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget and a directive for the EPA to review motor vehicle energy-efficiency standards that were also put in place under Obama.

Trump’s climate and energy policy is based on the false premise that a world with safeguards for clean air and water and a stable climate is incompatible with economic growth. It reflects a fear of change, rather than a worldview that seeks to turn our environmental challenges into economic opportunities.

Read the whole article.

Mahowald tapped to help frame UN report on global warming

Natalie Mahowald

Natalie Mahowald

Cornell Chronicle [2017-03-22]

Natalie Mahowald, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, has been selected by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a lead author on the “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

The report is intended to spur efforts to keep Earth within 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial era levels, with an eye toward stimulating the world’s response to climate change while balancing sustainable development and eradicating poverty. Mahowald will work on writing the report’s first chapter – framing the report’s other four parts.

The IPCC expects the final report in September 2018, in time for the Conference of the Parties (COP 24) meetings to be held later that fall.

Meeting in Brazil earlier this month, Mahowald explained the forthcoming report will be innovative in several ways. “It is the only special report that was explicitly requested by the governments. This is unusual,” she said, as there will be two other special reports: one on land, sustainable agriculture, deforestation and land degradation, and the other focusing on the oceans and the cryosphere.

Read the whole article.

Cornell to host carbon neutrality forum March 28

Cornell Chronicle [2017-03-20]:

Cornell’s Senior Leaders Climate Action Group (SLCAG) will host a public forum Tuesday, March 28, to discuss its report, “Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus by 2035,” from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the Hotel Ithaca, 222 S. Cayuga St.

Released in the fall, the report builds off Cornell’s existing Climate Action Plan, further outlining solutions to reduce energy demands and increase clean energy supply. Following the presentation, there will be a question-and-answer session for community members.

Cornell has made positive strides in energy reduction. While campus has grown by more than 2 million square feet over the past decade, its energy consumption has decreased through conservation initiatives and increased efficiency. But achieving carbon neutrality in a cold-weather climate means eliminating fossil fuel-dependent heating. Due to the scale of Cornell’s heating needs, the Earth Source Heat project – combined with solar, wind, hydro and improving energy efficiency – provides favorable options for realizing carbon neutrality.

The forum panelists will be:

• SLCAG Co-chair Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering;

• SLCAG Co-Chair Bill Sitzabee, interim vice president for infrastructure, properties and planning;

• Todd Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Kathy Dwyer Marble and Curt Marble Faculty Director for Energy, Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future;

• Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology;

• Katie Keranen, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences;

• Joel Malina, vice president for university relations;

• Paul Streeter, vice president for budget and planning;

• Jefferson W. Tester, the Croll Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems and director of the Cornell Energy Institute; and

• Sarah Zemanick, director of the Campus Sustainability Office.

The Oxymoronic Possibilities of Climate Change Comedy

Aaron Sachs

Aaron Sachs

Professor of history Aaron Sachs offers an alternative to the rhetoric characterizing climate change as dire and catastrophic: humor. He makes his case in “The Oxymoronic Possibilities of Climate Change Comedy,” March 20 at 2:55 p.m. in B25 Warren Hall. His Cornell Climate Change Seminar presentation is free and open to the campus and Ithaca communities and available via Zoom Webinar.

“Virtually all writing and advocacy on climate change is, so far, undertaken in a serious, or tragic, or even catastrophic mode,” Sachs says. “Scientists’ warnings are almost always characterized as ‘dire’; and book titles often invoke ‘the end of civilization.’”

The universitywide 2017 Cornell University Climate Change Seminar, Monday afternoons through May 8, draws from many perspectives and disciplines. It is sponsored by the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

5 technologies make farms smarter


Salon [2017-03-18]:

Allison Morrill Chatrchyan

Allison Morrill Chatrchyan

What Allison Morrill Chatrchyan has been hearing from farmers in recent years makes it difficult to buy President Donald Trump’s claim that global warming is a Chinese hoax. Perhaps more than climate researchers themselves, farmers have their pulse on the weather and know it’s getting weird out there.

“They’re seeing changes now,” the director of Cornell University’s Institute for Climate Smart Solutions told Salon. “Farmers are talking about an increase in uncertainty.” This uncertainty includes a gradual increase in weather extremes. In the northeastern United States, global warming is causing progressively longer growing seasons and heavy rainfall interspersed with periods of drought.

These changing environmental conditions are part of why Cornell offers online tools for farmers in the region to obtain real-time data that helps them predict things like the important stages of crop development, the chances of pest and disease outbreaks and whether there will be a deficit or surplus of water. The data allows farmers to plug in their zip codes to obtain recent and 15- or 30-year local conditions, helping them forecast how climate change will affect their current season as the needles of temperature and humidity gradually shift every year. February’s spring-like weather that caused Washington, D.C.’s cherry trees to blossom prematurely might disappoint tourists to the nation’s capital this spring, but for a small farm, screwy seasonal transitions like that can be economically crippling.

Read the whole article.

New environment and sustainability major approved

Cornell Chronicle [2017-03-09]:

A new environment and sustainability major in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) was approved March 8 by the Cornell Faculty Senate and, pending approval by the New York State Education Department, will launch in fall 2018.

The cross-college major is a modified and broader version of the existing Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (ESS) major in CALS and has been expanded to include a humanities concentration, while retaining the existing social science and science concentrations. It will offer students additional ways to combine the study of physical and biological sciences with social science and humanities fields and explore the social, ethical and public policy dimensions of environmental issues.

“We’re very excited to partner with CALS in this new major, which will prepare students to be the next generation of leaders in environment and sustainability and equip them with the interdisciplinary skills to address complex environmental issues like climate change,” said Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences.

“CALS and Arts and Sciences are partnering to do what’s in the best interest of students in both colleges. Not only are students interested in environment and sustainability, but also there is a strong, growing need for students who can understand environmental issues from different disciplinary vantage points,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS.

Read the whole article.