Columbia Business Magazine
Social Impact

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The trends in historical data are clear: There is no doubt that global climate change impacts the planet and human life.

Yet, great uncertainty remains about the pace and scale of the current changes, as scientists struggle to wrangle the complex models and massive datasets needed to estimate environmental impact with precision.

That uncertainty plagues both policymakers and business managers, who must plan for consequences that are expected but inexact — and then motivate people to take action to prevent them. When the consequences can’t be pinned down, uncertainty can become an excuse to resist or delay the change necessary to protect our future.

Last fall, Columbia University became the epicenter of efforts to bring greater precision to climate modeling and encourage societies to prepare for the inevitable disruptions ahead. A $25 million grant from the National Science Foundation established Learning the Earth with Artificial Intelligence and Physics (LEAP). Led by Columbia Engineering, Columbia’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, this massive, multidisciplinary climate modeling center leverages big data and machine learning to improve climate projections.

But it’s not enough to build better models; it’s critical to share the knowledge and estimates they yield with businesses and other organizations so they can act on the data. And that information must be relevant, so it’s key to maintain a dialogue with industry and other stakeholders to learn what they need to know.

A Business Partner

That’s where Columbia Business School Professor Vanessa Burbano comes in. As corporate engagement director for LEAP, her role is to liaise with public and private partners to get a better understanding of what data they need and what pressing questions they’d like to have answered.

Bidirectional knowledge transfer is a primary goal of LEAP, says Burbano, the Sidney Taurel Associate Professor of Business at CBS.

“We recognize it’s not just about creating more accurate climate estimates,” she says. “If we don’t create and disseminate estimates people will actually use, we won’t have as much impact. So our goal is to understand what it is that private, public, and community partners are looking for in climate data and where they feel the current gaps are.”

Burbano currently works with a list of partners that includes tech giants such as Google and Microsoft; research consortiums such as the Central Northeast Big Data Innovation Hub; consumer product companies such as PepsiCo; and public entities such as the New York City Department of Education, the Museum of Natural History, and the Trust for Governors Island.

Spreading the Word

The other half of LEAP’s knowledge transfer mission is to push new knowledge out to public, corporate, and policy audiences that can create policies and build infrastructure to address hotter climates, rising seas, more extreme droughts, and other life-changing impacts. Currently, LEAP is developing a portal that will give stakeholders access to its climate data and analysis.

While her dissemination efforts are just beginning, Burbano is planning to leverage lists of hundreds of CBS alumni interested in climate change, as well as the audiences of many CBS entities engaged in climate research and mitigation. For example, LEAP will present at the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise’s annual conference, “Climate Business & Investment,” in April, which unites climate academics and business leaders in understanding how new advances in research and practice can inform investments in specific sectors of the global economy.

Globally, however, disseminating this valuable information will require some creativity.

LEAP’s organizers are acutely aware that climate change will not affect all equally, and a core value of their work is a focus on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. As their advanced models produce more accurate estimates of climate change, LEAP will also innovate on new means of outreach to ensure that its findings are shared with the most vulnerable nations. To advance that effort, Andrew Revkin, founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia’s Earth Institute, joined LEAP as its public engagement director.

Burbano was drawn to LEAP because her own research looks at the strategic implications of corporations behaving responsibly or irresponsibly when it comes to environmental, social, and governmental issues. Now, she is enjoying working with others across disciplines to build partnerships and disseminate data that will help encourage environmentally responsible behavior.

“It’s a lot of fun, leveraging the various parts of Columbia that are getting involved with climate issues now,” she says. “And there are a lot!”