How Can We Decarbonize the Planet?

Alex Halliday, director of the Earth Institute. (Photo: Kyu Lee)

Geophysicist Alex Halliday started as the new director of Columbia’s Earth Institute in May. He comes to us from Oxford University, and has had a distinguished career as an earth science researcher and the leader of a variety of scientific organizations.

Every new leader of the Earth Institute has brought his own ‘flavor’ or emphasis to the institute’s task of saving the planet. Jeffrey Sachs, with his expertise in economics and sustainable development, made helping the world’s poorest inhabitants a top priority. Sustainability Management professor Steve Cohen focused on environmental policy and making cities more sustainable. Having a physical scientist at the helm will be an exciting new direction for the institute. We sat down with Halliday to get to learn about his vision for the Earth Institute’s future.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did you grow up, and what got you interested in geoscience?

I’m from a place in the U.K. called Cornwall. It’s an ancient area that still has many original remains of early times, and was an important in terms of mining for tin and copper, back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those mines and the beautiful scenery, and the fantastically exposed geology got me fascinated in the subject of earth sciences and how the planet works. I went to Newcastle University in the northeast of England, where I did my first degree in geology. I did my PhD in the physics department, which had a large team of people studying continental drift, plate tectonics, and the early solar system—how the planets formed, how the moon formed. My research was in isotopic dating of mineral deposits—finding out how old they are. That’s what I studied for my PhD.

Since then, your research has taken you around the world and across disciplines. Can you tell us a little about that?

As a post-doc I started working on the origin of granites and granite magmas, and collaborating with people in the Western U.S. to study Yellowstone, Mount St Helens, and other volcanoes. I moved to the University of Michigan in 1986, where I started a new lab, studying volcanoes, the deep earth, as well as surface problems such as the origins of dust.

About five years later, I heard about an exciting new kind of mass spectrometer that was being developed in the U.K. The company was interested in marketing these instruments to make the job of an isotope geochemist like myself much easier. I realized it could open up much of the periodic table so that we could study isotope variations in many different elements that had never been studied before, in the small amounts you have in natural samples.

We got the instrument, which was the first of its kind—I think the instrument cost between $500,000 and $1m when we started 25 years ago—and we immediately set to work on the early solar system. Now we could study problems like the age of the moon, and how Mars and the Earth formed. So I became more of a planetary scientist, or what we call a cosmochemist. This instrument also allowed us to explore ocean records in a new way. We started analyzing elements that were incorporated from seawater into ferromanganese deposits on the oceanic crust, to examine how they have changed over time. The isotopes in this case would tell you about ocean circulation, or they might tell you about changes in erosion.

What was your impression of the Earth Institute before you came here?

I was a professor at ETH Zurich when I visited the Earth Institute for the first time. After I became the head of the Department of Earth Sciences, the ETH president asked if I would visit Columbia’s Earth Institute to see what it was like. He thought it was a truly inspirational example of how a university should be working in a cross-disciplinary way to address issues of sustainability and the environment, and to actually have some real impact on society.

During my two-day visit, I was absolutely blown away by the breadth of the Earth Institute and what it was achieving, both in the local region as well as in addressing global issues. I got to learn what Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society was working on, and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network. But I also got to meet all those people focusing on environmental engineering and major issues in public health. I came away so excited, and I’ll never forget flying back from New York to Zurich and reporting back to the president about what we might want to do in the future.

Will this be your first time heading up an organization like the Earth Institute?

Not exactly. At Oxford University, where I moved after ETH Zurich, I was the head of science and engineering, and I found myself very heavily involved with fundraising, and trying to get investment in the various building projects that we needed on the science campus. We were very successful at dealing with that. We did a great deal to more than double the division’s financial footprint, and we grew the number of PhD students by over 50 percent as well.

Then I was asked to consider a role as vice president of the Royal Society for physical sciences. The Royal Society is like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the vice president handles a lot of things around science policy for energy and climate, but also deals with other areas to do with science education and engaging with government over funding. I also helped with how the UK distributes funds for science research through its research councils and research excellence framework. Then, finally, there was the vote on Brexit, so I also got quite heavily involved with the discussions around why we need to work collaboratively across Europe to maintain strong science in the U.K.

Why give all of that up to come to the Earth Institute?

When Wally Broecker first mentioned to me the idea of coming here as the director, I had to first ascertain whether there would be any interest in my desire to take it in new directions. In the end, there were so many ways in which the Earth Institute vastly expands upon my own interests—including ocean ecosystems, climate change modeling and forecasting, and women and peace—that I couldn’t help but be truly inspired by and engaged with it. When I gave my farewell speeches in London and Oxford, it was quite easy to talk about the stunning work that’s come out of the Earth Institute, and the scientists who’ve taken the science and turned it into practical action on the ground, to help people in real-world situations around the world. That’s a brilliant thing that Columbia does through the Earth Institute and its various components. It’s a small part of it, but it’s something I’m looking forward to being more heavily involved with.

What do you want to change about the Earth Institute?

It’s easy to walk into any organization with your own ideas about what you’ll do differently, but there’s a lot of learning that you have to do first. I want to spend a couple of months getting to know people, talking to people, listening to people.

What’s impressed me in my first few weeks here is how much research, education, public engagement, and also practice the Earth Institute does locally as well as globally. That’s fantastic. And as I’m learning, it strikes me that there are a number of things we might want to think about doing differently. One is that the Earth Institute has been so heavily based on Lamont-Doherty. Lamont is great, but at the same time, the subject matter of the Earth Institute is more diverse, and I think we should build up those other parts, particularly in the area of engineering. A lot of the solutions for today’s problems are going to lie in engineering techniques and technologies. I’d also like to ramp up our activity in the social sciences, public health, and ethics.

There are organizational challenges as well. In some cases we seem to have centers with overlapping subject areas, and then there are people who are not in either of those centers but who are working on related issues. In addition, the centers come and go depending on whether they’ve got money, or when someone disappears to another university or retires. That’s not really the way to define our footprint in the areas that we think are important. To fix it, we need to increase connectivity across the university. I will be going out to different departments and seeing what we can do to either get people involved or to catalyze new activity in those departments that’s relevant to the Earth Institute. The Earth Institute should feel like less of an inclusive club, and more of an open society that people can feel a part of.

What else do you want to focus on while you’re here?

The thing that I am most passionate about is how do you decarbonize the planet? It’s one thing to set carbon reduction targets, but it’s something else to actually implement those actions while at the same time trying to build up the world’s standards of living. The challenge of how you do that is, I think, really fascinating as well as important.

We can make major progress toward decarbonization right now. Much of the technology is available and it makes economic sense. However, there are vested interests against it. It’s a bit of a tragedy because in the long run, companies will lose out in the competition.

At the Earth Institute, we can work toward decarbonization by recruiting researchers to set up research programs in this area. We can develop models for how best to decarbonize in different parts of the world, convene global and regional discussions around the issue, and talk with government and others about the urgent need to decarbonize.

I also think we need to go beyond the negative messages, beyond that sense of despair and helplessness, to some great ideas about how we can change the way we’re doing things. We can get people on board in an optimistic way and an entrepreneurial way, focusing on the opportunities for the future of the planet.

— Sarah Fecht, Earth Institute

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