A Conversation with Dr. Steven Cohen



Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Dr. Steven Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and will be discussing global and local sustainability challenges and policies at a sustainability event at the Ross School on Thursday. Photo by Bruce Gilbert.


By Mara Certic

How do you stay positive about the future of the planet when it seems like every piece of environmental news we get is hugely terrifying? 

I look at the broad arc of history, at human progress and human ingenuity. Technology has made our lives far better, but it has created this mess and will need to get us out of this mess. But think about it: People are living longer and healthier lives today than ever before. Over the past decade and a half we have seen significant reductions in extreme poverty. We have major challenges ahead of us. We need to learn how to use the resources this planet provides without destroying the planet that provides us with these resources. Here in America, 45 years after the creation of EPA in 1970, our air, water and land is cleaner today than it was back then. Our population and economy have grown but to some degree we have learned how to manage the impact on our ecosystems. We have a lot to learn and a long way to go, but we are making progress.

What sorts of community resiliency projects would work here on the East End? 

Green infrastructure, dune restoration, and the creation of natural barriers to absorb storm surges. We also need to build water and energy infrastructure and buildings capable of absorbing storms. That means decentralized power sources, new building codes, and enforcement of those codes. Some of this requires national policy and resources. During and after Sandy we were very good at getting people out of harm’s way but very slow to rebuild. Our first responders are the best in the world; our reconstruction bureaucracy is a nightmare.

 Which new technologies could we benefit from here?

Renewable energy and energy storage technology are the critical technologies we need—here in Long Island and throughout the nation. Fossil fuels destroy ecosystems when we mine them and they cause global warming that in turn causes sea level rise and more intense storms. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is critical to our children’s future.

Earlier this year, we banned single-use plastic bags on the East End, and have been quite proud of the accomplishment. What sort of impact will that really have on the planet?

Marine debris is a growing problem worldwide. We dispose of more and more garbage and more and more of it does not degrade easily and persists in our oceans. Marine biologists have shown me fish that have eaten plastics thinking it is food. The one time use of plastic bags is an example of a practice that can be easily ended with enormous positive environmental benefits.

We’ve been seeing a lot of Teslas driving through the East End this summer— what do you think is the future of transportation?

I believe that just as the internal combustion engine replaced the horse and buggy, the electric car will replace the internal combustion engine. We also need to make sure that the electric  cars we drive are powered by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. In cities we will see more biking, walking and mass transit and in general we are going to see more people living in cities than living in the countryside. That is a global trend and we are seeing it here in America as well. Our settlement patterns—where we live—influence how we get around. In many parts of the United States, mass transit is not feasible. People are too spread out and personal transportation is essential. The electric car will ensure that personal transportation can be sustainable.

Dr. Cohen will give a talk titled “A Positive Vision of the Transition to Sustainability: The Role of Research, Education, Communities and Institutions” at the Ross School in East Hampton at 6 p.m. on Thursday, August 27. For more information and to RSVP call (631) 907-5300.