July 10, 2008

Cornell faculty identify climate change as world's most pressing problem, study finds

Climate change and its effects on ecosystems is the No. 1 crisis facing the world, according to Cornell faculty -- but it is a phenomenon not easily reversed. The most important problem that is more easily solved? Insufficient education in science, critical thinking and environmental issues.

That is according to a new study that surveyed Cornell's academic staff on the world's leading crises. The new study is published online in Frontiers e-View and will be published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

How Cornell faculty rate the world's most important and the most solvable problems

On a 5-point scale, Cornell faculty members rated the most important issues of the day (their average rating is first number in the parentheses) and issues that are the most solvable (average rating for solvability is the second number in the parentheses).

10 most important problems

• Climate change and its effects on ecosystems (4.39, 2.63)
• Corporations have too much influence in governing (4.24, 3.35)
• Lack of long-term perspective in political, environmental and social actions (4.23, 2.69)
• Humans are unsustainably exploiting the environment (4.13, 2.79)
• Maintaining the health of the planet (4.1, 2.67)
• Lack of global responsibility on the part of corporations, governments and individuals (4.03, 2.97)
• Global poverty and its effects (3.98, 2.48)
• Inequitable distribution of wealth among people (3.97, 2.32)
• Unsuitable growth in energy use (3.96, 2.95)
• Shortage of potable and clean water (3.94, 3.59)

10 most easily solved problems

• Lack of sufficient education in science, critical thinking and environmental issues (3.8, 3.87)
• The epidemic of preventable illnesses in the third world (3.44, 3.81)
• Inequitable access to health care (3.86, 3.77)
• Loss of civil liberties in the U.S. under the guise of fighting terrorism (4.02, 3.75)
• Shortage of potable and clean water (3.94, 3.59)
• Death of children due to preventable causes (3.38, 3.35)
• Women's reproductive health, education, control and options are dictated by others (3.85, 3.34)
• People and governments are paying less attention to basic science research (3.74, 3)
• Growing obesity that impacts health by increasing the risk of chronic diseases (3.59, 2.89)
• Children's activities are too structured and do not engage them in community (3.78, 2.64)

"The purpose of our study was to get interdisciplinary understanding of what a wide range of faculty members thought were the greatest crises we face and how solvable they are," said Cornell visiting fellow Derek Cabrera, Ph.D. '07, lead author of the paper and a former postdoctoral researcher in the College of Human Ecology's Department of Policy Analysis and Management.

According to the study, almost 300 Cornell faculty members identified the three most important world problems as climate change, corporations having too much influence in governing and a lack of long-term perspective in political, environmental and social actions.

The most solvable critical problems? After insufficient education in science, critical thinking and environmental issues, the Cornell faculty rated the epidemic of preventable illnesses in the Third World and inequitable access to health care as most solvable.

"These results should provide useful practical information for setting interdisciplinary research and policy agendas to address these global crises," said Cabrera, who is CEO of the Ithaca-based company ThinkWorks. "The world's problems don't adhere to disciplinary boundaries, so it is important to understand how scientists from different disciplines view these problems because we will need interdisciplinary teams to solve them."

The study used "concept mapping" -- developed at Cornell in the late 1980s by Cornell professor of policy analysis and management William Trochim -- that uses brainstorming, multidimensional sorting and rating to summarize how a group conceptualizes a topic.

Co-authors James Mandel, Jason Andras and Marie Nydam are doctoral students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. They teamed up with Cabrera after they had helped organize the course the State of the Planet (BioNB 321), under the mentorship of faculty members Tom Eisner and Mary Lou Zeeman. The course, which was offered at Cornell the past two springs, is an interdisciplinary approach to studying the status of the Earth and the crises it faces. The survey is part of an ongoing follow-up (described at http://www.whatisthecrisis.org/) to the course.