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Pitt gathering for Salk focuses on global sustainability, climate change

| Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014, 12:16 a.m.

On what would have been his 100th birthday, about 500 people gathered at the University of Pittsburgh Tuesday for a symposium honoring Dr. Jonas Salk, the scientist behind the world's first successful polio vaccine.

The event focused on building a sustainable planet, an idea that deeply interested Salk, said his son, Dr. Peter Salk, scientific director of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation.

The polio vaccine, developed at Pitt and first released in 1955, helped eradicate the disease in the United States. The virus, which causes paralysis, breathing problems and death, remains endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. In his later years, Jonas Salk examined population growth and the planet's ability to sustain billions of people, Peter Salk said.

“This issue of sustainability has such critical importance for us as a species,” Peter Salk said.

Jonas Salk died in 1995, when the Census Bureau estimated 5.7 billion people lived on the planet. By 2015, the population is expected to be 7.2 billion, according to the United Nations.

Keynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs pointed to the convergence of government, private funding and citizen support in pushing through the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

Sachs, an economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said technology has had some impact on poverty and hunger, but it would require a serious effort among the technocracy to develop long-term, time-intensive solutions to worldwide problems. The American focus on gross national product as a measure of success will fail society in the long run, he said.

“If we pursue economic gains to the point of mass social exclusion or environmental destruction, we will end up with nothing of sustainable value,” he said.

Sachs also pointed to climate change as stirring political instability. He said 2014 could be the warmest on record, and the depths of drought in California and flooding in Japan are related. He said a series of world meetings in 2015 represent the world's best chance at developing climate-related policy that will help sustain the planet.

“The stakes are extraordinarily high. If we fail, we won't have another chance soon,” he said.

Other speakers included Van Jones, co-host of CNN's “Crossfire,” Joylette Portlock, board member of the Allegheny County Board of Health, John Dernback, professor of law at Pitt, and Nick Kristof, a New York Times columnist. A roundtable discussion featured corporate sustainability officers at PNC, Dow Chemical Company, Mission Measurement and UPMC.

Peter Salk, in describing the event, said his father's ideas were well represented.

“We need to recognize our commonalities. We all belong to one species. We have to expand our boundaries,” he said.

Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or megha@tribweb.com.

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