The vision for the Earth System Science Center (ESSC), the precursor of EESI, began in the early 1980s through a strategic planning process that involved Penn State Central Administration, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School, and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The goal was to bring together faculty in the departments of Geosciences, Meteorology, and Geography in research activities focused on the search for links between the Earth's physical processes and past and future global change. In the process, the field of earth system science was introduced and promoted. EMS College Dean John Dutton was the primary force behind the introduction of the ESSC.
Eric Barron became the ESSC director in 1986 after an external search led by Dean Dutton and facilitated by long-term visits to Penn State by Professor Heinrich Holland (Harvard University). The Center was inaugurated, and Dutton facilitated the hiring of fixed term faculty (Rob Crane in 1985, Lee Kump in 1986) who were then switched to tenure track when Dutton hired Eric Barron as the director of ESSC. Some of the first associates included Jim Kasting, Richard Alley, Brent Yarnal (retired), Bill Brune (swapped), Toby Carlson (retired), Bruce Albrecht (departed), Tom Ackerman (departed), Peter Webster (departed), Tom Gardner (departed), Amy Glasmeier (departed), and Diana Liverman (departed), among others. The ESSC also engaged faculty such as Rudy Slingerland and Kevin Furlong, who were already part of the University, by providing partial salary support.
Over the years, the Center has coordinated and conducted extensive research related to climate change, the global water cycle, biogeochemical cycles, Earth system history, and human impacts on the Earth system. ESSC purchased the University’s first supercomputer and maintained high-level supercomputer capacity up until the mid-2000s.
In 1999, the University asked ESSC to rename itself as the EMS Environment Institute (EMSEI). (At that time, the ESSC was decommissioned, but it was re-instituted later as a Center within EESI, directed by Michael Mann, that focuses on climate change). The mission of EMSEI was to enhance the visibility of College environmental research and educational programs and to create opportunities for collaborative research in these areas. Additional research centers were added early on to the Institute, including the Center for Integrated Regional Assessment (CIRA) and the Center for Environmental Chemistry and Geochemistry (CECG), as a reflection of the primary research areas represented by the Institute’s core faculty associates.
The Institute and its centers manifested the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' long and accomplished history of Earth sciences and environmental research. The computing and outreach components were incorporated at the time of the Institute’s founding so that all elements needed for a successful, effective research organization would be present for the benefit of faculty and students affiliated with the Institute. At that time, very little University support was available for multi-PI grants or for high-performance computing.
In 2003, after Center Director Barron was promoted to the office of the Dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Susan L. Brantley was installed by Barron as the second Director of the EMSEI. The following year, again because of a request from the University for renaming, the EMSEI was renamed the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). EESI at that time became part of what is now the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE). Originally established in 1963 as the Institute for Research on Land and Water Resources, IEE is a University-wide institute that builds interdisciplinary teams of researchers to solve some of the world’s most difficult energy and environmental challenges. In 2002, several institutes around campus, including EMSEI, were brought together under the IEE umbrella.
Under Brantley's leadership, EESI continued to expand its research focus to not only include global climate change and Earth system history, but also to energize the area of biogeochemical cycles, including the inauguration of critical zone science and research at the energy-water nexus. A new hiring focus promoted by Brantley was Earth systems ecology (two hires were made, Erica Smithwick and Jennifer Balch [now departed]). Under Brantley, the Institute also began competitions for centers and initiatives to enhance faculty and student research in environmental systems. These competitions are held every three years, and every Center that receives EESI money must re-compete.
Currently, four research foci have been established as faculty research focused across aspects of Earth as an environmental system: climate science and risk, energy and the environment, Earth history, and critical zone science. Since 2004, EESI has attracted new faculty in Earth system ecology, global water science, ecohydrology, and critical zone science. The Institute remains part of the College of EMS and the Institutes of Energy and the Environment.
In the last several years, the Institute's focus has shifted to not only foster a broad portfolio of science, but also to enable researchers to address hard and important societal questions related to the sustainability of life on Earth and how to communicate with nonscientists about these issues. In 2020, the Institute researchers voted to summarize this shift in three words by noting that the Institute promotes "science informing solutions". At this time, the Vision and Mission statements for EESI were also updated.