(We're pleased to share with you this summary of the inaugural Harvard Thinks Green event held on Dec 8th. written by Green Team member Thomas Lingner who works in the Harvard College Library Imaging Services Photo Studio. We expect to have videos from each presentation online by December 16th at the latest)
Last night at Sanders Theater, six Harvard professors each spoke for ten minutes on the environment. It was an hour mixed with horror and hope. Here are a few highlights.
James McCarthy (Biological Oceanography, FAS) (Nobel laureate) began by stating that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rose by the largest margin in recorded history last year. There has been some progress on Climate Change legislation in Europe, but it is far overshadowed by the output of two countries - China and the United States. He was not willing to give up hope, however, and cited a recent study by Mayor Menino and the City of Boston, which predicted that if green measures were put into place over a wide range of areas, even small changes in each sector would add up to real, significant change overall.
Richard Lazarus (Environmental Law, HLS) lamented the fact that not a single piece of comprehensive legislation has been passed in the U.S. to deal with CO2 emissions. He explained that our current political and legal systems respond best to short-term problems (partly due to short election cycles) where benefits can be shown very quickly, and that we also tend to like laws that benefit the domestic population, not the global population. In his election campaign, Obama frequently spoke of Climate Change, but in 2011 he has used the words only once. But Lazarus, too, remained optimistic, and called for the audience to not just occupy Wall Street, but to BE Wall Street. To BE the military. To BE green. The coming generation of leaders in all sectors will have the opportunity to change things.
Robert Kaplan (Management Practice, HBS) echoed the refrain that sustainability is all about leadership. He encouraged current students to first figure out what they believe, and then to have the courage to act upon that belief. He cited as an example the clear vision articulated by Drew Faust and her team in calling for a 30% net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions at Harvard over ten years (2006-2016). This precise goal helped to prioritize all future decisions. Good leadership across all schools brought the entire university into alignment, and led to great progress in the first five years of the program.
Christoph Reinhart (Architectural Technology, GSD) addressed the need to think long term when building or renovating properties. He noted that 40% of a city's CO2 output is generated by residential and commercial structures. As long as energy is cheap, it cannot be assumed that homeowners or business owners will do much of anything to reduce these emissions. Building codes and laws must be enacted in order to motivate change.
Rebecca Henderson (Environmental Management, HBS) illuminated the difficult position of "big business" in the Climate Change equation. It is easy to demonize major corporations as morally reprehensible. The existence of shareholders and the desire for ever-increasing profits present real obstacles to enacting expensive green measures that show little or no financial return. She said that "business" IS moving, but transitions are never easy, and it will be a matter of "painfully advancing a bloody frontier." The desire to change is the single most important indicator of success, and she remained hopeful that this desire will continue to grow.
Eric Chivian (Founder/director Ctr. for Health and the Global Environment) (Clinical professor of Psychiatry, HMS) (Nobel laureate) spoke of his previous work that made concrete predictions about the real consequences of a nuclear war, and, perhaps, made actual nuclear war less likely. In relating it to the topic at hand he noted, "we have no Hiroshimas or Nagasakis in the Climate Change debate." "We tend to believe that we are separate from the environment. That pollution or other damage will have no direct impact on us." He complained bitterly about the huge, well-funded campaign to discredit scientists who are trying to explain and publicize the truth about human-driven climate change.
He suggested the use of a medical model. Study of polar bears, for example, could provide clues to osteoporosis, kidney failure, and diabetes. During 5-7 months of hibernation each year they suffer no bone loss, no kidney failure (they do not take in nutrients or expel waste for the entire time), and no diabetes (they become very obese before entering hibernation). But it is predicted that polar bears will be extinct by the end of this century due to the loss of polar ice, so the answers to how they accomplish these things might never be discovered.
He concluded by saying that rarely, in medicine, is it possible to have proof of a problem before needing to act. The situation is the same with Climate Change. Since 1900, the mean temperature on earth has risen 1.8 degrees fahrenheit. Scientists believe that even this apparently small change has led to the increased number of intense storms, the melting of polar ice, the flooding of coastal regions, the death of coral reefs, and heat waves and droughts that have killed hundreds. Long term predictions for temperature increase have come up with numbers as high as ten degrees fahrenheit in the centuries to come. In all the time since the last ice age, when a mile of ice covered Harvard Yard, the temperature has risen just ten degrees fahrenheit.