On a cold fall day in 2008, Harvard University took a stand on climate change, and gave a nod to sustainability. Drew Faust—joined by alumnus, recent author of An Inconvenient Truth, and former Vice President, Al Gore—addressed the audience of 15,000. The event was held just a month after the formation of the Office for Sustainability, now the backbone in environmental on-campus action at Harvard. After thanking Al Gore personally for his contributions to a “worldwide understanding of what needs to be done to combat global warming,” President Faust had told us why we were gathered there that day: to give “tribute to all of what [we] do every day to make Harvard—and the world—a more sustainable place,” but also to call for action on climate change. We might have thought that climate change was distant, but President Faust reminded us that the problem is one we must also face today. She then painted a picture of that world to-be, “imperiled by our current rate of temperature increase” and threatened by low food supply, biodiversity, and availability of clean water.   

On a brighter note, our President emphasized the special role of universities in mitigating the challenges of climate change. Grounds for rigorous academic thought, universities are the “world’s greatest source of ideas and innovation.” More specifically, she detailed the academic web of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and the achievements of Schools at Harvard in leading the scientific, political, and even design-based approaches to understanding and acting. Faust then transitioned into how this sustainable action has since precipitated on Harvard’s own campus. She reiterated the plan to reduce University emissions 30 percent below 2006 levels by 2016, the formation of OFS, and the ongoing realization that all of our energy and design decisions “all send powerful signals.” Without further ado, Faust concluded that, although climate change is indeed a global problem, solving it can begin locally, and locally “we are all teachers and we are all learners in this endeavor.”

All in all, Faust’s speech emphasized the urgency in acting on climate change now to leave the world as it is for our children and grandchildren. She argues that the University’s role in this action is a multidisciplinary, multi-pronged one, and that we, as individuals, also have to power to confront our energy use and consumption patternsHarvard has made great progress since then: we’ve implemented an University-wide Sustainability Plan, Faust announced a hefty Climate Change Solutions Fund, and the University has made significant progress on those goals it set in 2008, to name a few.

Harvard also recently held its first “Climate Week,” which culminated in a panel on climate change solutions. To a crowd of several hundred, Faust introduced this panel, in many ways mirroring her introduction to Al Gore in 2008. Moderated by talk show host and producer Charlie Rose, the panel included Joseph Aldy, Professor of Public Policy at HKS; Christopher Field, Stanford Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies; Rebecca Henderson, HBS Professor in General Management and Strategy; John Holdren, senior adviser to President Obama on science and technology; Richard Newell, Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics at Duke; Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Science; and Daniel Schrag, Professor of Geology. Listening to the panel of experts and to the questions posed by my fellow audience members, I couldn’t help but compare this gathering to that gathering in 2008. Harvard has certainly made strides in sustainable development since then, but has our conversation on climate changed?

I actually first had a hint of this changing conversation in the introduction given by Faust. She stated that we “owe it one another and future generations” to act, a subtly different message than was given in 2008, when she focused on the intergenerational peril of a climate changed. This theme was underpinned by Schrag’s point that preparedness for climate change in the now is necessary. And, even if we find a solution soon, he stated, that solution doesn’t really fix the problem. Climate change is of a geological time scale, and will continue long after any solution is implemented. So, whereas our characterization of climate change in 2008 was urgent but still removed in the temporal sense, both Faust and Schrag made clear that climate change is now, and we must prepare. Others added that the occurrence of out-of-ordinary weather events, like Hurricane Sandy, might incubate just the inertia we need to make the issue more salient on and off campus.

So, whereas our characterization of climate change in 2008 was urgent but still removed in the temporal sense, both Faust and Schrag made clear that climate change is now, and we must prepare

One might argue that, in 2008, President Faust discussed climate change in terms of university and individual action, although she did not discuss the importance of framing itself. Stressing that we need a to do a “better job of communicating risk,” Professor Henderson explained that we would be more successful if we frame climate change not as an extension of government into new, powerful roles, but rather as a market failure, with undue externalities, that needs to be fixed. “Big Government” puts fear in many, but I felt as if this frame gives us all a share of responsibility to fix a problem of economics. Professor Oreskes also stressed that the political structure under which we operate is also flawed, and that a deliberate skewing against renewable, sustainable solutions is long under way. In her opinion, our attention must be focused there, and on the continued development of carbon-intense infrastructure all around us.

The panelists also gave some attention to the merits and faults of fossil fuel divestment and the student movement. While some of the experts agreed that divestment could be a method with which a university could undertake an ethical stance on climate change, others, like Professor Schrag, found that the role of the University should steer clear of such opinionated stances completely. Others argued that the student movement ought to zero in on coal, the “dirtiest” of fossil fuels; despite the arguments, it was clear that the discourse on the role of the University had become much more complicated since those transformative days in 2008.

Since 2008, we’ve transformed our dialogue of mitigation to include adaptation, as the effects of increased global temperatures are felt currently and will mount even after a solution is reached. We’ve gone beyond assuming a frame with which to discuss climate change and the role of the University to question that frame itself. Perhaps in another seven years, reflecting again on sustainable solutions at Harvard and beyond, we’ll ask ourselves the same question: Has the conversation changed?