Harvard Thinks Green… Again

Where is green the new crimson?

Creative Commons photo by First Daffodils. Source: Flickr

When Professor Daniel P. Schrag, Director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment and current member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology took the stage at Tuesday night’s Harvard Thinks Green 2, he elected to begin with an example. Schrag set two satellite images of the Arctic Circle in the month of September side by side on the giant projector screen above the stage in Sanders Theatre. The image on the left showed ice extending from the southern reaches of Greenland up over the Arctic Sea and to the northern Siberian coast, while the image on the right showed ice significantly receding over Greenland and the once-covered channel between the ice sheet and Russia gaping wide. The juxtaposition was designed to shock — more alarming, however, were the years attached to the images. The photo on the left represented the extent of polar ice in 2007, and the photo on the left its extent just a few days ago at its record minimum. The images showed a 20% decrease in Arctic polar ice coverage in the last five years, delivering overwhelming proof of massive climate change occurring on a rapidly quickening scale.

As Schrag continued to stack evidence against the planet’s wellbeing — citing this March when overnight highs crushed the overall high record temperatures — the mood in the eco-conscious audience darkened. Yet, Schrag had not come to Sanders Theatre to throw the problem of climate change on the stage and leave it there. Rather, like the five other Harvard professors invited to speak at Harvard Thinks Green 2, Schrag had an idea, and his starts with undergraduate students at Harvard. “A liberal education for the 21st century”, he calls it, a vision for the future in which every Harvard student graduates with some understanding of the climate energy challenge, whether it be through sciences, social sciences, or any other department.  Only by harnessing the academic, social, economic, and political capital of Harvard alumni in the real world, Schrag argued, can the university affect real change in environmental sustainability.

Harvard Thinks Green is modeled after the world-renowned TED talks and the university’s own Harvard Thinks Big, and in that format, Schrag’s presentation was followed by five other innovative ideas from some of the brightest academic minds working on sustainability today. Each of the six professors was given ten minutes on stage to explicate a big problem and advocate for a solution, and after almost two hours (as the past three years of “Harvard Thinks” series have proven, ten-minute lectures exist only in theory) the ideas in the theatre had snowballed into a wave of inspiration.

After Schrag left the stage to a round of applause, Assistant Professor Joyce Rosenthal from the Graduate School of Design stepped out to discuss environmentally sustainable, or “green,” cities. Looking to traditionally planned cities of Europe against the suburban sprawl of American cities, Rosenthal argued that the key to reducing carbon emissions in cities is density. She advocated for “pedestrian pockets”, numerous city neighborhoods where daily needs are within walking distance and public transportation is easily accessible. It is this quick and easy access to amenities and public transportation that significantly reduces carbon emissions from automotive transportation.

Assistant Professor Joseph Aldy of the Kennedy School was next. Another former White House advisor, Aldy looked at finding real solutions for climate change with economic incentives moving from the federal government downwards, echoing Schrag’s assertion that real change will come from properly educating the people in power. By putting a price on carbon emissions, Aldy believes, the government will be able to convince businesses that environmentalism is low-cost. “Let’s look at the successful record we have historically at harnessing the market for the environment,” he proposed. Such efforts have worked in California, Alberta, and British Columbia thus far. The “bigness” of Aldy’s idea, then, is not in its novelty but in its ambition.

James G. Anderson, the Phillip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, began his ten minutes by banishing the term “global warming” in favor of “climate instability”. “There’s no political imperative [with the term “global warming”]…it carries the connotation of slow change that’s reversible,” he said. “The reversibility of that term is the serious aspect of not embracing what’s actually going on in the environmental structure.” Because “climate instability” carries the connotation of irreversibility, Anderson argues, it is more likely to spark the real concern needed to push reform in public policy. Using the same polar ice data Schrag introduced, Anderson then went on to discuss rising sea levels, drawing a big laugh from the audience when he described the potential flooding of MIT before Harvard. And, like Schrag, Anderson stressed the responsibility universities have to prepare their students to face the climate energy challenge across disciplines.

Amy C. Edmonson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Business School, took a different tack. Focusing on the clashing cultures of the different stakeholders in the implementation of sustainable solutions, she argued that a key to actually building green efficiently is equally efficient communication between developers, builders, architects, government, and IT people, emphasizing that one of the most challenging issues sustainable projects face is interpersonal interaction.

Last, recent Harvard acquisition Daniel G. Nocera, the new Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy and the inventor of the much-heralded “artificial leaf”, arrived on the stage to much applause. “2050”, he said, and then he began to paint the world’s increasing energy needs direly. Currently, the world’s energy needs amount to 16 terawatts. By 2050, as the “have nots” begin to catch up with the “haves” in terms of energy access, we will need almost twice as many terawatts. At the current rate, we simply cannot produce that. This is where the “sustainocene” comes in, a new epoch in which the challenge is to grow economies and maintain national GDPs while conserving fuel resources in developing and developed countries alike. In the new sustainocene, Nocera said, “You have to do science and engineering in different ways…’I have the brightest and shiniest and best thing in the world.’ Guess what? Who cares. When you’re poor you want the cheapest thing.”

This is where Nocera’s invention — built at MIT —comes in.  The artificial leaf is a cheap, easily mass-produced metal device that when placed in water and exposed to sunlight, separates the oxygen from the hydrogen in streams of bubbles. Theoretically, these bubbles can be collected and stored in fuel cells before combining them, again using only water, to generate an electric current. If this could actually be put to work, Nocera said, the water in Harvard’s Blodgett Pool would produce 38 terawatts, enough electricity to power 2050’s world and then some. It was with this last big idea that Harvard Thinks Green 2 ended to a raucous round of applause.

While Harvard Thinks Green is a more visible aspect of sustainability at Harvard, the university’s efforts to build an environmentally friendly campus are extensive and wide reaching. Lisa Hogarty, Vice President for Campus Services, opened Tuesday night’s event, saying, “Sustainability and, in particular, the university-wide greenhouse gas reduction goal continues to be a top priority for our community, as we seek to use our campus as a living lab for addressing global environmental challenges.” Harvard seems to be trying to prove it. In 2006, Harvard set university-wide goals to reduce carbon emissions by 30% by 2016. Speaking just after Hogarty, Heather Henriksen, Director of the Office for Sustainability, reported that although the campus has grown 17% in the past six year, emissions are down 7.3%. We are far from reaching our goal, but new innovations, such as the introduction of composting bins in university cafés, biodegradable one-use utensils, the installation of solar panels on the roof of the Gordon Indoor Track and Tennis building, the availability of free energy-efficient light bulbs, and other such programs have us on our way. On October 22nd, President Drew Faust will release a report detailing how far we have come and what we will have to do to move closer to our 30% carbon emission reduction rate. As for what we can do in the interim, we must remain committed to the cause. As Harvard Thinks Green 2 emcee Zack Guzmán ’14 said Tuesday night, when it comes to sustainability, “there are no prerequisites for making a difference. The only qualification is simply to care.”

Meghan Brooks ’14 (meghanbrooks@college) is a vegetarian. Planet, you’re welcome. 

  • Greeny

    Dan Schrag has come a long way since only a few years ago when he was adimant that the Harvard Green Campus Initiative was a waste of time and resources and only taking away attention from his important work. Many times he expressed the sentiment “Individual actions are inconsequential to climate change and behavioral change and energy conservation will get us nowhere – geoengineering is the only answer worth exploring.” Amazing how people’s perceptions change when an idea becomes popular with leaders in the administration and funding becomes available. Definitely an astute politician.