How to Think Green

Six Harvard faculty experts on taking action against global warming

Six “all-star environmental professors” spoke in rapid-fire fashion at “Harvard Thinks Green” on the afternoon of December 8, each giving a 10-minute presentation on sustainability strategies at an event in Sanders Theatre sponsored by Harvard’s Office for Sustainability in coordination with the students who developed Harvard Thinks Big.

Climate Change: “Is it too late?”

Agassiz professor of biological oceanography James McCarthy posed the question, “Is it too late to avoid serious impacts of climate change?” He showed that even though carbon emissions dropped during the world recession in 2009, they rebounded at the fastest rate ever recorded in 2010, jumping more than 5 percent in a single year. A global warming of two degrees Celsius has been held up by scientists as a threshold beyond which the impacts to the global environment would be severe, and already, based on projections of future emissions, the goal of holding the change to that limit is on the verge of slipping from mankind’s grasp, he said.

But he noted that change is not impossible. Some 85 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from just 20 nations. China is on an emissions growth trajectory that sets it apart, but McCarthy reminded the audience that goods produced in China flow to the United States, Europe, and Japan, so the consumers of those products implicitly use them with an atmospheric carbon load attached. The good news, he said, is that the carbon intensity of goods (carbon emitted per unit of GDP) is dropping. The rate at which carbon intensity of goods is declining does need to drop even a little bit faster, but not by an amount that is unachievable, he suggested.

He showed a slide of Boston mayor Thomas Menino’s Green Building Task Force report; it demonstrated that major reductions in the carbon emissions associated with buildings can be achieved by making many small improvements together. When those gains of 1 or 2 percent each from a variety of energy-efficiency or conservation strategies are added together, they become significant, totaling reductions on the order of 30 percent or more. Harvard itself—as noted during the introductions to the evening by executive vice president Katherine N. Lapp and Heather Henriksen, director of the Office for Sustainability—has reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 20 percent already, even as the physical plant grew 10 percent. (Harvard plans to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2016). McCarthy, who has been a leader in climate change issues internationally, reminded students that in the four years they spend at Harvard, the University will have made significant reductions, a lesson he clearly hoped they would take with them. “Small differences do add up,” he concluded.

Making National Policy: “Climate change as Voldemort”

Richard Lazarus, Aibel professor of law, spoke of “forging a new pathway to national climate-change legislation.” There is a fundamental incompatibility, he said, between the lawmaking process in the United States and the nature of climate change, which is global and long-term. The problem is not just ensuring that all key political leaders recognize the problem. Three years ago, he noted, every politician in a key position to effect change understood that climate change needs to be addressed. But the president and leaders of Congress did not act then. Recently, the problem has become even more acute, resulting in a condition Lazarus referred to as “climate change as Voldemort, the problem even the president…does not name,” noting that President Obama has mentioned the issue just once in all of 2011, and then only in response to a comment from the president of China.

Broadly, the solution that Lazarus proposes is to reduce the power of short-term interests in Congress, starting with elimination of the filibuster, while simultaneously empowering longer-term interests. Further, the country must protect and encourage those states that are taking the lead in local and regional climate-change legislation. Finally, he concluded, “Don’t just think green. Be green. Occupy Wall Street from the inside.”

Aligning for Action: “A clear vision”

Enlarging on that theme, professor of management practice Robert Kaplan said that sustainability needs leadership. A member of the executive committee that launched Harvard’s own greenhouse-gas reduction efforts, Kaplan emphasized the importance of saying what you believe, and then having the courage to act on it. President Drew Faust, he said, did this in 2008, articulating “a clear vision” that included research goals as well as campus goals (the reduction of GHG emissions by 30 percent, “net of growth”).

 Kaplan also noted the importance of setting priorities in achieving such goals, and the critical element of aligning responsibilities and organizations with them: Harvard, for example, reorganized its administrative structure in a way that would ensure that every school “owns” its sustainability goal, he said. The University is thus setting an example not just for sustainability, he stressed, but for leadership.

Sustainable Design: “A well-thought-out start-up”

Delving into the nitty-gritty of sustainable design, associate professor of architectural technology Christoph Reinhart devoted his 10 minutes to a discussion of the energy performance of buildings (which account for more than 40 percent of total carbon emissions nationally) and cities. He lampooned the trend of “green” home retrofits in Cambridge, which can lead to expensive, energy-efficient renovations but also footprint enlargements that lead to the creation of a beautiful, big green home with no net change in energy use from the little structure the owners started with.

His models of building performance are serious, useful tools that measure parameters such as solar radiation, heating and air-conditioning system efficiency, and natural venting, and thus can provide guidance on how to achieve optimal efficiency, but they are only effective if real reductions in energy use are achieved. For owners,  the big question everyone wants answered, Reinhart said, is, “What is the internal rate of return” (IRR) of investments in efficiency? Using a typical 1980s-era office building in Waltham as his example, he said that green renovations can lead to an IRR of 8 to 10 percent over a reasonable time for the economic life of such building investments—quite a good investment in the current economic environment.

Citizens can’t count on owners to develop the expertise to implement such improvements in buildings on their own, said Reinhart. He suggested, therefore, that there were great opportunities for young entrepreneurs—“a well-thought-out start-up”—to change the way energy systems in buildings are controlled in order to improve efficiency.

Business and the Environment: “Making money while doing good”

McArthur University Professor Rebecca Henderson addressed whether, generally, it was possible to run a business on environmentally sound principles, “making money while doing good.” Are the goals of making money for shareholders and creating social value in opposition to one another—or are social goods a subset of the normal course of business?

Henderson, who spent 20 years studying “large companies that knew they had to change but could not,” believes that business does have a role to play, but that it must grow to the position where it can be a positive influence. Referring humorously to a bubble diagram projected on the screen behind her—in which the overlapping but not synonymous goals of sustainability (shown as a red bubble) and profitability crossed—she termed their intersection “a matter of painfully advancing a bloody frontier.” It is an area, she told the student audience, “ripe for the taking.”

Understanding Motivation: “We must change our own behavior”

The last speaker was Eric Chivian, director of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry. Chivian, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 as a co-founder of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, explained why that organization was effective. The group made nuclear war real to people by expressing its effects in terms of human health impacts—skull fractures, radiation sickness, third-degree burns—not joules of energy.

How, he asked, is this analogous to climate change, a problem much harder to grasp because there is no focal event such as Nagasaki or Hiroshima? Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, Chivian criticized funders of climate-change skeptics, such as Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers, as well as politicians and right-wing think tanks, for making people believe, incorrectly, that there is debate about climate change in the scientific community.

He then made a novel plea for action using just one species faced with extinction by 2100—the polar bear. His argument was not based on the animal’s charisma, but instead its potential contribution to treating human diseases. Polar bears, which don’t move for five months or more during hibernation, nevertheless don’t get osteoporosis. They gain tremendous weight, but don’t get diabetes. They don’t eat, drink, or excrete the whole time they are in hibernation—physiological processes scientists don’t yet understand.

Chivian argued also for a standard of evidence with respect to climate change that matched the way physicians care for a child with a fever. Even though only 10 percent of children with a fever have a bacterial (and therefore treatable, non-viral) infection, physicians treat any child with a fever above 100.4 degrees out of an abundance of caution, because a bacterial infection can spread so quickly that administering antibiotics later might not be soon enough to prevent the child’s death. Life on Earth is precious in the same way, he suggested.

“We must change our own behavior,” Chivian said. “We have the ability and the responsibility to turn this around.” He urged the audience to “do everything in your power to save this wonderfully precious gift we have all been given.”

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Convocation 2017: What Should an Education Be at Such a Moment?

Speakers reflect on the goals of a liberal arts university. 

Nicco Mele

The director of the Shorenstein Center on how the Internet came to mean so much to him. 

Found in Translation

Maureen Freely ’74, longtime translator of Orhan Pamuk, shares the nuances of bringing a text from one language to another.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults