Climate-Change Solutions

A panel of experts debates the best path forward.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, makes a point.
A panel discussion on climate change included faculty from Harvard and other institutions.

Against the backdrop of student-led protests urging divestment from fossil-fuel companies, President Drew Faust—declaring that “the challenge of climate change is profound” and the risk it poses “dire”—on April 13 gave the introductory speech at a panel discussion of possible solutions that brought together experts from inside and outside Harvard.

The panel capped a weeklong series of programs highlighting the University’s contributions to climate-change research that is expected to become an annual event. The Office of the President arranged the session at Sanders Theatre on Monday afternoon, April 13; the speakers were Hooper professor of geology Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment; assistant professor of public policy Joseph Aldy; Harvard Overseer Christopher Field, an ecologist who co-chairs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II; McArthur University Professor Rebecca Henderson; former Harvard professor John Holdren, now director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; economist Richard Newell, K ’94, Ph.D. ’97, director of the Duke University Energy Initiative; and history of science professor Naomi Oreskes.

Moderator Charlie Rose of CBS and PBS assured the audience that a whole range of topics would be addressed—including divestment, the one foremost on the minds of student, alumni, and faculty protestors in the Old Yard. He opened by asking Holdren: “What is the national policy [on climate change]?” and “What is the science that underpins it?”

Holdren outlined five fundamental “understandings” of the Obama White House: that the climate is changing in ways not consistent with what we know about natural influences; that human activities are the principal driver; that the changes are far more complex and extensive than mere changes in temperature; that the harm is going to continue to grow for some time; but that there is an enormous difference in the amount of harm that will be done between “the case where we take prompt and aggressive action and the case where we do very little.”

Based on those understandings, he continued, the president’s climate action plan includes “three pillars:” reducing domestic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs); increasing “the nation’s preparedness and resilience against the changes in climate that we can no longer stop”; and providing “international leadership” for other countries as they also reduce emissions and build resilience.

Holdren reported that domestic GHG emissions are down 10 percent since 2005, and are on track to meet the White House goal of achieving levels 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Last November, China and the United States announced the goal of reaching emissions levels 26 percent to 28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025. “That trajectory,” he said, “puts us…where we need to be in the years ahead: in the vicinity of 80 percent below 2005 emissions by 2050.”

Christopher Field ’75, who is also a professor of environmental studies at Stanford, amplified Holdren’s message. “Eventually we are going to need to drive emissions to zero,” he said. “That is challenging,” but also “incredibly empowering,” because it means “the energy technologies that are going to drive the future have to be the non-emitting ones…the ones that don’t have a net release of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. This is about getting rid of fossil fuels altogether.” (See “Altering Course,” in this magazine’s May-June issue, for a vision of how the United States might build a sustainable energy supply.)

Rebecca Henderson, who co-directs the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard Business School, said one hurdle to rallying the business community against climate change, apart from “significant doubt” that it is really happening, is the perception that “change is difficult and hard and expensive.” She suggested business leaders would respond better if they understood the problem as a market failure [in which the true cost of fossil fuels in health and environmental pollution is not captured]. She also expressed faith in the ability of the private sector to respond to market risk because “that is what business people do all the time.”

But there is an “additional component,” interjected Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. The difference between the U.S. public’s understanding of the climate-change threat and that of citizens in the rest of the world, she declared, is that, for more than 20 years, “there has been organized, well-funded opposition to the science,” efforts “to try to persuade people, particularly in the business community, but also ordinary American citizens, that the science isn’t clear. That poses a gigantic challenge to us as scholars and intellectuals, because…we are committed to a model of knowledge that tells us that knowledge is power;…that this rational, knowledge-based approach will persuade people. And the reality is that…it doesn’t in a lot of the world.” Oreskes attributed that failure to fears that climate change is “really an excuse to expand government, increase taxes, deprive us of our personal freedom and push a left-wing, socialistic environmentalist agenda”—fears, she said, that “business people in the fossil-fuel industry…have deliberately fostered in order to prevent action on climate change,” out of their own fear that such action will challenge their interests.

Richard Newell, a former administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration and former senior economist for energy and environment on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, pointed out that the climate-change problem is global, so any solution will require both international cooperation and solutions that can be scaled up to meet growing energy demands. In addition, solving the problem will require “persistence and patience,” he said, because, like GHGs, “energy capital” (capital investment in fossil fuel-based energy) “is very long lasting.”

But that doesn’t mean there is any time to waste, emphasized Christopher Field, the IPCC co-chair. “There is a lot to be done,” he said, and it is “going to require trillions of dollars of investment, whether it is fossil technology or renewables.” But waiting another 10 or 20 years before “we really get serious about accelerating the transition” to renewable energy, he warned, will “bake a whole range of new impacts into the global scene: impacts in terms of droughts, wildfires, sea-level rise, heavy flooding, and precipitation.” On the other hand, by starting to act now, “basically unleashing the opportunity for market forces to capitalize on this need for new infrastructure, we have the potential to transition to a global regime where at the end of the twenty-first century we may be looking at something like 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit…of total global warming,” roughly the amount seen from 1900 until today. That has caused impacts, but “with ambitious investments in preparedness we can deal with that. If we look at unmitigated climate change,” on the other hand, “we can’t deal with it.”

Elaborating on one of those impacts, Daniel Schrag pointed to moral issues linked to the impact of rising sea levels on the natural world. Ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, which will likely melt in any case, given the existing momentum within the climate system, represent several meters of sea-level rise. “We are talking about imposing a rapidly changing environment for generations to come,” he pointed out. “Our legacy to future generations is an ever-changing environment, essentially destroying a lot of the modern civilization that we have had for thousands of years.”

The moderator then turned the discussion back to the political process, asking what the panelists would like to see in a presidential debate. “I’d like to see a debate,” said Joseph Aldy, formerly special assistant to the president for energy and environment in the Obama administration. The 2012 election, he explained, marked the first time since the 1980s that “climate change did not come up in any of the presidential debates between the two candidates. I’d like us to have an honest conversation with the people who want to lead our country for the next four years.”

The conversation then turned to the role of universities, including their own use of energy, their research into new technologies, their training of students not only within academic disciplines but also as engaged citizens, and finally their investment practices.

Henderson and Schrag both argued for divestment from coal, Henderson because of the health effects that make such divestment analogous to divestment from tobacco companies, and Schrag for strategic reasons: coal represents 70 to 80 percent of the GHG problem and only 1 percent of market investment in fossil fuels, making it a logical place to start. But Henderson also argued against divestment from other fossil fuels: “I fear that in saying we need to divest from oil and gas, we are trying to cast the devil out from inside of us,” she declared. “We all use oil and gas all the time.”

“First of all…if the devil was inside of me, I would want to get rid of him,” responded Oreskes. One of the 251 faculty members who have signed an open letter supporting divestment of Harvard’s endowment from fossil fuels, she acknowledged the difficulty of figuring out how to separate existing personal activities and institutional policies from a dangerous dependency. She went on to propose “a conditional divestment policy” that would require companies to publicly declare that “climate change is real; [that] it is driven by human activities”; and that they will not fund climate disinformation nor support “third-party” sowers of such disinformation.

The key to social change, said the historian of science pointedly, is changing what is socially acceptable. History shows that “what signals we send—and particularly what signals leaders send (and this is where I bring the conversation back to Harvard)”—matter. Climate change is a global problem, she added, but the process of solving it begins within communities. “Harvard is a leader: we pride ourselves on our leadership, we pride ourselves on the fact that our students will become leaders.”

Oreskes also noted that Desmond Tutu, LL.D. ’79, has endorsed divestment, a tool used against apartheid in South Africa, as a technique for fighting climate change. Newell, on the other hand, took issue with the comparison: “Our energy system is fundamentally different than the system of apartheid. One did not need apartheid to live. We need energy to live,” he said. And he sounded a note of caution: “If we polarize this issue as so many issues have been, we will not progress.”

After the hour-long panel discussion, Rose took as many questions from the floor as the remaining 30 minutes would allow, including one from a young woman raised in American Samoa who asked what her community should do as the sea begins to encroach. Another question came from James Stock, Burbank professor of political economy, who stated that almost all the CO2 emissions reductions and half the monetary benefits of President Obama’s proposed clean-power plan are expected to come from reductions in the use of coal, and then pointed out that 40 percent of the coal consumed in the United States is mined on federal lands currently under 10 or 20 year leases to private coal companies. “How do we think about that?” he asked.

Oreskes answered, bringing the discussion back to the theory of social change: “We do have control of that through the political system,” she said, “but only if we can find a way to exercise that political control.” Without “a political movement or consensus or even a majority of Americans who are prepared to say, ‘Yeah, that doesn't make sense,’” change can’t happen, she acknowledged. The challenge is getting “our fellow citizens across this country to recognize there are things that we can do.”

As time ran out, Rose encouraged the audience to raise all their questions. Even if they went unanswered, he said, “One should never underestimate the power of a question.”

Read more articles by: Jonathan Shaw

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