At Home with Harvard: The Climate Crisis

Highlights from our wide-ranging coverage of the environment

This is the ninth installment in Harvard Magazine’s series “At Home with Harvard,” a guide to what to read, watch, listen to, and do while social distancing. Read the prior pieces, featuring stories about Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, famous and not-so-famous Harvardians in the movies, pathbreaking medicine, and more, here.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, Harvard Magazine has pulled from its archives a representative arc of its climate-change coverage from the last two decades, covering the early frustration of scientists trying to find the language to persuade a skeptical public, to the urgent need to act to prevent the worst damage, to strategies for coping with an inevitably changed future flora, fauna, climate, and coastline. Harvard has also been a site of energetic student and faculty climate activism, all of which is covered in our pages in news reports, first-person accounts, and more. 


Our Environment Today: A Bleak Reality

Biological oceanographer James J. McCarthy has been a leader in the international effort to assess the risks to human and natural systems posed by global climate change
Photography by Jim Harrison

Our first big feature on climate change came in 2002 with “The Great Global Experiment.” In 1997, (the now late) professor of biological oceanography James McCarthy was tapped to co-chair the Working Group on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC, created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme, is the mechanism for winnowing the myriad of published research to achieve consensus on what aspects of climate change scientists are most confident about. The main message from the scientists in this story is that they have trouble persuading people that the problem is real and they need to do something. 

~Kristina DeMichele, Digital Content Strategist 


The airway cast was made by pouring plastic into a lung which was then dissolved in a bath of acid.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a peculiar effect on air quality. Around the world, air in the most polluted cities is suddenly clear, the effect—visible in photographs—of a global economic shutdown. The particles that cloud the air during normal economic times don’t just turn urban skylines hazy brown, they also harm human health. Given that the surface of the human lung is the size of a tennis court and that a typical human inhales 50 to 60 pounds of air each day, as this article explains, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that people living in places where fine-particle pollution has been worst have suffered disproportionately from all manner of diseases—including COVID-19.

~Jonathan Shaw, Managing Editor


The Matterhorn, icon of the Alps, straddles the Swiss-Italian border. Washburn’s photograph, taken in August 1960, shows a thick mantle of snow and ice, largely melted by 2005.
Photograph by Bradford Washburn 

ANY SKEPTIC of climate change cannot dispute the proof side-by-side photos of the same place, 70-80 years apart in time, shows. Our photo essay “A Melting World” pairs the extraordinary aerial photographs of the late  H. Bradford Washburn Jr. ’33, A.M. ’60, L.H.D. ’75 with photographs taken from the same vantage points in 2005 by David Arnold ’71 that show how glaciers have melted over time. The photographs are heart wrenching, but important to view and take in.

~Kristina DeMichele, Digital Content Strategist 

Photograph by Stanley Zimney/iStock

Late last September, I became grouchy that the leaves in Boston didn’t seem to be turning. What happened to New England’s dramatic fall color? So I decided to report this story, “Is Climate Change Ruining Fall?” to find out. Turns out, it is! Cooler overnight temperatures in the fall normally signal to trees that it’s time to drop their leaves, but nighttime lows in Boston are markedly higher today than they were 70 years ago. This was a fun, complex piece to write—I calculated typical local fall nighttime temperatures using federal data—and an example of how climate change shapes the small, everyday things that impact our quality of life. 

The blue regions are oil palm plantation, while the forest regions (yellows and greens) are colored by tree height, which is a proxy for carbon.
Image courtesy of Global Airborne Observatory, ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.

Our planet is warmed not just by carbon emissions from cars and power plants, but also by deforestation, especially in the tropics. Tropical rainforests hold a huge proportion of the world’s carbon in their trees. When they’re burned, all of that carbon is emitted into the atmosphere—and all of the vegetation that acted as a “carbon sink” to absorb carbon disappears. Here’s a story I reported a few weeks ago about the devastating deforestation taking place in Southeast Asia to make way for plantations growing palm oil, a vegetable oil used in processed foods like Oreos and chocolate bars. 

Photograph by tornadochaser/iStock

Climate change is already showing world-altering impacts that are unlikely to be reversed; instead, we must adapt. In “Scholars Advocate Managed Retreat—Before Climate Change Sinks Coastlines,” my colleague Lydia Gibson sensitively wrote about the important, difficult, and chilling conversation about whether coastal cities, communities like Boston and New York City, should be evacuated as sea levels rise. “Researchers argue that the relocation of coastal communities is no longer a question of if,” she writes, “but when and how.” 

~Marina Bolotnikova, Associate Editor 


A Chance for Hope 

Source: 2012 data from U.S. Energy Information Administration

Based on professor of physics Mara Prentiss’s book Energy Revolution: The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology, this 2015 feature presents an interesting engineering perspective on the problem of getting energy from fossil fuels, and a hopeful message: “We are on the cusp of an energy revolution, which might significantly improve the lives of everyone on earth, if only we have the courage to seize the opportunity.”

~Kristina DeMichele, Digital Content Strategist 


Newell and Horowitz walk the weather balloon to the launch site.
Photograph by Jonathan Shaw

Climate fieldwork is no walk in the park. In 2010, I got the chance to see firsthand what it is like for researchers working in the Amazon jungle, in intense heat and humidity, sleeping in hammocks to avoid snakes and poisonous insects, and getting up in the middle of the night to take readings of gases being exhaled by the forest. The effort was an integral part of building models of ecosystem dynamics under altered climate conditions. In a jungle 100 times more diverse than a northern temperate forest, predicting which species will thrive and which won’t has implications that reverberate for all manner of species—including humans—that depend on the Amazon for life.  

Illustration by Pete Ryan

What can we do as individuals to lessen our impact on natural ecosystems? In this article from 2017, Gidon Eshel explains how the food choices we make influence the health of American prairies, the productivity of coastal marine fisheries, and even global warming.  

~Jonathan Shaw, Managing Editor

Frank Hu believes a plant-based diet can help feed a growing population in a healthy, sustainable way.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Harvard Magazine writer Jacob Sweet’s recent feature “Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet,” about the need to transition to a plant-based food system to avert the worst impacts of climate change and human disease, is essential reading. 

~Marina Bolotnikova, Associate Editor 


Student and Faculty Activism 

Harvard student activists have been pushing for fossil-fuel divestment since 2012—and more recently, faculty members in Harvard Faculty for Divestment have, too. Harvard Magazine has covered this movement extensively, from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ vote this year to endorse divestment to Harvard’s pledge yesterday to make its endowment “carbon-neutral” by 2050. 

Isa Flores-Jones '19 and fellow activists at a Divest Harvard rally last April
Photograph by Lydia Carmichael Rosenberg/Harvard Magazine

Last year, former Harvard Magazine Ledecky Fellow Isa Flores-Jones ’19 wrote “Movement Ecology,” a heartfelt, revealing essay about her experience as an activist in Divest Harvard as fires raged through her home community in California. In “Will Truth Prevail?” current Ledecky Fellow Drew Pendergrass ’20 reflects on his climate research in a political environment of delay and denial: “What is science, founded on nuanced arguments, against a coordinated political assault?”  

 ~Marina Bolotnikova, Associate Editor

More from “At Home with Harvard”

  • Spring Blooms: Your guide to accessing the Arnold Arboretum as the seasons turn in Boston
  • Harvard in the Movies: Our favorite stories about Harvardians on screen
  • The Literary Life: Our best stories about the practice and study of literature 
  • Night at the Museum: Our coverage of Harvard’s rich museums and collections
  • Nature Walks: Walking, running, and biking in Greater Boston’s green spaces, even while social distancing
  • Supporting Local Businesses: Our extensive coverage of local restaurants and retailers, and how you can support them during this time of crisis
  • Medical Breakthroughs: Our best stories going deep into the ideas and personalities that will shape the medical care of tomorrow
  • Rewriting HistoryFrom race and colonization to genetics and paleohistory, our favorite stories about the people reshaping the study of history

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