Research Clusters Seek Climate Solutions

Teams of Harvard researchers will develop concrete proposals for addressing specific climate impacts.

Salata Institute logo over solar panels

The Salata Institute has chosen five teams to pursue solutions to a variety of climate-change impacts.Logo courtesy of Salata Institute; solar panel photograph by Unsplash

What can be done about climate change, and how can Harvard mobilize its research and educational capacities to address the broad range of unfolding impacts? With an announcement on February 13 of five climate research cluster grants—interdisciplinary, cross-school collaborations among ladder faculty, post-doctoral fellows, students, and external collaborators (each with up to $600,000 in annual funding, renewable for up to three years)—the University has entered a new phase of engagement with this global problem. The grants come from Harvard’s Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, founded with a $200-million gift from Melanie and Jean Salata that was announced in June 2022. The institute, directed by vice provost for climate and sustainability James Stock, was formally launched during an October symposium at which Provost Alan Garber stated, “Our goal is to be indispensable in finding solutions.” 

The faculty-led climate research clusters announced today represent a key step in marshaling the University’s resources to develop such solutions. “We’re very excited,” said Stock, the Burbank professor of political economy and a professor of public policy. “We’re seeing faculty members who are interested in having real world impact, working with colleagues from across the University in ways that they heretofore have not. That’s an important step in the right direction [and is] one of the things that the President’s Climate Initiative was designed to do.”  Five groups, each representing at least two schools and spanning multiple disciplines, were selected from among 41 initial submissions focused on applied research that will yield “concrete proposal[s] to address an aspect of the climate crisis,” according to the vice provost’s website, by focusing on “climate problems that are narrow enough to ensure that concrete solutions emerge, but broad enough that the solutions represent significant progress in meeting the world’s climate challenge.” 

“This is not about writing papers and publishing them in journals,” Stock added. “Harvard professors are good at that. This is about taking all of that brain power to the next step. And working with [external] collaborators who are deeply engaged in real world implementation.”

The initial climate research clusters, which will receive more than $8 million in funding over three years, will focus on:

  • Building resilience in South Asia. In a region representing more than one-fifth of the world’s population, the group will attempt to devise scalable interventions aimed at building community resilience to climate threats such as increased flooding, sea-level rise, and shifts in disease impacts (including malaria). 
  • Reducing global methane emissions. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but has a much shorter atmospheric life span. Controlling methane emissions could reduce global warming in the short term, buying humanity time for the development of solutions to warming caused by carbon dioxide.
  • Preparing for the impacts of changes to the energy system. What happens to coal-mining communities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania? How do communities respond to the arrival of wind and solar installations, or to expansions of the local electrical grid? This cluster will focus on helping communities adapt by engaging them in discussion of their values, in order to make optimal trade-offs during the energy transition.
  • Responding to sea-level rise in the Gulf of Guinea. This group will explore adaptation strategies to coastal erosion in three African cities: Abidjan, Accra, and Lagos. Using projections of sea-level rise in this region through 2100, the team will explore options ranging from coastal defenses, to construction of infrastructure resilient to flooding, to voluntary resettlement of vulnerable populations.
  • Evaluating net-zero pledges. Do pledges by corporations to reduce emissions lead to real results? This cluster will develop tools and methodologies to assess this question, and then ask what strategies and regulations would help to ensure that corporate pledges are meaningful, verifiable, accountable, and support the energy transition.

Each of the five projects names a lead principal investigator, but in interviews, those PIs emphasized the broad, collaborative nature of the cluster grants. And the breadth of expertise among their co-principal investigators, named below, imparts a sense of the extensive and ambitious scope of these projects. For instance, Meyer professor of energy and economic development Robert Stavins, who leads the methane emissions cluster, noted that the group includes 17 participating faculty members from four departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—Earth and planetary science, economics, government, and history—and five professional schools, including business, engineering, government, law, and public health. “That breadth of expertise of people working together is somewhat unparalleled,” he said. “And it can be extremely valuable. My job is to ensure that the faculty communicate and collaborate.” But it is not just about communicating, he added, “It’s about affecting each other’s research on curbing methane emissions so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Listed below are the principal investigators involved in the five research clusters, and excerpts from interviews in which the lead investigator detailed the objectives, strategies, and partnerships they plan to pursue.

 

Building resilience in South Asia:

Professor of epidemiology Caroline Buckee, associate director for the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics (Lead)

Lemann professor Tarun Khanna, Director of the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute

Assistant professor of emergency medicine and assistant professor in the department of global health and population Satchit Balsari

Hooper professor of geology, professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, professor in the department of environmental health, and professor of public policy Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment

Senior research fellow at the school of public health Jennifer Leaning

Professor of Earth and planetary sciences and of environmental science and engineering Peter Huybers

Buckee, lead investigator, described it in an interview as “fundamentally a translational project, where we’re trying to move beyond our own disciplines, to think about how communities deal with climate change.” With increased incidents of flooding, such as the devastating 2022 monsoon season that displaced millions in Pakistan, people there are “facing malaria, and possibly cholera,” which is water-borne. “But that’s only one thing on the long list of threats that happen when their villages are flooded out.” At the same time, “Crops are failing, because of changing weather patterns, living conditions are changing, other infectious disease threats are changing. Everything’s changing at once, and that is difficult to manage. Some people will have to make the decision to migrate,” overwhelming urban settlements. “Some will find ways to adapt and stay where they are. What we’re trying to do is understand from a holistic perspective,” how to develop interventions that “support communities….We’ll spend a significant amount of time just developing partnerships”—such as with BRAC (formerly Building Resources Across Communities), the world’s largest NGO, and with SEWA (the Self-Employed Women’s Association), a trade union of more than 2 million women in India, “so we can identify which interventions are going to be feasible.” The women of SEWA are “astonishing,” Buckee observed, “in the sense that they are organized.” As an epidemiologist, she marveled at their “amazing job of COVID response. And they are very empowered, even though many of them don’t have much….We’re really trying to work with them and…support their priorities, because they understand and are witnessing and managing climate change already.”

Buckee emphasized the range of relevant experience on the team. “We have Peter Huybers, who is an expert in agriculture and climate, as well as migration. Jennifer Leaning has decades of experience with humanitarian crises and mass migration. Tarun Khanna,” she continued, “really understands the economic and political realities of modern South Asia; Satchit Balsari, who directs the Indian Digital Health Network within Harvard’s Mittal South Asia Insititute, has been working on interventions for expanding access” to health care in the region. “And I’ve been working on infectious diseases…using data from phones and new kinds of data integration to understand the impact of mobility and migration on climate-forced, environmentally-driven diseases.” The team aims to “identify which interventions are going to be feasible, and which ones are likely to be amenable to the sort of technical and analytical skills that we can bring to bear.”

 

Reducing global methane emissions:

Meyer professor of energy and economic development Robert Stavins (Lead)

Professor of the practice of public policy Joseph Aldy

Professor of economics and decision sciences James Hammitt

Professor of economics Nathaniel Hendren

McCoy Family professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering Daniel Jacob

Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs Meghan O’Sullivan

Black professor Forest Reinhardt (Harvard Business School)

Professor of government and deputy vice provost for advances in learning Dustin Tingley

Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science Steven Wofsy

“The lion’s share of attention to global climate change…has been dedicated to the role of carbon dioxide emissions,” said Stavins, lead investigator. “But reducing the emissions of another greenhouse gas, methane, can greatly lessen the magnitude of climate change.” Methane has a very short atmospheric lifetime, “on the order of 20 years, compared with CO2, which has a half-life in the atmosphere of more than 100 years.” Because the warming attributable to methane greatly exceeds that of carbon dioxide, “Near-term reductions in methane emissions,” he said, “can give the world time to bend the curve, end CO2 emissions, advance technologies for atmospheric carbon removal, and implement long-term strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

Globally, there are three major sources of methane emissions, Stavins explained. With respect to oil and gas extraction “It’s largely a matter of leaks from pipelines, wellheads, and from refineries” at the moment when flaring is controlled. Another “very important source in many countries, including the United States, are landfills.” And finally, there are agricultural emissions. “Despite all the jokes about cattle, the main agricultural source globally is actually rice production. That’s an area where we anticipate cooperating with other universities,” he said, “because Harvard’s expertise in agriculture doesn’t compare to the expertise of land grant institutions such as Cornell, Texas A&M, and the University of California, Davis.” 

Stavins anticipates a lot of two-way communication as the team learns about the needs of key constituencies and the policy community. The researchers aim to frame their work in a way that it can be easily translated into specific actions to reduce emissions. Domestically, for example, their strategies will feed into regulations being developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curb methane emissions, and into state-level implementation of rules in the Inflation Reduction Act. Internationally, the group will work with the 150 government signatories to the global methane pledge initiated by the European Union and United States, and with industry consortiums. The approach has to be broad-based, Stavins emphasized, because “climate change is a global commons problem. And so unilateral action by any one country, even one as important as the United States, can only be of limited value.”

 

Preparing for the impacts of changes to the energy system:

Thomson professor of government Stephen Ansolabehere (Lead)

Professor of government and deputy vice provost for advances in learning Dustin Tingley

Cox professor of law Jody Freeman, faculty director of the environmental law program

Norton professor of regional planning and urbanism Diane Davis

Stone professor of sociology Jason Beckfield

Finding common ground for talking about the impacts of change to the energy system is the goal of the project led by Stephen Ansolabehere. “We’re interested in places where there’s either a movement away from some industry, or into an industry. What happens in rural communities when there’s a huge solar farm being built, or a new electric grid, and the planning and permitting is happening at the level of state government or a Public Utility Commission, and the community is brought in only at the end of the process?” One aspect of what Ansolabehere and his colleagues do is advocate for policy change. Members of his team have had past success in facilitating conversations between local and regional government officials: getting county commissioners or mayors, for example, to meet with regional planners about issues such as transportation or health care. “In this case,” said Ansolabehere, the aim is to get them “talking about the effects of declining coal, or the possible effects of cleaner natural gas in the future, and how they would deal with it.” 

The shift will affect jobs, too. Prior research, he continued, has shown that job-training programs are surprisingly ineffective at easing labor transitions. “Say I’m working in a gas field or I’m working in a coal mine, and I’m 50 years old. They want me to enter a community college program for nine months, and step away from my job in order to train for some other job? And I don’t know if there’s a job at the end of that training program. So, there’s credibility issues, there’s fear and risk issues. And the risk is being taken by the worker, not by the company, or by the union, or anybody else. And as a result,” he says, “there’s relatively little uptake from these programs.”

In terms of progressive change, both wind and solar technologies face obstacles as generating facilities are built, as is the transmission grid itself. There is “a lot of fear about power lines,” he says, “and concerns about the visual impacts.” An effort to connect hydroelectric power from Quebec to the northeastern U.S. electricity grid, for instance, has been stymied by environmental concerns over endangered species raised in New Hampshire and Maine. “A lot of the people who are opposed to the electric power line are, in fact, environmentalists. So, there’s this kind of deep conflict among the environmental communities choosing among the goals of endangered species, clean air, clean water, and the need to switch to a more electrified energy system. The process needs to be realigned so that we have a place to talk about these trade-offs.”

Some new technologies will require a whole new regulatory architecture. Carbon capture and storage will raise questions about underground ownership and management of the locations where the carbon is stored, Ansolabehere points out. “That’s going to have community impacts and will raise a lot of fear. What if it leaks? How are we insured if somebody accidentally drills down and punctures the container where it’s sequestered?” Existing regulatory structures are outdated in these contexts, he says, so “this is a key moment to develop policies that are in alignment” with the new realities.

 

Responding to sea-level rise in the Gulf of Guinea:

Gurney professor of history and of African and African American studies Emmanuel Akyeampong,Oppenheimer faculty director of the Harvard Center for African Studies (Lead)

Baird professor of science Jerry Mitrovica

Assistant professor of African and African American studies Daniel Agbiboa

Emmanuel Akyeampong has chaired the Center for African Studies since 2016, and notes Africa will be one of the regions most affected by climate change—and one of the least equipped to respond. The Gulf of Guinea is among places globally where sea level is rising fastest. In Lagos, Nigeria, for example, a city of 15 million people where more than half the population lives within 500 meters of the sea, the signs of active coastal erosion are everywhere. Expensive sea walls protect fancy hotels along the shoreline. “But how long can this continue?” wonders Akyeampong. In nearby Ghana, the rate of erosion on some parts of the coast is 1.5 meters per year. And in the Cote d’Ivoire, urban flooding and coastal erosion in 2019 led to damages estimated at $2 billion: nearly five percent of the country’s gross domestic product that year. Climate impacts are economic impacts, and “African governments will have to make choices,” he says, “about what territory they should defend and protect.”

The project he leads will first build a coastal vulnerability index for the Gulf of Guinea based on the best climate science, including estimates of sea-level rise and projections about storm surges and flooding. Using satellite images and historical photographs, the group will create a time series map of the region’s flood risk from 1970 to the present, and project impacts in 2050 and 2100. This will allow planners to consider mitigation measures, changes to crops, and so on. 

Second, the project will help communities and governments decide how best to respond based on the vulnerability index. In some places, the government will decide that an area is too important to abandon to the sea, and erect defenses. In others, residents will see projections of what is coming in 10 years, and decide to leave voluntarily, either with or without incentives.

The team is identifying partners at the University of Lagos and the University of Guyana. They aim to train African climate scientists, and invite them to spend time at Harvard labs, so that when the project ends, these local partners, who are helping set the research agenda, will be able to continue the work of assessing strategies of mitigation and adaptation in the Gulf of Guinea.

 

Evaluating net-zero pledges:

Cox professor of law Jody Freeman, faculty director of the environmental law program (Lead)

Carrie Jenks, executive director of the environmental and energy law program, Harvard Law School

Heinz professor of environmental management Michael Toffel

Williams professor of business administration Georgios Serafeim

Professor of the practice of public policy Joseph Aldy

If fulfilled, corporate progress on net‐zero and other emissions reduction pledges could help the United States achieve its climate commitments under the Paris Agreement. However, it is unknown whether these corporate targets result in real emissions reductions. This cluster, according to a statement provided by the Salata Institute, “will develop tools and methodologies to evaluate whether corporate targets are leading to emissions reductions consistent with U.S. greenhouse gas goals. The team seeks to understand what is happening and then ask what strategies and regulations would help to ensure that corporate pledges are meaningful, verifiable, accountable, and able to support the energy transition and spur systems change.”

To learn more about the 2023 grant recipients, visit the Salata Institute’s Clusters page.

 

Updated February 13, 2023 at 6:10 pm to add commentary from the cluster research principal investigators.

Read more articles by: Jonathan Shaw

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