The Climate Connection Between Campus and Home

Illustration by Mike Ellis

Often, when we think about the reach of the climate crisis on campus, we think about protests, discussions, and groups like Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, where I’m an organizer. But for a lot of us in the Harvard community, the climate crisis isn’t confined to Cambridge. It greets us when we make our way back home.

There’s a drive my family and I make whenever we stay at my grandmother’s home in Quito. It’s a long, winding highway that leads us through the Andean landscape, from the city into the equestrian ranches and family-run dairy farms we frequent when visiting the Ecuadorian capital and the mountains that surround it. Along the way, the road is peppered with wooden stands selling fruits, vegetables, and roses grown in the valley below.

Last summer, we visited Ecuador for the first time since 2019. It was to be our grand return after the pandemic had kept us away, and we had it all planned out: We’d first spend a few weeks in coastal Guayaquil, visiting family, taking weekend trips to the beach, eating well. Then, we’d go to the mountains. Our summers in Quito had always been spent in 40-degree weather, colder in the mountain trails and volcanic lakes, and we had packed scarves and thick sweaters. But this time, when we took that mountain highway up into the city, the usual rose and food stands had been replaced by countless watermelon vendors. Every couple hundred feet, a string of watermelon stands would appear, each emblazoned with similar handmade signs advertising “sandías, 3/$5.”

Watermelon is a tropical fruit. It grows best in daytime temperatures of 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Quito is warmer than it used to be, which helped explain the watermelons. Anecdotally, we know this is true. My family has lived in and out of Quito for decades, but it was everyone’s first time seeing the fruit being sold there. When we first visited Cuicocha, a crater lake at the foot of the Volcán Cotacachi, seven years ago, it was so cold we could barely move. This time around, even a light sweater was too much. While such a drastic change could be in part due to the weather that day, residents there acknowledged that something longer-term has shifted. The guides who work the lake’s tour boats year-round confirmed to us that, especially in the last few years, the area had become uncharacteristically hot. The temperatures they’re experiencing are far from normal, nor can they be dismissed solely as weather variations (which are exacerbated by climate change). Our coats remained packed away, and we came home shocked at the change to the mountain ecosystem.

Miami, my hometown, a place that’s been called “the most vulnerable coastal city worldwide” by the nonpartisan research organization Resources for the Future, is also affected by the climate crisis. In recent years, a record number of named storms have threatened Florida coastlines, a phenomenon that will likely become increasingly common. Fish kills, once rare events, now increasingly plague Biscayne Bay as human-driven pollution (fertilizer run-off) and warming oceans combine to create red tides, a type of algae bloom that can kill thousands of fish. This isn’t the Miami I grew up in. In fact, the threat climate change poses to my hometown becomes clearer during my brief trips away from Harvard. It is then that I am truly jolted by the dangerous ways in which the city, and the world, are changing.

Other students describe similar experiences. For Alexia Leclercq, an environmental justice organizer and student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, climate change is most evident during visits home in Austin, Texas. “Being away and coming back is always very striking because then the difference is really in your face, versus when you’re continuously here,” said Leclercq.

In Austin, there’s been an uptick of extreme winter storms linked to climate change. “[It] is a huge problem because obviously we don’t have the infrastructure or the grid to be able to deal with that,” Leclercq said. “People have died.” The summers are also warmer, with more frequent heat waves than five years ago.

Leclercq isn’t the only one. When I reached out to Harvard friends and followers on social media to ask if they’ve seen climate change affecting their hometowns since starting college, nearly 20 people responded almost immediately. One friend confided a fear that their European hometown would sink in the near future. Another shared experiences with the wildfires that have chased family members out of their homes in northern California.

The number of students ready to share their stories—of change, loss, and vulnerability—was overwhelming. It was also a sign of a gap between the urgency students feel about climate change, and the slow pace of Harvard’s responses. It’s a gap I feel myself.

While the University is taking important steps toward fighting this existential danger, many students believe it isn’t moving fast enough. In 2021, in what many have called a move toward full divestment from fossil fuels, Harvard announced it would allow its current investments in the industry to expire. Though a lesser action than those taken by other schools like Princeton and Yale, the move represented an acknowledgement of the relationship between University finances and the climate crisis after more than a decade of pressure from students, faculty, alumni, and community members. It was a clear step away from the fossil-fuel industry. In addition, the Harvard Sustainability Office and Harvard researchers studying climate change and its causes are doing promising work. Earlier this year, Lea professor of the history of science Naomi Oreskes and research associate Geoffrey Supran released a study in Science showing that ExxonMobil’s internal global warming projections between 1977 and 2003 had predicted with shocking accuracy human-caused climate change and when its consequences would become discernible (see harvardmag.com/exxon-projections-23). They also found that the company intentionally obscured its findings from the public.

But these belated institutional steps, like Harvard’s commitment in 2021 to reach net zero emissions by 2050, are not enough. At the same time, the fossil-fuel industry remains present in other ways on campus. It is most visible in the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), where Harvard Environmental Economics Program’s list of sponsors includes BP, Duke Energy (a natural gas company), Chevron, and Shell. This is just one example. According to a new study by Fossil Free Research, other HKS entities—including the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Geopolitics of Energy Project, Environment and Natural Resources Program, Corporate Responsibility Initiative, and Harvard Electricity Policy Group—take money from ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and other companies. Fossil Free Research found that since 2010, Harvard has accepted more than $21 million from such companies.

In response to questions about these connections, an HKS spokesperson offered this statement: “Faculty members and program teams at Harvard Kennedy School are helping policymakers, stakeholders, and the public better understand and respond to climate change. We conduct research and engage with a wide array of organizations to help move the world toward more sustainable environmental and climate practices. Our research is available on our climate@hks website. The School receives funding from many entities to sustain its work, and none of the funders control the approach or conclusions of that work. We adhere rigorously to our policies for transparent engagement, which are described on our website.”

But research has also found that fossil-fuel companies’ involvement in funding research, academic departments, and individual professors creates a conflict of interest. A study by Columbia University researchers, published last year in Nature Climate Change, found that such involvement can skew research results in favor of these companies’ interests. As investigative journalist Paul Thacker wrote in The BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the British Medical Association, “Oil and gas companies have funded research to try to weaken messages on climate change, capture academia, and protect their interests, much like tobacco companies did half a century ago.”

One of the students I spoke to earlier this year was Zachary Lech ’24, a friend and fellow arts writer at The Harvard Crimson. His hometown is in rural western Poland, 100 miles from “the closest actual city.” The weather there, previously considered temperate and just rainy enough for traditional mushroom picking, is changing, he said. “Sometimes there are anomalous years you have a once-in-a-decade or once-in-a-lifetime weather event that kind of messes with winter or a summer.” But now, those events happen almost every year. This means crop failures and a lack of forageable mushrooms due to reduced rainfall, a heightened risk of wildfires in the forests, 90-degree summers when it should be a cool 75, and warmer winters that, to Lech, are “even more jarring.”

Marin Gray ’26, from Roseburg, Oregon, also experienced a snowless, uncharacteristically warm winter. When we spoke in early January, the weather in her hometown in the Umpqua River Valley was 55 degrees. Autumn brings an increasingly frequent and damaging wildfire season there, a two- to three-month period when residents are told to stay indoors to avoid the smoke—something that Gray said “I don’t remember happening growing up.” She added: “Going to a school like Harvard—we have amazing people who are working for climate action—it’s definitely a little bit dissonant to look at that and then look back at the administration and how we still connect ties to fossil fuels.”

Leclercq expressed a similar dissonance. As a high-schooler in Texas, already working in environmental activism, she wanted to attend college on the East Coast, expecting that institutions there would support strong climate policy. But she found that universities like Harvard are “actually upholding the system,” she said. That’s partly why Leclercq believes it’s important for students—who look to their own futures and feel a great sense of urgency—to get involved in “holding these large universities accountable.”

That same sense of urgency motivates my own climate activism. And it has also led me to a decision: After graduating in May 2024, I plan to move back to Miami as soon as possible. My reasons are twofold: I love it and want to be with my family, but I also want to move back before the city becomes unrecognizable. What we have seen of the climate crisis already has shown me that Miami won’t always exist as I’ve experienced it, and I want to spend time there before the city, at least as I know it, is lost.  

Sofia Andrade ’24 is one of this magazine’s Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellows.

 

Read more articles by: Sofia Andrade

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