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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Sustainability Steps

January-February 2015

Last September, the presidents of Harvard and Stanford, Drew Faust and John L. Hennessy, wrote a joint op-ed in the Huffington Post that outlined “What Universities Can Do About Climate Change.” Highlighting their institutions’ “wealth of intellectual resources across fields” and overall convening power, they argued that universities must pursue “powerful long-term solutions.” In the months following, several significant campus initiatives have begun to sketch the shape of those efforts at Harvard.

In October, the University unveiled an ambitious five-year sustainability plan, setting out commitments in five core areas: energy and emissions, campus operations, nature and ecosystems, health and well-being, and culture and learning. As Faust wrote in September, universities are large employers with significant physical plants, so they must “walk the walk” by “piloting and modeling effective operational practices.” Harvard’s new plan builds on existing commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 30 percent from a 2006 baseline by 2016 (including any additional emissions from new facilities). The new plan adds promises to reduce waste per capita 50 percent by 2020 and create action plans on issues like transportation and resilience in the face of challenges like sea-level rise and extreme weather events. (For a more detailed report, see harvardmag.com/sustainability-14.)

Beyond such local commitments, Faust and Hennessy noted the far more significant contributions to progress that university-based research will make. To that end, on November 7, the newly inaugurated Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities hosted its first annual challenge conference. Based at the Graduate School of Design, the center seeks design-based solutions that, as the center’s founding director Ali Malkawi put it, will help “fundamentally shift the ways humans use energy in the long term.” The conference, which featured presentations from architects, scientists, and politicians, was intended to help set the center’s future research agenda. (For a complete report, see harvardmag.com/greencities-14.)

Even as these developments proceeded, campus debates continued to highlight the one area where Faust and her Stanford counterpart have differed in their responses to climate change: divestment of endowment holdings in fossil-fuel companies. In May, Stanford announced its divestment from coal-mining companies (though not from fossil-fuel companies overall). At Harvard, the fall saw continued back and forth between Faust and the Harvard Corporation and campus groups advocating for divestment. Harvard Faculty for Divestment, which first sent an open letter calling for divestment last April, had more than 200 colleagues signed on by November, more than double the initial number (see “Divestment Discussions,” November-December 2014). On October 17, its leaders held a private discussion with Faust and William F. Lee, the Corporation’s senior fellow; a week later, the group held its first public event, an open forum that featured presentations on the scientific and economic arguments for divestment. (For a detailed report, see harvardmag.com/divestment-14.)

Meanwhile, student activism has gained intensity. On November 18, seven students from the Law School and the College, acting as the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, filed a lawsuit against the University in Suffolk County Superior Court. The 11-page complaint—which names the Corporation, Harvard Management Company, and then-Massachusetts attorney general Martha M. Coakley as defendants—claims that continued investment in fossil-fuel companies represents a “mismanagement of charitable funds” and a violation of Harvard’s 1650 charter.

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