Changing Climate Change

Over 160 nations worldwide, 319 cities across the country, and 132 colleges in the Northeast alone have committed to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, Yale joined these ranks by setting a target to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Harvard once showed promise as an emerging global leader on environmental issues, but the notable absence of a commitment from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has allowed our archrival to move one step ahead.

This Sunday evening, the Undergraduate Council (UC) will decide whether to add a referendum to the UC presidential ballot in December that would call on FAS to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 11 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The vote will mobilize the student body, prompt debate in the dining halls about climate change and—most importantly—add to the growing pressure on FAS administrators to take action.

In the past, FAS has consistently avoided commitment. In 2001, student activism led to the creation of an energy task force that did little and went defunct. In 2004, the administration sidestepped a proposal to add a $10 opt-out fee to the term bill to purchase wind energy. Given this history, it becomes clear that there must be decisive student support if anything is to change.

The referendum will give us students an opportunity to show that decisive support while also pledging to do our own part to reduce emissions. With the nation and the media focused on the issue of climate change, now is the time for Harvard to acknowledge our responsibility and demonstrate our commitment to addressing the greatest environmental challenge facing the world today.

In the wake of commitments by Yale and other universities, all eyes are on Harvard. Given its reputation and position in the international spotlight, a commitment from Harvard would be a major news event. In the global context, the University’s emissions may be a drop in the ocean, but when Harvard leads, others follow.

Some opponents to the referendum are concerned that students will not be informed enough to make the decision, while others fear that a vague statement of student sentiment will open the floodgates to referenda on other issues in the future. Students do not understand the cost implications of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they argue, and besides, they say, Harvard could spend money more effectively on energy research.

Given the budget crisis facing FAS, there is naturally a concern about how these greenhouse gas reductions will be funded, although the economic cost may be lower than first appears. The Environmental Action Committee (EAC) has published a position paper outlining a number of simple ways to achieve these reductions: decreasing energy demand, increasing efficiency in laboratories, and offsetting emissions with renewable energy purchases. Many of these initiatives will pay for themselves in the long run. Although the exact upfront costs are unclear at present, the purpose of the referendum is to send a message to the administration that students care so passionately about climate change that they believe Harvard should commit to reduction even without accurate cost estimates.

Furthermore, reaching 11 percent below 1990 levels will not happen overnight. In order to reach this ultimate goal, we must take baby steps in areas where reductions are possible. That can only occur if we first set a goal.

Some have argued that Harvard’s money is better spent on energy research than on reducing its own emissions. While it is true that Harvard must continue to be a valuable source of research, this approach in no way excludes a commitment to reduce our own carbon footprint. Should we cut funding for the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, to research instead how to end poverty where it starts? Should Harvard cut University Health Services funds and instead only research how to prevent us from getting sick in the first place? Research and reductions should go hand in hand: As Harvard develops innovative ways to reduce its footprint, these methods will serve as models for institutions at all levels to follow. Furthermore, reduction would give more credibility to concurrent research—we can’t advocate researched reduction methods to others while blatantly ignoring those recommendations at home. Research is a necessary step, but ignoring reductions would be morally irresponsible.

As for concerns about referenda, it is true that such votes should be resorted to only sparingly and for important issues. We do not want the UC election process to devolve into a proposition-ridden ballot frenzy like in California. Opponents of the referendum argue that this issue is no different from any other campus movement, and, if allowed on the ballot, it would lead down a slippery-slope to countless other referenda.

Unlike other causes, however, the link between Harvard and pollution is direct, undeniable, and immediately changeable. A decision to reduce emissions would have a real and lasting impact. In addition, University administrators have sent signals that there is a real possibility that students could achieve the commitment they are looking for and induce FAS to commit in turn. There are rumblings of discontent within FAS at the prospect of setting an emissions target, but when students speak with one voice it becomes difficult to say no. A referendum is the most effective way to give students a voice. Even if it is an uphill battle, the cause is so critically important that we cannot give up.

Former President Summers once said that “operating our campus in an environmentally sustainable way is not only the right thing to do as a citizen and neighbor, it is also an economically sound way to conduct our business.” The longer we wait to make the necessary sustainability adjustments advocated by the upcoming referendum, the more costly our effort will become and the less of an impact it will have. If we cannot expect universities—centers of learning and knowledge—to take charge of this issue, then who will? Students should not just sit by the wayside while Harvard fails to fulfill its responsibility to the environment. A referendum is a step in the right direction.

Henry M. Cowles ’08, a Crimson arts editor, is an environmental science and public policy concentrator in Kirkland House and events coordinator of the EAC. Tom D. Hadfield ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Eliot House and the UC liaison to the EAC. Jake C. Levine ’06-’07, a Crimson photography editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House and co-chair of the EAC.