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An Open Letter to President Faust

By Hemi H. Gandhi and Jisung Park

Dear President Faust,

In 2008, at an inspiring rally with Vice President Albert A. Gore '69, you challenged the Harvard community to make “Green the new Crimson.” You followed up your call to action by announcing an ambitious plan to reduce the University’s greenhouse gas emissions by thirty percent by 2016.

Since then, an enthusiastic culture of sustainability has emerged at Harvard. Student representatives now educate their peers about recycling and food waste in the dining halls. The faculty make a conscientious effort to turn off projectors and lights in classrooms. The University has already demonstrated significant progress in cutting its overall emissions.

But while we at Harvard may feel a growing sense of accomplishment, has the planet really noticed? On the macro scale climate change is continuing to get worse. Global emissions in 2010 alone increased 5.9 percent—the largest increase ever recorded. That's roughly 500,000 million more tons of carbon dioxide than the year before—orders of magnitude more than the amount of reductions Harvard has achieved since 2006.  Even if our sustainability campaigns eventually succeed in a larger sense—inculcating environmental values in Harvard students and inspiring other institutions to follow suit—we at Harvard would be kidding ourselves if we think that our actions are making the slightest difference to the problem we’re ostensibly trying to address: halting perilous climate change.

We do not mean to poo-poo Harvard's efforts, or to be defeatist. Rather, we suggest that the university channel its resources toward substantially more meaningful efforts that can actually move the global dial.

President Faust, we are faced with a unique moment in history, in which global economic stagnation and lack of political will are allowing this very crucial challenge to go completely unattended. We urge you to fill this vacuum by seriously revamping our sustainability vision so that it more explicitly leverages the public good that Harvard provides best—innovation and ideas. The way we see it, Harvard’s comparative advantage when it comes to the climate change problem is not in emissions reduction, but rather in knowledge production. If we can channel Harvard’s research, education, and public outreach capacities in a more focused and unified way, we can decrease carbon emissions more significantly than the most ambitious emissions goals ever could.

We might start by incentivizing climate-related research, with an emphasis on inter-disciplinary projects. A challenge as complex and multi-faceted as climate change will require not only the contribution of many disciplines—such as the fundamental sciences, engineering, and economics—but also collaboration across them. So many existing research programs, however, remain siloed within individual schools and disciplines. Without coordinated leadership from the top, these efforts can only move forward in fits and starts.

This is where we believe you can make a tremendous difference. Well-designed university-wide incentive schemes could motivate faculty and students to dedicate more time thinking about and generating solutions climate change. Smart policies like breaks from teaching, seed funding support, and overhead credits for professors who engage in climate and energy related research could go a long way toward achieving a critical mass on this initiative.

In addition, with its arsenal of Nobel-prize winning hard-scientists, Harvard could make major contributions towards radically improving today’s renewable energy technologies. By incentivizing research ideas which are potentially game-changing in the long run but economically unattractive in the short run, you could help Harvard’s researchers fill in the gap that businesses (with or without a price on carbon) never could. By doing so, we’d help make possible the order of magnitude improvements in cost and performance that will be necessary for renewables to one day displace fossil fuels subsidy-free.

On the curricular front, Harvard could provide more support for undergraduates who are interested in sustainable development and climate change. For example: by offering an “energy innovation” concentration [EM1] or by establishing special fellowships for students who decide to spend their summers working on climate-related research or interning with environmental non-governmental organizations or clean-tech start-ups.

Finally, to truly maximize the impact of this climate change initiative, Harvard must reach out beyond its gates. Beyond the obvious first-step of establishing partnerships with industry to facilitate the rapid commercialization of its energy technology breakthroughs, Harvard should also be more explicit in its call for policy action on climate change—both at the state and Federal level. Even if Congress has decided to punt on this issue for the time being, that is no excuse for the world’s leading academic institution to stand blithely by.

President Faust, we believe it is time for a newer and bolder climate change initiative—one which better utilizes Harvard’s comparative advantage in idea generation. We are convinced that the Harvard community has the resources and the willpower to do much more than it already does. We ask you to lead the charge.

Hemi H. Gandhi ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a physics concentrator in Leverett House, photonics researcher, and Co-Founder of the Harvard College Global Energy Initiative. Jisung Park is a doctoral student in economics at Harvard, a Rhodes Scholar, and Founder of Sense and Sustainability, an online podcast and blog on sustainable development. Both authors serve on the Harvard Council of Student Sustainability Leaders.

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