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Energy and Climate: Taking the Long View

By Steven H. Johnson

The divestiture issue creates an unusual opportunity for Harvard—one that invites Harvard to take the long view and recommend a better and safer approach to energy and climate. There’s a focused message Harvard should send as it steps up to the challenge.

Harvard has been in business for almost 400 years, not only as a keeper of tradition but also as a source of foresight. Harvard should therefore invite everyone to look four centuries ahead and to imagine ourselves in a world reshaped by the unchecked consumption of fossil fuels.

Vast amounts of damage appear certain. Ice sheet melting will have become unstoppable. Sea levels could well be on their way to a 23 foot rise from full melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and another 16 foot rise from full melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. As one may learn by studying USGS topographical maps, only one small high point of Harvard Yard—near Lamont Library—sits more than 40 feet above sea level. MIT’s campus, the Smithsonian, and coastal communities everywhere would are equally endangered. And that’s just for starters.

The world is being drawn toward this future, even today, by consumption habits that express themselves on massive scales. Worldwide consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas throws off 35 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year.  I’ve asked NOAA scientists how such tonnages are to be translated into parts per million. Their emails tell me that one ppm of CO2 weighs 7.77 billion tons.

In broad terms, then, here’s what happens.  Of each year’s 35 billion tons, a portion is absorbed by the Earth’s woodlands.  The ocean absorbs some as well.  Almost half remains in the atmosphere, raising CO2 by two ppm per year.

There is only one atmosphere. Lakes make neighbors of all who live along their shores. The atmosphere, then, makes neighbors of all who breathe its air. We are called—Harvard along with everyone else—to protect our common atmosphere, to prevent it from becoming a source of great harm.

Some aspects of tomorrow’s world can be predicted because they follow rules of proportionality: Technology ownership statistics enable experts to predict fossil fuel consumption rates. Consumption estimates allow scientists to predict CO2 emission totals. CO2 emission estimates make it possible to predict tomorrow’s stocks of CO2, both in the atmosphere and in the ocean. And those estimates permit rough predictions for average temperatures and ocean acidity.

But as we reach the critical part of this causal chain, rules of proportionality disappear and tipping point uncertainties take over. Climate isn’t nearly as predictable as temperature; effects on marine creatures aren’t nearly as predictable as future acidity. As stocks of CO2 expand, doubling and possibly even tripling, what sort of damage becomes the new normal?

Heat waves will take more lives, but where and how many? Massive storms will create larger floods, but how large and how often? As glaciers shrink and disappear, depleted rivers will harm farming regions that have long relied on their waters, but how badly? Ice sheets will lose their cohesiveness, but how fast and how dangerously? Hurricanes of unprecedented fury will rise from the world’s warming seas, but how often? If food supplies dwindle, how many regions will be overtaken by war? Will climate change be experienced as an intensely damaging nuisance or as a terrifying game-changer? Its darker possibilities are beyond the reach of anyone’s forecasting horizon.

Luckily damage on a truly massive scale is not foreordained. A wiser and safer course is within our means. But how do we chart it?

We begin by setting aside habits of fuzzy thinking. For quite some time, scientists and activists have characterized global warming as an annual flow problem, i.e., as an emissions problem, one that nations can contain by reducing total emissions of carbon dioxide. This approach shapes the core of the Kyoto Protocol.

Today’s situation is more accurately characterized as a problem of rising stocks. The greater the stock of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greater the harmful consequences—further warming, accelerating climate change, greater acidification, and so on. If we are to create a safer future, we should do so by capping the total stock of atmospheric CO2.

In other words, we move forward by replacing yesterday’s fuzzy emphasis on CO2 emissions with tomorrow’s clear-eyed focus CO2 stocks. We do this best by replacing the Kyoto approach with the Montreal approach. Just as the Montreal Protocol protects the ozone layer by requiring a swap-out of dangerous technologies for safe technologies, a safer future for the climate will require yesterday’s portfolio of fossil fuel technologies to be withdrawn from service and replaced with tomorrow’s modernized portfolio of climate-safe technologies.

As a premier academic institution with an enormous amount of influence on academic and social thought, Harvard could help set the planet on the right path. If Harvard does the right thing and divests, it will have a few minutes on the world stage and a chance to share some vital messages. “Let’s take the long view.” “The Earth has one atmosphere; we are in this together.” “We cannot forecast the unknowable; we dare not learn how much damage an angry climate will cause.” “We achieve a safer future by committing ourselves to a full swap-out of energy technologies.” And most importantly, “A better future is ours to earn.”

Steven H. Johnson ’64 is a retired consultant, now writing “Thoughtful Patriotism: How America Comes of Age.”

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