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Beyond Climate: A Student Perspective

Each time we eat a meal, throw out the garbage, or hop into a car, we participate in a global system that emits increasing amounts of greenhouse gases and air pollution into the atmosphere and directly fuels a feedback loop of environmental and social damage. Current climate science tells us that we have exceeded safe levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Present and future generations depend on us to build a resilient world in the face of the significant climate-driven changes that we are seeing in our lifetimes.

Some of the largest companies and universities in the world have recognized that, by setting institutional greenhouse gas reduction goals, they can meet their ethical obligations and possess a competitive advantage in a future of constraints on carbon footprint. On Tuesday, Harvard recognized its own obligation and announced its new climate commitment: to be fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050.

As students on the Climate Change Task Force who recommended these goals, we recognize that we bear the responsibility to build resilience, limit emissions, and mitigate damages, and we are ready to hold the University accountable to its commitments.

To achieve fossil fuel neutrality by 2026, the University will need to aggressively reduce on-campus fossil fuel emissions and compensate its remaining fossil fuel emissions through off-campus emission reduction projects. By 2050, all energy heating, cooling, and powering the University’s facilities will have to come from fossil fuel-free energy sources. In addition, the University must significantly reduce the carbon footprint of its externally purchased services, including food, waste, air travel, and investments. We believe that all actions to mitigate emissions, direct or indirect, are equally crucial to Harvard’s achievement of a truly fossil fuel-free university.

Much has changed since Harvard last convened a task force, in 2008, to establish its own emissions standards. While Harvard successfully achieved its 2008 goal of a 30 percent reduction of emissions from 2006 levels by 2016, it has become clear that we need to do more. The impacts of climate change are happening faster—and with greater impact—than scientists previously thought. Meanwhile, as a society, we lack basic awareness of the many ways we can limit the impact of the carbon footprint associated with our lifestyles.

Harvard’s commitments are a promise to fight climate change and mitigate the social damages that extend beyond a single institution, consistent with global efforts to avoid the dangers associated with two degrees Celsius warming by 2100. As students affiliated with the College, Kennedy School, Business School, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, School of Public Health, and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, we affirm that becoming fossil fuel-free is necessary in this endeavor.

With each passing year, the trend in increasing global greenhouse gas emissions has continued, and more people suffer the impacts of extreme and unusual weather conditions and sea level rise. We experience the rapid melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and record global temperatures year after year. It’s time to act.

The damages do not stop at melting ice sheets and extreme weather conditions. Fossil fuel combustion releases other air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and fine particulate matter, which have been shown to increase the frequency of asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature mortality. By reducing energy use by 30 percent, Harvard is averting $10 million of health damages each year compared to 2006, but the health damages of are still conservatively estimated to be $25 million as of 2016 (estimated using CoBE, a tool that determines the health damages related to energy consumption). Our action on this front is overdue.

While climate change is a global pollution problem, its effects are distributed unevenly at local and regional levels. Coastal and desert communities receive the brunt of the impacts of sea-level rise and desertification. Toxic air pollutants from energy production and transportation affect the health of our local communities, and research has shown significant disparities in air quality between low- and high-income neighborhoods. As we learn more about the scale at which our impacts occur, we must target our interventions to meet diverse needs.

We believe that Harvard has a unique opportunity to influence local and global fossil fuel emission and air pollution reduction strategies by following the Task Force’s recommendations. Cutting-edge and collaborative research allows Harvard to develop climate change solutions and address its impacts. Centrally, Harvard provides coursework and educational tools that enable students and community members to understand and actively respond to climate-related issues. We are encouraged by the growing number of applied science and policy courses available to students at all schools, including the three-year Climate Change Living Lab course which seeks to develop off-campus emission reduction strategies that the University can use.

Abiding by the mission of the College, “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society,” Harvard’s operational practices and policies can provide a model for other large, complex institutions to set and achieve their own goals. Above all, we believe that Harvard must conduct its decision-making with transparency to allow fossil fuel reduction and elimination strategies to advance along with current best practices. Such transparency ensures lessons learned can benefit local, regional, and global decision-makers and communities.

As global citizens, we can all take climate action—and we must. We can start by taking responsibility for our daily choices about our food, travel, waste, and energy use. We can broaden our impact by holding our institutions accountable to act alongside us with the urgency and transparency the world deserves.

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