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Panelists Talk Climate Change, Racial Justice and COVID-19 in Inaugural HAA Climate Conversation

University President Lawrence S. Bacow introduced an alumni panel Wednesday.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow introduced an alumni panel Wednesday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Ellen M. Burstein, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard alumni and climate activists identified three central challenges facing the world today — the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and systemic racism — in the Harvard Alumni Association’s inaugural “Climate Conversation” event Wednesday afternoon.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow introduced the discussion. In his opening remarks, he spoke about his own academic history and experience teaching environmental policy at MIT.

Bacow said he also believes in the urgency of the challenges identified by the panelists.

“Image after image assaults us, whether or not it’s an orange glow over San Francisco, a makeshift morgue in New York City, or the death of a Black man on the streets of Minneapolis,” he said. “These images I think sweep away our misgivings, and reveal the urgency of the test that we all face, both as individuals and as a society.”

“They are powerful reminders of how connected but also how vulnerable we all are, of just how fragile life is, and just how precious that life is — both individually and collectively,” he added.

Bacow lauded climate research initiatives taking place at the University and cited Harvard Management Company’s recent commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. At the time of the school’s announcement of the initiative, Divest Harvard, a student organization advocating for Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry, dubbed HMC’s commitment “insufficient.”

Bacow added that he believes there is always “more that we can do” to act against climate change.

“Our goals must expand to include the connection and amplification of our efforts and the development of partnerships that allow us to work across boundaries — traditional boundaries, national boundaries, boundaries between industry and the academy, boundaries between individuals and institutions,” he said.

The featured panelists included Romance Languages and Literatures and African and African American Studies professor Bruno M. Carvalho; Samuel S. Myers ’87, the principal research scientist in Planetary Health and Epidemiology at the School of Public Health; School of Public Health student Caro Park ’17; and Pacific Forest Trust president Laurie A. Wayburn ’77. Stephen T. Curwood ’69, a journalist and radio personality, moderated the discussion.

More than 2,000 people registered to attend the event, according to organizers. The remaining events in the “Climate Conversations” series will take place monthly through January 2021.

The participants began by explaining how they became interested in climate-related activism, before turning to the fires that have devastated the Pacific Northwest in recent weeks.

Wayburn said the fires were an indicator of the pressing need to address climate change.

“It isn't too late, but our options are fewer, the time is shorter and the need is more urgent, and I think that the fires are an extraordinary signal to us in that regard,” she said.

Myers argued that the fight against climate change necessitates a reframing of the issue as a moral concern.

“I think that there's a sort of spiritual crisis underneath all of these challenges that I’m talking about and that we've lost a sense of connection to the natural world,” Myers said. “We need to sort of reinvigorate old stories about our place in the world and our connection to nature so that we reinvest our relationship to nature.”

Carvalho also discussed the relationship between interventions for climate change and for racial justice.

“You know a lot of the things that we can do to slow down our march of folly towards climate disaster are the same things we can do to tackle racial inequities, inequalities and injustices, right? Again: mass transit correlates with better socioeconomic mobility and so on and so forth,” Carvalho said.

Towards the end of the conversation, Myers urged participants to take part in “collective action” to persuade key players in the fight for climate change.

“The way you address power problems is through collective action, so you need to come together as a community and push on industries and governments just like so many Harvard alums are pushing on Harvard right now around divestment,” Myers said.

—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at ellen.burstein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

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