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To paint with broad strokes, members of the Harvard outdoors and climate change advocacy communities have a type — a flannel-wearing, tree-hugging, tofu-powered, Bernie-loving type. I call this community the granola advocates. You’ve probably noticed us around Harvard Yard. We’re usually yelling.
As a self-identifying member of “crunchy” culture, I have been quick to critique University President Lawrence S. Bacow and United States President Joe Biden’s climate change agendas. This is not uncommon: Granola advocates are uncompromising by choice. We are the people who camp outside of President Bacow’s office — in our mom jeans, thrifted shirts, and too-big glasses — demanding Harvard divest from fossil fuels, even after the administration made a commitment that the endowment will release “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, mirroring the timeline set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
Our criticism feels particularly extreme when numerous progressive environmental organizations such as The Sunrise Movement have praised Biden’s climate change agenda. Especially compared to his predecessor, Biden’s decisive actions including rejoining the Paris Agreement – less than a year after President Donald Trump officially withdrew from it – come as a relief.
The realist in me pleads with her crunchy hippie twin to give in to the moderate eye-rollers and naysayers; we’ve won by electing a climate change advocate, now let’s talk about anything else besides the end of the world. The problem, my hippie voice replies, is that even the most progressive climate change goals proposed aren’t aggressive enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
While taking a stand for effective climate change action is exhausting, endless, and scary at times, setting weak climate change goals is unacceptable, especially for leaders who claim to listen to science. While we are almost there, enough is never enough when it comes to ensuring a prosperous future for subsequent generations.
The Paris Agreement is a 2015 deal between 190 state parties and signatories agreeing to limit global warming “to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” Paris asserts that doing so will “significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” Other institutions including many universities have supported the plan and Harvard appears to have matched its own climate commitments to the Paris timeline.
Although the U.S. and Harvard are now on a better path to curbing their emissions than ever before, Paris’s aggressive 1.5 degree Celsius goal – and even more so the scalding 2 degrees Celsius cap – is not safe.
In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a leading international body designed to assess climate change, never stated that a 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees warming goal is safe. The IPCC instead reports that warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius will produce changes capable of destabilizing our human institutions.
1.5 degrees Celsius warming would increase the mean and max temperatures in most land and ocean regions. More precipitation and disastrous floods would inundate some areas. Other regions would be plagued by droughts and wildfires. Such natural disasters could destroy infrastructure, slow economic growth, and increase political instability. Accelerating sea level rise would engulf coastal cities and island nations, fueling the refugee crisis. Ocean acidification and associated habitat loss would destroy biodiversity while disrupting food sources.
All of us will suffer on a 1.5 degrees warmer planet, but BIPOC communities, women, and individuals of a lower socioeconomic status, who tend to be the least to blame for global warming, will be particularly exposed. Such communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change because of compounding factors such as on-average lower incomes, less medical care access, and limited political influence resulting in problems funding climate change adaptation and disaster relief.
In other words, we have only made the first step in a long road to recovery. We cannot become complacent.
Atmospheric warming should not exceed 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures in order to protect our most vulnerable, a bar we have already surpassed. In the U.S., carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by about 80 percent by 2030 and to 100 percent by 2050 while protecting and expanding carbon sinks.
Instead of internalizing the warning enmeshed in the IPCC Reports’ findings, it appears that global leaders have treated Paris’s unjustified 1.5 degrees Celsius goal as gospel. As a result, decision-makers in the Biden administration, at Harvard, and elsewhere are implementing insufficient climate change mitigation goals.
In protest of these insufficient policies, granola advocates will continue to shout and sing, write and recite, unsatiated. The problem is that we are too small a minority at Harvard and around the world to make our local leaders — much less the President of the United States — listen.
Basically, we can’t do it alone.
To be an environmental advocate, you don't have to purchase Birkenstocks and kiss goodbye to capitalism. You do, however, need to embrace the same relentless pursuit of change, focus on the details, and find within yourself the conviction that we all can and must do better for one another and for future generations.
Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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