Confronting climate change
Dear Members of the Harvard Community,
Worldwide scientific consensus has clearly established that climate change poses a serious threat to our future—and increasingly to our present. Universities like ours have produced much of the research supporting that consensus, as well as many of the emerging ideas helping us to begin confronting that challenge. Yet we have far more work ahead to chart the path from societies and economies fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels to a system of sustainable and renewable energy. We must devote ourselves to enabling and accelerating that transition—by developing the technologies, policies and practices that would make it possible—if we are to mitigate the damage that rising greenhouse gas levels are inflicting on the planet.
Harvard has a vital leadership role to play in this work. As a university, it has a special obligation and accountability to the future, to the long view needed to anticipate and alter the trajectory and impact of climate change. Harvard also possesses the wide range of capacities across fields and disciplines that must be mobilized and conjoined in order to create effective solutions. Ideas, innovation, discovery and rigorous independent thought will serve as indispensable elements in combating the climate threat; these are the special province of universities.
Already we support research at the vanguard of energy and climate science—from new technologies for energy storage, to solar ovens to reduce pollution in the developing world, to an “artificial leaf” that mimics photosynthesis to produce renewable fuel, to give just three examples. Our faculty are deeply engaged as well in informing the development of law and policy to advance sustainability and to address the hazards of climate change worldwide, from advancing climate agreements, to fashioning legal frameworks for regulating shale extraction, to designing models for sustainable businesses. The Harvard University Center for the Environment engages more than 200 faculty sharing their insights and their commitment to these urgent issues. And our educational programs, with some 250 courses across the University focusing on aspects of environmental sustainability, will prepare leaders with the insight and foresight to safeguard our environment in the years and decades to come.
Harvard has the opportunity and the responsibility to help create the path to a sustainable future. We can and must galvanize the deep commitment of students, faculty, staff and alumni to work together to move us closer to a world founded on renewable energy. Today I would like to highlight three areas in which we are focusing special attention as part of our obligation to our planet and our collective future.
First, and at the heart of our mission as a university, is research. Our research across Harvard—in climate science, engineering, law, public health, policy, design and business—has an unparalleled capacity to accelerate the progression from nonrenewable to renewable sources of energy. The Harvard Campaign has identified energy and environment as a priority, and we have already raised $120 million to support activities in this area. As part of this broader campaign focus, I intend to catalyze the aspects of that research specifically focused on shaping and accelerating the transition to a sustainable energy system.
I challenge our talented and dedicated faculty and students to identify how their efforts can propel societies and individuals along this path. And I challenge our alumni and friends to assist me in raising $20 million for a fund that will seed and spur innovative approaches to confronting climate change, as an element of our broader campaign efforts in energy and environment. To launch this new Climate Change Solutions Fund, I will immediately make available $1 million in grants to be allocated at the outset of the coming academic year. (Please see here for further information on this fund and the application process.)
Second, Harvard must model an institutional pathway toward a more sustainable future. We have the opportunity to serve as a living laboratory for strategies and initiatives that reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the ways we live and work. In 2008, the University set an ambitious goal of achieving a 30 percent reduction in our GHG emissions from our 2006 baseline by 2016, including growth. Thanks to the leadership of our GHG reduction executive committee and our Office for Sustainability, and the dedicated efforts of individuals across Harvard, we have so far achieved a reduction of 21 percent, when we include the effects of growth and renovation in our physical plant, and 31 percent, when we do not. (For details on how we have joined as One Harvard to accomplish this, please see here.)
As we recognize our remarkable progress, we must also recommit to the work ahead. I have accepted the recommendations of the task force empaneled to review Harvard’s progress toward its GHG reduction goal. Co-chaired by Jeremy Bloxham, Dean of Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Robert S. Kaplan, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School; and Katie Lapp, Executive Vice President, the task force has proposed, and I have agreed, to the following:
- We will continue to explore and exhaust all on-campus efficiency and reduction projects to the maximum extent possible.
- We recognize, as we did when we set our goal in 2008, that even after our aggressive on-campus efficiency efforts, a gap will likely remain to achieve our goal of 30 percent reduction (including growth) by 2016, requiring us to explore complementary mechanisms, including offsets. We will establish an advisory group of faculty, students and staff to evaluate and recommend complementary off-campus emissions reduction options that are additive and real.
- We will create a sustainability committee led by senior faculty to shape the next generation of sustainability solutions and strategy on our campus.
Third, in addition to our academic work and our greenhouse gas reduction efforts, Harvard has a role to play as a long-term investor. Last fall, I wrote on behalf of the Corporation to affirm our judgment that divestment from the fossil fuel industry would not be wise or effective as a means for the University to advance progress towards addressing climate change. I also noted that, with the arrival of a first-ever vice president for sustainable investing at Harvard Management Company, we would strengthen our approach to how we consider material environmental, social and governance factors as we seek robust investment returns to support our academic mission.
Today I am pleased to report that we have decided to become a signatory to two organizations internationally recognized as leaders in developing best-practice guidelines for investors and in driving corporate disclosure to inform and promote sustainable investment.
Specifically, Harvard’s endowment will become a signatory to the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). The PRI joins together a network of international investors working to implement a set of voluntary principles that provide a framework for integrating environmental, social and governance factors into investment analysis and ownership practices aligned with investors’ fiduciary duties. Harvard Management Company will manage Harvard’s endowment consistent with these principles.
In addition, we will become a signatory to the Carbon Disclosure Project’s (CDP) climate change program. The CDP is an international nonprofit organization that works with investors to request that portfolio companies account for and disclose information on greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and carbon risks associated with their business activities in order to increase transparency and encourage action.
Both these significant steps underscore our growing efforts to consider environmental, social and governance issues among the many factors that inform our investment decision-making, with a paramount concern for how the endowment can best support the academic aspirations and educational opportunities that define our distinctive purposes as a university.
As we take these steps forward—supporting innovative research focused on climate change solutions, reducing our own carbon footprint, advancing our commitments as a long-term investor—we should also step back and see the bigger picture. In the broad domain of energy and environment, as in many other fields, people at Harvard make extraordinary contributions, in myriad ways, to generating the knowledge, ideas and tools that in time can help society’s most complex and intractable problems seem amenable to effective solutions. Ultimately, Harvard will contribute to confronting climate change not through presidential pronouncements, and not through a sudden burst of eureka moments, but through the steadfast, unrelenting commitment of faculty, students, staff and alumni who train their minds on hard questions, combine their imagination with rigorous analysis and convert their insights into effective action.
Whatever your own particular academic interests, I hope you will take the time to learn more about our collective efforts in energy and environment, highlighted here and elsewhere. More than that, whatever part of Harvard you inhabit, I hope you will count yourself among the thousands of people across the University who increasingly embrace a concern for environmental sustainability as an integral part of our academic work, our institutional practices and our daily lives.