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Sustainability Celebration

Tercentenary Theatre, Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

Welcome, everyone. It is often remarked that the power of the Harvard presidency is one of persuasion.

I would like to exercise that authority by persuading you, for the next hour or so, to imagine this lovely Cambridge afternoon exactly as we had planned it — with brilliant sunshine streaming down through the canopy of trees, on an October afternoon balmy enough to serve as a vivid reminder of global warming.

That may be more than I can reasonably hope to persuade you. So, instead, let me simply thank you all for braving the chilly air in such extraordinary numbers in order to be here. I hope you have had a chance to sample the soups and the cider and the other sustainable treats that Harvard Dining Services has kindly provided to keep our spirits high and our insides warm.

And, before I say more, I hope you will join me in a warm round of applause for our very special guest – just a few short months from 40th Harvard College reunion — distinguished alumnus and friend, Al Gore. I can think of no better way to launch our new greenhouse gas reduction initiative than with the person whom the Nobel Peace Prize committee called “the single individual who has done the most to create greater worldwide understanding” of what needs to be done to combat global warming. Thank you, Mr. Gore, for marking this occasion with us.

This event, this special gathering of the whole university, is a tribute to what all of you do every day to make Harvard — and the world — a more sustainable place. It is a tribute to the scientific discovery taking place in our labs and in our classrooms, a tribute to the strategists and policy architects who work in our centers and out in the field, and a tribute to the leadership that thousands of you have shown by living your lives with an awareness that each of us has an obligation to the future of the planet.

But today also represents a challenge and a call for action. For decades, evidence of global warming and climate change brought on by human activity has been mounting, but what we once thought was a problem for future generations is in fact an issue we must face today. And it is much worse than even our most worried climate scientists predicted.

You know this data. We see it in the papers every day. The Greenland ice sheet, the Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers, the summer sea ice in the Arctic are all imperiled by our current rate of temperature increase. Recent research suggests that the situation is even more dire than previously imagined, that emissions at their current levels will result in disastrous increases in sea level well before the end of this century. Because of this and other factors associated with climate change, we can anticipate significant threats to world food supply, to biodiversity, to the availability of clean drinking water.

This is not the world in which we want our children and grandchildren to live. This is a world in which our great grandchildren may not be able to live. What can be done? And who is to do it?

We are gathered here today because we believe universities have a special role and a special responsibility in confronting these challenges of climate change and sustainability. Universities are charged to look beyond the immediate and beyond the local, to take the long view and the broad view. Climate change requires just such an approach for it is not about the next quarter, or even the next year, but about our obligations to generations to come; it is not just about our city or state or nation, but about the whole interconnected world. It is a problem in which the discovery and dissemination of knowledge will play a critical role. And it is a problem that must be faced by individuals and communities in ways that universities are uniquely suited to model. We hope today to mark our commitment to what universities uniquely can do to combat what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, speaking yesterday at the Kennedy School of Government, called “the defining issue of our time.”

Universities are the world’s greatest source of ideas and innovation. Our research and teaching must generate knowledge about how discoveries in science, technology and policy analysis can create a sustainable environment for generations to come.

Two decades ago, President Derek Bok created a collaboration across Harvard’s Schools, which evolved into what is known today as the Harvard Center for the Environment (HUCE). Since its inception — and under the more recent leadership of Dan Schrag — the center has drawn on a large community of scholars, researchers, teachers, and students. Approximately 150 faculty members from over 20 departments, including chemistry, earth and planetary sciences, engineering and applied sciences, biology, public health and medicine, government, business, economics, religion, and law, work to advance environmental research and education at the University.

Since the 1970s, scientists at Harvard and elsewhere have been using paleo-climatic data to chart changes in the earth’s atmosphere and they have discovered a close association between the earth’s climate and the level of gases like CO2 and methane in the atmosphere. The idea that the Earth has been through extreme glaciations in the past that may have contributed to the radiation of multi-cellular animals – known as the Snowball Earth Hypothesis — was developed through research facilitated by this center. These ideas have helped to provide the basis for the science of climate change.

A university community must not only carry out research, but also translate the findings of that research into action. One Harvard scientist is developing new ways to store carbon dioxide under the ocean floor that may keep much of the CO2 currently produced from dirty coal power plants from getting to the atmosphere. Faculty from our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are producing advanced fuel cell designs that could revolutionize our energy systems, and we are developing new materials for renewable and alternative energy sources like biofuels and wind energy. The Harvard Forest provides researchers with a laboratory for understanding how the Amazon rain forest will affect the carbon cycle over the next century as the world continues to warm.

Policy experts and social scientists from the Harvard Kennedy School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences are collaborating on designing a new, more effective international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a plan that will be considered in Copenhagen in 2009. Other faculty investigate the efficacy of carbon taxes. Research in the Law School explores the intricacies of both law and markets as regulators of environmental impacts. The GSD contemplates the components of sustainable design.

Faculty research is, of course, closely related to teaching, to engaging students in solving environmental problems, and educating them about the magnitude of the challenges the world faces. We have just launched a new interdisciplinary program — the Graduate Consortium on Energy and Environment — to train a new generation of scholars. And in a wide array of courses undergraduates explore how we store and harvest energy, how we develop alternative energy sources, and how we adapt to changes in our physical world. Energy and environment are priorities for intellectual inquiry across disciplines and schools.

Energy and environment must also be catalysts for institutional action. Today our focus is on a particular dimension of the responsibility of universities, one that builds on our research and teaching to embrace our obligations as a community of learning, a community that lives the values implicit in its pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of the world.

Earlier this year, I charged a Greenhouse Gas Task Force with developing a recommendation for reducing Harvard’s carbon footprint. This committee of faculty, students, and staff that joins me here on stage was admirably led by Bill Clark, the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development at the Kennedy School, and Tom Vautin, associate vice president for facilities and environmental services. It delivered its findings this past summer, proposing a dramatic reduction — 30 percent below our 2006 levels by 2016 — in Harvard’s carbon emissions. This goal includes both planned and future growth taking place here in Cambridge and on our Allston and Longwood campuses in Boston.

As a community, we must confront the highly ambitious challenge the task force has set before us in order to show that it is possible to reverse rising levels of carbon emissions by changing the choices we make about the way we live. We at Harvard must be a model — as we demonstrate our commitment to the future, as we affirm our belief that the discoveries of science can enable us to change the world, as we unite the knowledge and the passion of this community in service of broad and essential goals.

I have called on our new executive vice president, Ed Forst, to oversee the University’s sustainability efforts and to ensure that we embark on this path as quickly and efficiently as possible. Under his leadership, we have recently established Harvard’s first Office of Sustainability, the successor to our highly effective Green Campus Initiative, which supported projects aimed at helping departments at the University implement environmentally friendly practices across a range of Schools. The new office will incorporate these elements and will operate with the expanded mission necessary, including greater communication and coordination, to achieve our ambitious goal.

As we work to develop a more environmentally friendly and sustainable campus, there are many things we can do at the institutional level to reduce our environmental impacts. And we must recognize that our practices have pedagogical value. We teach with what we do as well as what we write or what we say. How we light our classrooms, how we heat our water, how we build and ventilate our laboratories, all send powerful signals.

But some of the most important changes must take place at the individual level, in the choices each of us makes in our energy use and consumption patterns. These actions will be critical to our ability to achieve our ambitious goals.

Recently, more than 8,000 members of the Harvard community signed a sustainability pledge declaring their personal commitments to undertake a wide range of campus sustainability activities, from biking to the University, to making double-sided copies to save paper, to purchasing Energy Star equipment, to switching off computers and lights at the end of every day, and to reducing single-occupancy commuting to and from Harvard, which is currently at a low rate of 18 percent.

Electricity consumption in undergraduate dorms has decreased by 13 percent since 2002, thanks to the efforts of our undergraduates and building efficiency measures. And in large part due to student lobbying, more than 40 percent of the produce used by Harvard’s Dining Services during the New England growing season, including those for today’s celebration, now comes from local farms.

It is true that climate change and the challenge of sustainability are global problems. Greenhouse gas emissions have the same impact on the atmosphere, on our planet, regardless of whether they originate in America or Europe or Asia. But climate change is also a local problem. Solving it begins with each of us. Every person at Harvard — student, faculty, staff — can contribute to the effort to avert the dire outcomes that scientists are predicting. Many of you in the Harvard community have already pledged to do so, and I hope that after today, thousands more of you will. We are all teachers and we are all learners in this endeavor. We must do it together.

And we must remember that others have taught and learned about climate change here before us. They have provided us with evidence and inspiration, by demonstrating that what happens here can indeed change the world.

In 1963, Roger Revelle, a renowned oceanographer and an early predictor of global warming, came to Harvard. He shepherded many scientists through their careers, including the researcher responsible for discovering a method for measuring the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — still widely used today by scientists all over the world. Revelle’s intensity and dedication influenced many of his students. But it is one student in particular who most interests us today.

I am honored to introduce you to that student. Al Gore, perhaps the most effective living steward of the environment, has had a long career in public service that has earned him global accolades and recognition.

With great passion, he has worked to bring the threat of climate change into public view and to galvanize action to avert impending disaster. Gore is no recent convert to the cause, but instead one of its longtime champions. His book, Earth in the Balance, remains as relevant today as when it was published 14 years ago. And his Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has alerted millions to the dangers of climate change, and has moved them to act now to save our planet.

Al Gore reminds us of how much one man can do. Lets us thank him as we welcome him to the podium.

The Honorable Al Gore.

– Drew Gilpin Faust