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Universities and the Challenge of Climate Change

Tsinghua University Global Vision Lecture Series, Beijing, China

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Party Secretary Chen Xu, Assistant President Shi Yigong, distinguished faculty, students and friends.  It is a privilege to be back at Tsinghua, with an opportunity to exchange ideas on the most pressing challenges of our time.  One challenge that will shape this century more than any other is our changing climate, and the effort to secure a sustainable and habitable world—as rising sea levels threaten coastlines, increasing drought alters ecosystems and global carbon emissions continue to rise.

There is a proverb that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago—and the second best time is now.  When I first visited Tsinghua seven years ago, I planted a tree with President Gu in the Friendship Garden.  Today, I am glad to return to this beautiful campus, founded on the site of one of Beijing’s historic gardens.  I am glad the Tsinghua-Harvard tree stands as a symbol of the many relationships across our two universities, which continue to grow and thrive.  More than ever, it is a testament to the possibilities that, by working together, we offer the world.  That is why I want to spend a few minutes today talking about the special role universities like ours play in addressing climate change.

Last November here in Beijing, President Xi and President Obama made a joint announcement on climate change, pledging to limit the greenhouse gas emissions of China and the United States over the next two decades.  It is a landmark accord, setting ambitious goals for the world’s two largest carbon emitting countries and establishing a marker that Presidents Xi and Obama hope will inspire other countries to do the same.  We could not have predicted such a shared commitment seven, or even one year ago, between these two leaders—both, in fact, our alumni—one a Tsinghua graduate in chemical engineering and the humanities and the other a graduate of Harvard Law School.  And yet our two institutions had already sown its seeds decades ago—by educating leaders who can turn months of discussion into an international milestone, and by collaborating for more than 20 years on the climate analyses that made it possible.  In other words, by doing the things universities are uniquely designed to do.  

The U.S.-China joint announcement on climate change represents a defining moment between our two countries and for the world, a moment worthy of celebration.  China deserves great credit for all it has done and is doing to address a complex set of economic and environmental issues. While lifting 600 million people out of poverty, you have built the world’s largest capacity in wind power and second largest in solar power.  As one Harvard climate expert put it, China’s “investments to decarbonize its energy system have dwarfed those of any other nation.”  And last year, China’s emission indeed did drop two percent.

Yet, even as we make real progress, the scale and complexity of climate change require humility and long-term thinking.  We have made a beginning.  But it is only a beginning. The recent video Under the Dome reminds us how much work is left to be done.  The commitments of governments can be carried out only if every sector of society contributes.  Industry, education, agriculture, business, finance, individual citizens—all are necessary participants in what must become an energy and environmental revolution, a new paradigm that will improve public health, care for the planet, and put both of our nations on the path toward a prosperous, low-carbon economy.

No one understands this better than the students and faculty of Tsinghua, where these subjects are research priorities and your outgoing president Chen Jining, a graduate of Tsinghua’s department of environmental science and engineering, has just been appointed Minister of Environmental Protection.  He has been called a bridge-builder, a man of vision and fresh ideas, and an inspiring leader.

The promise of the 2014 joint climate pledge will require those qualities of all of us.  It will call on each of us to do our part to transform the energy systems on which we rely and mitigate the harm they cause, to “Think Different,” as Apple’s Steve Jobs used to say—to imagine new ways of seeing old problems and, as he put it, to “honor the people who … can change the world for the better.”  Universities are especially good at “thinking different.”  That is the point I want to emphasize today. To every generation falls a daunting task.  This is our task: to “think different” about how we inhabit the Earth.  Where better to meet this challenge than in Boston and Beijing?  How better to meet it than by unlocking and harnessing new knowledge, building political and cultural understanding, promoting dialogue and sharing solutions?  Who better to meet it than you, the most extraordinary students, imaginative, curious, daring.  The challenge we face demands three great necessities.

The first necessity is partnership.  Global problems require global partners. Climate change is a perfect example.  We breathe the same air.  We drink the same water.  We share the planet.  We cannot live in a cocoon.  The stakes are too high.  

In an essay widely reprinted in Chinese middle school textbooks called “The Geese Return,” naturalist Aldo Leopold describes an educated woman, an outstanding college student, who, and I quote, “…had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year [fly above] her well-insulated roof.”  Could this woman’s vaunted “education,” he asks, be no more than, in his words, “trading awareness for things of lesser worth?”—adding that the goose who “trades his [awareness] is soon a pile of feathers.”  We all risk becoming a proverbial “pile of feathers” unless we cultivate awareness of each other and our common environmental crisis, and then work together to solve it. 

We have seen the power of partnerships.  For more than a century, Harvard and China in particular have benefitted from partnerships with histories that inspire us:

  • John King Fairbank in 1933, who caught the silver and blue bus to Tsinghua before dawn to teach his first students the perspectives of Chinese scholarship he had absorbed from Professor Jiang Tingfu, one of China’s most eminent historians and the Chair of Tsinghua’s History Department.  Those experiences changed Fairbank’s life.  And they changed Harvard, where the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies transformed the field, and where the study of East Asia now encompasses more than 370 courses from history and literature to government and plant biology.
  • Ernest Henry Wilson in 1908, who navigated the Yangtze River with a team of Chinese plant collectors, documenting cultures with photographs and collecting thousands of plant specimens for Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Wilson’s long-term collaboration—the subject of a forthcoming CCTV special (and exhibit at the Harvard Center Shanghai)—established one of our deepest connections, celebrating the extraordinary beauty and diversity of China’s natural world.
  • Zhu Kezhen in 1918, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard after passing a scholarship exam at the school that would become Tsinghua. He became the father of Chinese meteorology, pioneering 5,000 years of Chinese climate data, and as a university president and Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, shaped Chinese education by “cultivating scientists,” as he put it, and I quote, in “the ‘scientific spirit’ … the pursuit for the truth.”

That spirit defines the Harvard China Project, founded in 1993 as an interdisciplinary program to study China’s atmospheric environment, energy system and economy, and the role of environment in U.S.-China relations.  Based at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, its collaborators have spanned more than half of Harvard’s Schools and more than a dozen Chinese institutions, including some seven different departments at Tsinghua.  When the program began, before climate change made daily headlines, even its founders—Professor Michael McElroy and project director Chris Nielsen, soon joined by Tsinghua professor collaborators—could not fully imagine its impact.  It has been a model partnership and an engine of broad environmental knowledge that has influenced policy in both countries, and improved the lives of our citizens.

Let me give you one example: the case of two young women at the start of their professional training, Cao Jing studying economics and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Wang Yuxuan, a Tsinghua graduate getting her Harvard Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry.  Both are now Tsinghua faculty members.  Driven by common questions, they came together as members of a team studying Chinese carbon emissions. Over several years they worked across disciplines, in both countries, with environmental engineers and health scientists to assess costs and benefits of emission control policy options and their effect on human health.  The team’s findings were groundbreaking, demonstrating for policy makers that they could in fact achieve enormous environmental benefits at little cost to economic growth. Such collaborations with Tsinghua continue to shape China’s clean energy future with new ideas, from linking wind farms with electrified space heating to evaluating the effects of a changing climate on renewable energy sources.

Our collaborations in the field of design are powerful as well, shaping the responses to urbanization and environmental change in both countries.  What might an ecologically conceived city look like?  How can a village grow into one?  Harvard’s new Center for Green Buildings and Cities is working with Tsinghua’s Evergrande Research Institute to measure energy use for different building types in China, a key to creating more efficient buildings and cities.  A new collaboration with Peking University advances more socially and ecologically inclusive urban design.  Partnerships like these, between Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and Chinese institutions, are generating innovations in urban planning, green building and sustainable development that will change how we live.  For example, walk along the reed-lined riverbank park in Shanghai, as I have, where a constructed wetland cleans polluted water from the Huangpu River and a promenade now connects the old city with the new.  Its designer, Yu Kongjian, a farmer’s son, trained at Harvard’s School of Design and founded China’s first graduate school of landscape architecture, a field he describes as, and I quote, “a tool for social justice and environmental stewardship.”

Today, Harvard partnerships with Tsinghua and other Chinese institutions span nearly every department across all of Harvard’s 13 Schools, involving some 200 faculty members and hundreds of students, and now including the Harvard Center Shanghai, online courses through EdX, and three new research centers on campus.  These partnerships are bearing fruit: from last year’s Harvard-Tsinghua conference on market mechanisms for a low-carbon future, to open access education reaching millions worldwide, to advances in human health and health-care policy that will improve and extend lives. 

Tsinghua is building upon a similar array of partnerships, in China and around the world. Your new Collaborative Innovation Center on Urbanization convenes every field around the problem of integrating urban and rural areas, and the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute supports among other things the search for new and low-carbon energy technologies.

I have said before that there is no one model for a university’s success, no abstract “global research university” to which we all should aspire.  Partnership benefits from different contributions and varied perspectives.  Our variety supports our strength.  United, there is little we cannot accomplish.

The second necessity is research.  A Chinese aphorism tells us that, “Learning has no boundaries.”  Through research, universities transcend the boundaries of what anyone thought was possible.

Research without boundaries means exploring across disciplines.  Consider the goal of creating sustainable cities.  This is not just an engineering problem.  It is a problem of ethics and design; law and policy; business and economics; medicine and public health; religion and anthropology and my own field of history, which can tell us how humans and nature have interacted over time.  For example, think of the new field of  “ecological urbanism” that explores this goal as a design problem for how best to live.  Or Harvard’s Center for the Environment that brings together 250 faculty members from every discipline. 

Research without boundaries means taking an open stance, where every question is legitimate and any path might yield an answer.  Knowledge emerges from debate, from disagreement, from questions, from doubt—from recognizing that every path must be open because any path might yield an answer.  Universities must be places where any and every topic can be broached, where any and every question can be asked.  Universities must nurture such debate because discovery comes from the intellectual freedom to explore that rests at the heart of how we define our fundamental identity and values.

You might find a treatment for malaria in a 2000-year-old silk scroll from a Han dynasty tomb, as Chinese researchers discovered in the 1970s.  Or follow your sense of smell, as Caltech chemist Arie Haagen-Smit did in the 1950s, to discover that a container of car exhaust exposed to sunlight produces the bleach-like odor of smog.  Almost everyone told Haagen-Smit he was wrong, but he identified oxidized hydrocarbons from automobiles, refineries and power plants as the source of the mysterious air pollution that was choking Los Angeles, and launched a revolution in American air quality.  Some forty years later, showing the same ingenuity, Harvard’s own study of six cities conclusively linked fine particle pollution to premature death.  The researchers invented field instruments as they went along—designing air monitors for people to wear at school and work and air quality sensors for their homes—laying a foundation for air pollution legislation that has saved billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives a year. 

And research without boundaries means taking the long view.  Seeing beyond the horizon has always been higher learning’s special concern. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, founded in the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Chongzhen of the Ming dynasty.  Cambridge University recently celebrated its 800th birthday.  China has a deep tradition of learning going back thousands of years.  We are not in this for one year, or ten, or even 100.  We are in it for millennia.  Universities thrive because of an insatiable yearning to understand ourselves and the world.  We are compelled—to search the universe, to map the brain, to step into another’s experience.  And I want to emphasize that the humanities have a special role to play in fostering this ability to think and imagine beyond ourselves and our own lives—in enabling us through the study of literature, culture, history, and language to draw from other times, other places, other peoples as we seek to understand the present and chart a course for the future.  We mold minds capable of innovation because we are able to imagine a world different from the one we live in—a world with “green” cities and adaptive buildings with skin-like membranes; a bionic leaf that can generate liquid fuel and a metal-free organic battery, all long-range areas of research.

A third necessity is training students who will ask and answer the big questions. Perhaps the most important mission of universities is the education of the world’s young people.  Today’s students will lead the world in a perilous time.  How do we prepare them for the disruption of climate change?  As one of Harvard’s leading climate scientists likes to say, “Knowing what to do is not easy.” 

That is why universities play a critical role. 

We attract and train the best students.  Each year I tell the incoming Harvard College class that they have ability not always measured by high test scores and top grades—that they are chosen not for the magnitude of their achievements but for their capacity to invent, not for what they know but for what they can imagine.

We expose students to diverse points of view.  This January, Jahred Liddie studied sustainable cities on a Harvard undergraduate program in Brazil, where he met students, as he put it, from “around the world as invested in these problems as I am.”  He saw how diverse backgrounds and perspectives are, in his words, “key [to] formulating … sustainable [urban] development,” and how effective solutions and innovations might differ for different cultures.  We hope to establish a similar exchange program with Tsinghua. 

Finally, we train students across many disciplines, and allow the youngest to work with senior faculty.  Each learns from the other: the deepest knowledge joins with the freshest point of view.  Harvard created an Environmental Science and Public Policy field for undergraduates to train students capable of refined judgment, who understand the scientific and technical side of complex environmental problems as well as their economic, political, legal, historical and ethical dimensions.

Ethan Addicott, a recent graduate pursuing a career in science policy, says the program gave him a broad education of the natural world, and, in his words, “a deep understanding of how to analyze and solve problems surrounding our complex interactions with it.”  Ethan did not need to wait until graduate school to have access to senior faculty.  He studied the Chinese energy economy with Professor Michael McElroy, head of Harvard’s China Project.  Why this opportunity?  Because the world needs Ethan.  It needs the students in Tsinghua’s Science and Technology Studies program, where engineering and pre-professional students work alongside future sociologists and historians, philosophers and anthropologists, who can put research and policy decisions into a broad social and historical context.

I should add, too, that Harvard student interest in China, and in all of Asia, has never been higher.  I ask you to look around this room and imagine an audience almost double this size.  That is the size of our undergraduate course in Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory—more than 700 Harvard College students packed into our largest lecture hall. Only two courses—one in economics and one in computer science—routinely draw a larger enrollment.  The professor, a senior member of his department, Michael Puett, asks simple questions, but fundamental ones:  What is the best way to live a fuller and more ethical life?—and poses answers from the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius and the Daodejing by thinkers who are among the most powerful in human history. These are the courses that change students’ lives.  These are the students that change the world.

I began by talking about possibilities, for our universities and for our planet. We are in a struggle, not with nature but with ourselves.  A great human struggle we can only resolve together.  As someone put it recently, what we do this year shapes the next twenty, and the next twenty shape the century.  Next December, 195 countries will meet in Paris at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Like Presidents Xi and Obama, their leaders will test humanity’s commitment to a sustainable and habitable future for our children and our children’s children. 

Last month, the venerated father of modern Chinese architecture and urban planning Wu Liangyong, now 92, looked out his window at a haze-shrouded sky.  An exemplar of “thinking different,” a founding spirit at Tsinghua, he has described our collective aspiration this way: “My dream about the future is that we could live… in harmony with nature.  We could live like in the poems and paintings.”  Universities have the unique capacity and a special responsibility to fulfill the promise of that dream.  Let us not waste a moment.  It is already the second best time to plant a tree.

Thank you.