By Liz Mineo, Harvard Staff Writer
After years of writing about human rights, Kathryn Sikkink has decided to focus on responsibilities. It is what lies at the heart of her new book, “The Hidden Face of Rights: Toward a Politics of Responsibilities.” The Gazette sat down with the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School to talk about her call for a new “ethics of responsibilities” and the role of individuals in dealing with climate change, voting, digital privacy, and other pressing issues.Q&A Kathryn Sikkink
GAZETTE: You have written many books about human rights, but your new book focuses on obligations rather than rights. Why is there a need to talk about what you call “a politics and ethics of responsibilities,” and what does it involve?
SIKKINK: The main point I want to underscore is that this book is about rights and responsibilities, not about responsibilities instead of rights. The important word here is “and.”
Human rights are incredibly important, but to advance human rights and implement them, it’s just not enough for everyone to only talk about their rights. To implement rights, we have to talk about the responsibilities of many actors that make it possible for people to enjoy their rights. We, human-rights theorists and activists, have known for a long time that for every right there has to be an actor with a corresponding responsibility to make sure that right can be exercised. But sometimes, human-rights activists only want to talk about states’ responsibilities and not about the responsibilities of other actors. States’ responsibilities are incredibly important, but responsibility can’t only rest with the state.
GAZETTE: Some people might think this approach of the “ethics of responsibilities” is naïve and overstates the impact individuals can have. What is necessary to make this more than a symbolic statement?
SIKKINK: Many human-rights activists are lawyers, and they think about rights in terms of the liability model: Who’s to blame? Who can we sue? Who can we put in jail? That’s a good model for implementing some rights, but it doesn’t get far enough with most rights. I’ve written a book about responses to mass atrocities, and it’s all about how we need to prosecute state officials for mass atrocities. I believe in the liability model for some rights. But there are other rights such as the right to vote, in which actors’ responsibilities can really make a difference. In some parts of our country today, voter suppression by state actors is a conscious policy. Citizens can’t just wait for the state to do its job. We have to be conscious of what other actors can do to take responsibility to circumvent voter suppression and support voter turnout.
GAZETTE: You talk in your book how the ethics of responsibilities can be applied to climate change. How so?
SIKKINK: There’s been a move underway to talk about a right to a clean environment and a right to a stable climate. I’m not opposed to the idea, but in order to move ahead, we have to talk about the responsibilities of all actors, including the states. Now that our federal government has abdicated its responsibilities entirely with regard to climate change, we can’t just twiddle our thumbs and wait for another election in the hope it will bring a government to office that cares about climate change. There are many other actors that can step forward. They don’t have legal responsibility, but they do have an ethical and political responsibility. I’m talking about corporations that are interested in working on climate-change issues, but also about state and municipal governments. For example, Massachusetts offers subsidies for solar panels, and Cambridge has a terrific recycling program and a brand-new curbside composting program.
GAZETTE: What can individuals do to help prevent climate change?
SIKKINK: We know that 50 percent of global carbon lifestyle emissions are produced by the 10 percent who are the wealthiest people in the world, and that includes not only businessmen who fly to London every week, but also myself and virtually all of my colleagues. According to certain sources, you need something like $100,000 of assets to be considered among the 10 percent wealthiest people in the world. Because privileged people create more emissions, and they have more responsibility in helping to reduce emissions. An excellent scientific study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas tried to figure out the most effective actions people can take to reduce their carbon footprint. That study suggested that the first thing is to have one fewer child, but there is a big debate about that. The second thing is to live car-free. The third is to avoid one international airplane flight. The fourth thing is to sign up for green energy to make sure your energy comes from green sources. The fifth is to eat a plant-based diet. A fellow who was my colleague at the Radcliffe Institute, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist who studies the climate impact of food choices, told me that for people like me who can’t give up meat completely yet, the one thing we can do is to give up beef because it has the worst impact on climate change. Personally, I’m working on that, but it’s quite hard. I’m also trying to reduce my travel by one international plane trip per year. We, at Harvard, need to think about the impact that our travel is having on global emissions.
GAZETTE: Your book also argues that this approach can be applied to voting.
SIKKINK: Here is an example: We know that eligible Harvard students often don’t vote. Instead of focusing on who’s to blame, there is a lot we can do together as a community to help our students vote. Harvard students and the administration have really stepped forward and worked together to take on this ethical and political responsibility. We have good data about student voting. In the midterm elections in 2014, approximately 22 percent of eligible Harvard students voted. In the 2018 midterm elections, almost 49 percent of eligible Harvard students voted. In political terms, that is a huge jump. Harvard added a voter-registration window into the mandatory online check-in for all students. When President Bacow first met with the freshman class two years ago, he said to them, “I’m going to give you your first homework assignment.” He said, “Register to vote,” and that was huge. The Harvard story is not unique; similar changes are happening in other institutions around the country, from community colleges to large public universities to private institutions.
GAZETTE: This new politics of responsibilities can also be applied to areas such as digital privacy, freedom of speech, and others. Where does this framework come from?
SIKKINK: I drew on the work of political theorist Iris Marion Young, especially her posthumous book, “Responsibility for Justice.” She calls for a “social-connection model of responsibility,” not a liability model, not who’s to blame. She says that “everyone who is socially connected to a structural injustice and able to act needs to step forward and act.” And that’s the argument I was making about climate change. It’s too late to just point your finger at who’s to blame. With climate change, all of us are socially connected to the problem and able to act, need to act in order to address this crisis. Same thing with the digital-privacy issue. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, everyone was blaming Facebook but not thinking of the ways we make it easy for Facebook and other corporations to violate our privacy. In the business model of these corporations, our data is the product, and they will not change without concerted pressure from consumers and governments. In other words, the approach of ethics of responsibilities can be applied for every issue. You can start by asking what are the rights at stake and what do we have to do to take ethical and political responsibility.
GAZETTE: You said you wrote this book for people who are willing to act but are too busy to do it. What do you hope your readers will gain from reading the book?
SIKKINK: I know there will be lots of critiques to the book. I know that people will say, “This ignores the deep structural power that leads to some of the problems in the world today.” But the reason I wrote this book is that I’m a scholar of norms movements in the world. I study how new norms start and gain traction and where they succeed. I’ve written books and done research on everything from anti-slavery to women’s suffrage campaigns in the world to the anti-foot-binding campaigns in China to campaigns about female genital cutting and other human-rights issues. And what I can tell you is that all normative change in the world begins with a group of deeply committed individuals. If we’re going to start focusing on people taking seriously their individual responsibilities for climate change, that has to be a norm movement. It has to be people starting to think about their personal carbon footprint and the things they can do to reduce it. It has to start with a movement of what I call “norm entrepreneurs,” people who take their ethical responsibilities seriously to act to fulfill their rights.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Photo by Martha Crawford
By Clea Simon, Harvard Correspondent
Forget the food pyramid, or even the FDA’s more recent ChooseMyPlate initiative, aimed at getting Americans to eat healthier. If our species and our planet are to survive, humanity needs to refocus on a diet that encompasses not only fruits and vegetables but also sustainability and social justice, according to participants at a wide-ranging summit on food production, diet, and sustainability in Boston on Wednesday.
Called “Food, Farms, Fisheries, and Forests,” the daylong event at the University of Massachusetts Club was presented by the American Farmland Trust and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, in partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Forest, Harvard Law School, Harvard Kennedy School, and Food Solutions New England. The purpose was to bring together experts on the environment and nutrition as well as people focused on social justice and its implications for feeding the population.
Walter Willett, M.P.H. ’73, Dr.P.H. ’80, opened the discussion by outlining the dangers posed by a business-as-usual approach. Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the global community faces the challenge of feeding a population expected to hit 9.8 billion by 2050. Those findings emerged from the international EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health he chaired over the past three years.
“The standard response is to increase food production,” Willett said. But simply producing more food may not be the best idea, as there is strong evidence that our current diet is killing us. “Obviously and conspicuously, obesity is increasing” in both adults and children, Willett noted. The results include more obesity-related cancers and heart disease. “In three out of the last five years, life expectancy in the United States has fallen,” he noted. “Life expectancy has decreased for two years in a row.” (Slight increases were noted in 2018 and 2019.)
In addition, global warming — to which food production is a major contributor — is accelerating, and resources, including water, are threatened. This led to a challenge, said Willett, “to apply a global-food-systems framework to see if optimal diets could fit within planetary boundaries.”
The resulting Planetary Health Diet resembles current recommendations by leaning heavily on fruits and vegetables. Where it differs, Willett said, is in protein sources. “Red meat is a real outlier in terms of greenhouse-gas production,” he said. Citing “major implications for health and the environment,” this plan recommends one serving of dairy a day, a modest amount of poultry and eggs, and, at most, one serving of red meat a week, with legumes, nuts, and whole grains making up the rest. “There’s some flexibility around this,” he said. “Different cultures will want different mixes.”
The proposed diet, at least half plant-based, would go a long way toward curbing American obesity rates. Perhaps more importantly, it would ultimately improve the health of everyone on the planet. “We are on a path to a sustainable ecological system,” he said. Speaking later in the morning, Brandeis University Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Brian Donohue summed up the goal: “The Planetary Health Diet links the public health benefits of healthy food with the planetary benefits of lowering our carbon footprint.”
Focusing specifically on New England, ecologist David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, talked about balance. “Earth has been a self-regulating and self-sustaining system,” he said. “We need to bring nature back to the fore and allow it to help us.”
These efforts should begin locally, he stressed. “We talk about the Brazilian rainforest,” he said. “But here in New England we are losing 24,000 acres of forest every year,” with trees cleared for housing and commercial space or cut for energy or other uses. “We desperately need to reduce our resource consumption,” he said, citing personal discipline as a “fundamental step.”
New England already has the framework, with 65 percent of it already at least partly covered by conservation partnerships, Foster said. Beyond that, he discussed planting trees and bringing nature — in the form of urban gardens and wild spaces — into communities that may feel detached. “There’s a lot we can do individually in our work, in our communities, in the organizations we are part of,” he said, presenting a vision that would “increased protect forest, strategically grow housing, and retain our farmland.”
“The best place in the world to look for some lessons is here in New England,” said Foster. “Nature, if allowed, will recover, will restore itself and will begin to produce.”
Other speakers throughout the day, including Naima Penniman, program director of Soul Fire Farm in New York and S. Atyia Martin, CEO and founder of Boston-based All Aces, Inc., discussed such topics as the historical and racial roots of food inequality, from “food deserts” to unsustainable and unjust policies of land theft by early settlers. Both also discussed how initiatives are helping underserved communities reclaim agency in terms of health and nutrition, as well as stewardship of the land.
The Harvard Center for the Environment (HUCE) tried something new this year: hosting a wintersession program. The three-day course, called Confronting Climate Change, was kicked off with a plenary session led by Professors Rebecca Henderson, Joe Aldy, and Dan Schrag, the director of HUCE. A wide range of topics was covered, from Ethics for a Broken World to Why We Have Failed to Act on Climate Change. These two sections, taught by Professors Ned Hall and Naomi Oreskes respectively, were two of the eight sections offered to undergraduate students. With a little over 30 students in the course, HUCE was able to facilitate focused and fruitful discussions among the participating students and faculty.
In addition to Hall and Oreskes, the course was co-taught by an interdisciplinary group of instructors whose audience was mirrored in its interdisciplinarity; students joined us from all four class years and a multitude of concentrations. This diversity in discipline allowed for a beneficial perspective shift that isn’t often available to students once they get deeper into their coursework. It also allowed for students to engage with and learn from instructors they may not otherwise come across in their time here at Harvard. In addition to the aforementioned faculty, the course’s instructors included: Jim Anderson (FAS, SEAS), George Baker (ESPP), Jesse Keenan (GSD, HKS), Jennifer Leaning (HSPH, HMS), and Dustin Tingley (Government).
Following the first day of these breakout sections, participating students and faculty gathered for dinner and conversation with special guest speaker Bill McKibben ‘82, founder of 350.org. Students asked engaging questions, and in turn, McKibben shared a lifetime of expertise on what it means to be an advocate. It was exciting to see these students come together to both learn new things and take steps toward becoming enlightened stewards of our planet.
Overall the course was a success and created an opportunity for these young scholars to learn about the complexities of climate change from leading experts. HUCE is looking forward to hosting another wintersession course next year to allow even more students the chance to tackle this affecting issue.
Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash
Each year, we welcome a new cohort of scholars through our Environmental Fellows program. These recent doctorate recipients have access to Harvard’s extraordinary resources, allowing them to tackle complex environmental issues within their academic disciplines. Alyssa Battistoni, one of our eight current fellows, comes to us from Yale where she completed her PhD in political science. With an impressive resume as a political theorist working at the intersection of environmental politics, political economy, and feminist thought, she fit right in and got right to work. On the heels of a fruitful first year, we checked in with her to see both her highlight reel and what’s on the horizon.
You’ve had a productive first year as an Environmental Fellow—what’s a highlight that stands out to you?
Yes, it’s been a busy year! Honestly, the highlight has been getting to know my fellow Fellows—they are all really brilliant and lovely people. More generally, I’ve really enjoyed hearing about the huge range of work being done by people associated with HUCE at the biweekly HUCE dinners—they are a great way to introduce newcomers to the community of people involved in environmental work at Harvard and in the broader area.
HUCE is such an interdisciplinary and collaborative place—what about your research made you want to do a postdoc here?
My own work is very interdisciplinary, as I think it’s hard to understand environmental and climate politics without drawing on the insights of different disciplines. I did a master’s degree in geography and continue to read work in that field, as well as in history, ecology, economics, and various other fields across the social sciences, humanities, and sciences. But no one can know everything, and so my work has often been collaborative—I am one of four co-authors of A Planet to Win, for example. So HUCE seemed to me to be a perfect place to continue that work, and so far, that’s been borne out.
What’s it been like to be a political theorist in an environment-focused atmosphere? Has it affected your thoughts on environmental politics?
I’ve really enjoyed the chance to be at a center focused on the environment—in political theory conferences and workshops, I’m often the only person who is working on environmental issues, or one of a few, so it’s always been important to me to seek out spaces and communities where people are focused more intensively on the substantive questions of environmental thought and analysis. Being at HUCE has been very helpful in that regard—it’s been a useful reminder that other people are approaching environmental questions from very different perspectives than I am. It’s also been helpful for thinking about how people are thinking about environmental politics in different parts of the world, as when Roberto Unger gave a fascinating presentation on the political dynamics of the Amazon in Brazil. At the same time, I’m delighted to have connections to the Government department through my faculty sponsor, Katrina Forrester, a brilliant political theorist who has also worked on environmental questions.
Did you make any connections here that helped with research for your new book, A Planet to Win?
I’ve been excited to meet a group of people at the Graduate School of Design who have research interests that are very relevant to the topics in A Planet to Win, ranging from urban planning to labor practices to sustainable design. It’s been fascinating to learn more about their work bringing together social scientific and scientific research with political questions about justice and equity, in the way that A Planet to Win tries to do.
Do you have any goals set for your second year here?
When I haven’t been busy with work related to A Planet to Win, I’ve been doing research for my next major project, on climate change and democracy, and [I’m] starting to write up some of the initial ideas. So, in the coming year, I hope to start publishing some of that work. I’m also looking forward to getting more involved in various intellectual communities at Harvard now that I’ve gotten settled and know my way around a bit more!
It’s exciting to imagine what will come out of the continued connections and collaborations that Alyssa will make here at Harvard, and it’s been a pleasure to have her voice and expertise here thus far. We’re looking forward to both witnessing and benefitting from the ways in which she tackles the complexities of our environment through political science in the rest of her time with us.
By Clarisse Hart, Harvard Forest Communications
A new study led by archaeologists, ecologists, and paleoclimatologists at Harvard and elsewhere overturns long-held beliefs about the role humans played in shaping the American landscape before and after European colonization. The findings offer insights and lessons in managing biodiverse landscapes in the Northeast.
The study, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability, focuses on the coast from Long Island to Cape Cod and the nearby islands of Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, and Naushon — areas that historically supported the densest populations of native peoples in New England and today are home to the highest concentrations of rare habitats in the region, including sandplain grasslands, heathlands, and pitch pine and scrub oak forests.
“For decades, there’s been a growing popularization of the interpretation that for millennia, native people actively managed landscapes — clearing and burning forests, for example — to support horticulture, improve habitat for important plant and animal resources, and procure wood resources,” said study co-author David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest at Harvard University. These practices were credited with the creation of open-land habitats and enhanced regional biodiversity.
But, Foster said, the data reveal a new story. “Our data show a landscape that was dominated by intact, old-growth forests that were shaped largely by regional climate for thousands of years before European arrival.”
Fires were uncommon, and native people foraged, hunted, and fished without clearing much land, the research revealed. “Forest clearance and open grasslands and shrublands only appeared with widespread agriculture during the European colonial period within the last few hundred years,” said Wyatt Oswald, a professor at Emerson College and study lead author.
The researchers say the findings transform thinking about how landscapes have been shaped in the past and offer insights into how they might best be managed in the future. “Ancient native peoples thrived under changing forest conditions not by intensively managing them but by adapting to them and the changing environment,” noted archaeologist and study co-author Elizabeth Chilton, dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University.
To reconstruct historical changes to the land, scientists combined archaeological records with more than two dozen intensive studies of vegetation, climate, and fire history spanning 10,000 years. They found that old-growth forests were predominant for millennia but are extremely uncommon today.
“Today New England’s species and habitat biodiversity are globally unique, and this research transforms our thinking and rationale for the best ways to maintain it,” said Oswald. “It also points to the importance of historical research to help us interpret modern landscapes and conserve them effectively into the future.
The authors also noted the unique role that Colonial agriculture played in shaping landscapes and habitat. “European agriculture, especially the highly varied activity of sheep and cattle grazing, hay production, and orchard and vegetable cultivation in the 18th and 19th centuries, made it possible for open-land wildlife species and habitats that are now rare or endangered — such as the New England cottontail — to thrive,” said Foster. Open-land species have declined dramatically as forests regrow on abandoned farmland, and housing and commercial development of both forests and farms have reduced their habitat.
Foster said that the unique elements of biodiversity initiated through historical activities can be encouraged through similar management practices today. “Protected wildland reserves would preserve interior forest species that were abundant before European settlement,” he said. “Lands managed through the diversified farming and forestry practices that created open lands and young forests during the Colonial period would support another important suite of rare plants and animals.”
For successful conservation models that leverage this historical perspective, the authors point to efforts by the Trustees of Reservations, the oldest land trust in the world, which manages more than 25,000 acres in Massachusetts that include old and young forests, farms, and many cultural resources. The organization, for instance, uses controlled livestock grazing to keep lands open for birds like bobolinks and meadowlarks.
By Deborah Blackwell, Arnold Arboretum Communications
When botanist Asa Gray hiked his way through Tennessee in 1843 searching for seeds of the rare piratebush to plant in the Harvard Botanic Garden, he could not have known that nearly 180 years later plant scientists from the other side of the world would retrace his steps.
But this fall, in a historic collaboration, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University welcomed Chinese botanists from the North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC) on a joint expedition to the Appalachian Mountains to collect seed from North American plants to grow in scientific plant collections in China.
Since NACPEC was founded in 1991, plant explorers from the Arboretum and other member institutions have traveled to China 18 times to collect seed, herbarium specimens, and plant DNA samples for study and conservation in North American collections. The Appalachian expedition in September, coordinated by Andrew Gapinski, head of horticulture at the Arboretum and chair of NACPEC, and Kang Wang, research horticulturist and director of education at the Beijing Botanical Garden, furthered the group’s mission of building international partnerships in support of the study and conversation of the world’s temperate flora.
Focusing on Appalachian flora, Wang and his colleagues Tao Deng of the Kunming Institute of Botany and Xinfen Gao of the Chengdu Institute of Biology created a list of target species to collect for their research and collections in China, including magnolias, ashes, and maples.
Gapinski and expedition colleagues Sean Halloran, Arboretum plant propagator; Jared Rubinstein, Arboretum Living Collections Fellow; and Angela Magnan from the U.S. National Arboretum compiled an additional list of 41 target taxa for the Arboretum, including piratebush — the oldest wild-collected plant at the Arboretum. Originated as seed collected by Gray in his 1843 expedition, piratebush was brought to the Arboretum from the Harvard Botanic Garden in 1946. Along with 400 other rare or endangered plants, it is part of the Arboretum’s Campaign for the Living Collections, a 10-year initiative to document, collect, and preserve plants, particularly those of critical conservation value.
The three-week expedition covered 3,500 miles through five states — Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. Each day, the plant collectors carried supplies and gear including eight-foot pole pruners, herbarium field presses, plant identification keys, and plenty of bug spray into field, and hiked through the thick forests of Appalachia. Along with local guides, the team forded the Red River in Daniel Boone National Forest to find seeds of an American sycamore, descended to the base of a waterfall in Georgia to collect buttonbush seeds, and climbed Roan Mountain — one of the highest points of the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee — for seeds of the rare green alder. Each collection involved recording information about the geology and plant communities of the site, harvesting and bagging fruits, and collecting branch samples to dry for herbarium vouchers.
The expedition offered both adventure and challenges for the collectors, including a steep, 10-mile hike in humid, 100-degree heat through the Walls of Jericho natural area in Tennessee, only to find that birds had eaten all but three fruits of their target, limerock arrowwood. But, in an echo of Gray’s 1843 expedition, they discovered dozens of piratebush plants laden with fruits along the Appalachian Trail in Cherokee National Forest, providing an opportunity for ex situ conservation of both of these endangered plant species.
It was victories like these that most excited Wang, Gao, and Deng.
“Alongside our NACPEC partners from the Arnold Arboretum we journeyed through one of the most biodiverse regions of the temperate world collecting plants that will soon be growing in the Beijing Botanical Garden, where millions of visitors will get to enjoy them,” Wang said. “Not only that, but generations of scientists will be able to study these collections in China, as they have been doing at the Arnold Arboretum since its founding.”
Gapinski said the partnerships represented by the expedition began a new chapter in the history of international plant collection.
“For nearly three decades NACPEC has worked to foster partnerships and undertake plant exploration to study and conserve the flora of China — possible only through the support of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing Botanical Garden, and the dedicated individuals involved,” he said. “Today, we seek to further cement this one-of-a-kind, reciprocal collaboration and to ensure that these relationships continue long into the future, with a new generation of participants and partnerships.”
In addition to seed collection, the expedition team collected and dried plant samples to deposit at the Chinese and North American herbaria, where they can be used to study evolution, physiology, and taxonomy. Collections from the trip will also be shared with the U.S. National Arboretum for the Woody Landscape Plant Germplasm Repository, as well as other NACPEC member gardens.
Arboretum Director William “Ned” Friedman joined the expedition in northern Georgia, returning to the state where he began his career as a professor at the University of Georgia.
“To be in the field with Kang, Xinfen, and Tao — literally an all-star botanical team from China — along with the Arboretum explorers was fantastic,” he said. “After all of the times that we have been so generously hosted in China, this felt like perfect way to deepen our sense of reciprocity and share some of the evolutionary bounty of North America with botanical garden visitors and researchers in China.”
Jared Rubinstein, Arnold Arboretum Living Collections Fellow, contributed to this article.
Image: Arnold Arboretum Director William "Ned" Friedman, Tao Deng, Xinfen Gao, and Kang Wang discuss how to prepare an herbarium voucher for a large blackjack oak. Sean Halloran/Arnold Arboretum
By Adam Zewe
(Photo by Eliza Grinnell/SEAS Communications)
At its height, Hurricane Dorian and its brutal, 185-mile-per-hour winds stretched more than 60,000 square miles, whipping an area of the Atlantic Ocean roughly the size of Georgia.
By comparison, the hurricane forming in front of Rachel Collins could fit comfortably inside a shoebox.
Standing safely on dry land inside a Harvard classroom, she was using a pump, tank, turntable, and tap water to “build” a miniature hurricane as a way to learn about the pressure gradient and Coriolis effect that characterize these devastating storms.
“Sometimes, when you just look at the math and the derivatives, it is hard to conceptualize how these things are related to the storms you see on TV,” said Collins, A.B. ’20, an earth and planetary science concentrator. “Seeing the physics in action like this makes it easier to understand.”
Using hands-on lab work to help students understand the physics of weather and fundamentals of climate is the centerpiece of Climate and Atmospheric Physics Laboratory (ESE 129), a new course at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Taught by Marianna Linz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering and of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the course’s flipped classroom model challenges students to complete readings and problem sets independently and then tackle in-class synthesis assignments and labs that bring concepts to life.
“Essentially, we are studying fluids on a rotating planet. Rotating fluids are super-weird, incredibly non-intuitive, and extremely beautiful,” Linz said. “Weather systems develop because the earth is rotating, and you can get an analog for a rotating fluid system by using a tank that is rotating on a table. You can learn a ton of lessons from that, in terms of gaining intuition into how the atmosphere actually works.”
As their hurricane continued churning in the tank, Collins and lab mate Ella Necheles, A.B. ’21, an environmental science and engineering and applied math concentrator, began dropping tiny paper flecks into the water, keeping a careful eye on how their movement patterns changed as they approached the higher-pressure eye-wall of the hurricane.
They and their classmates experimented by angling the lab set ups, pouring pebbles into tanks to create more drag, or introducing temporary disturbances into the systems.
“It was fun to see how manipulating the factors influenced the shape or behavior of the drain. I also found this part really helpful in understanding how the different components, specifically height and pressure, related to the dynamics we were seeing,” Necheles said. “After seeing how we could relate the rotation speed to the pressure gradient, things really started to click.”
The hurricane lab was one of several hands-on sessions designed to help students grasp concepts that are difficult to explain with words and diagrams, Linz said. In another lab, students dropped a column of ice into the middle of water tanks to see how the earth’s cold poles and warm equator impact global circulation.
The course, which covers concepts in global warming, the greenhouse effect, weather systems, global circulation, and waves in the atmosphere, also focuses on modeling and data visualizations.
“It’s not something we talk about before we start doing research, but the plots in my first paper were terrible,” Linz said. “You learn so much over time, but I don’t think it is necessary to learn from doing it badly and having it published. The ability to think about how to visualize data will be relevant for STEM majors no matter where they go.”
The opportunity to develop better data visualization skills inspired Miles Wang to take ESE 129. While it has been challenging to grasp some of the complex equations, he has enjoyed the coding exercises, especially since he plans to pursue a data science career.
“The most poignant lesson I’ve learned so far is how the same data can be presented in vastly different ways to tell contradicting stories or messages,” said Wang, S.B. ’20, an electrical engineering concentrator. “For example, there was a data visualization that took real data to show that global warming wasn’t a real phenomenon. But we were able to understand what tools were used to make it look like it wasn’t real.”
For Wendy Wu, the weekly labs made ESE 129 an appealing change from lecture-style courses. She particularly enjoyed a field trip to a glass blowing studio, where students created paperweights to better understand the concept of black-body radiation (the energy emitted by all objects based on their temperature).
The reflectivity and absorptivity of glass varies greatly depending on its color, and students saw these differences “in action” as they heated and cooled the glass.
“The most surprising lesson I’ve learned has been the science behind precipitation and how difficult it is to predict precipitation,” said Wu, A.B. ’22, an environmental science and engineering concentrator. “By being able to examine different predictive models, I was able to better understand and sympathize with the unpredictability of weather forecasts.”
Having the ability to read a weather map and understand how the jet stream affects extreme weather events will help students be more informed citizens in a future that will be increasingly impacted by climate change, Linz said.
“I think it is important for everyone to understand global warming and climate from some perspective, whether that be physics or ethics,” she said.
Every year the publisher of the august Oxford English Dictionary peers into the zeitgeist and selects a “word of the year” whose sudden appearance or rising popularity tells us something about our collective mood or obsessions. The last three, for instance, have been toxic, youthquake, and post-truth. Take from those what you will.
This year’s word — in actuality a phrase — is “climate emergency.” The publisher Oxford Dictionaries said the choice was prompted by a 100-fold increase in usage over the previous year, a rise that reflected the rising heat of environmental activism and the growing guilt and angst over our role in the problem.
Along with climate emergency, Oxford selected a short list of other environment-related terms whose usage also grew noticeably. That includes some that will seem familiar to many — climate action, climate denial, climate crisis, net zero, extinction, and plant-based — and others newer to the tongue — eco-anxiety, ecocide, flight shame, and global heating, whose usage soared 18,358 percent.
The Gazette asked several Harvard faculty members if they thought “climate emergency” the mots justes for 2019 or whether another word or phrase might better characterize how the English-speaking world is feeling about climate and the environment.
‘There doesn’t have to only be one phrase. … What matters is that we keep talking.’
Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment; professor of the practice of public health
What I take away from this is that climate change has reached a turning point in the public consciousness. In 2019, people all over the world began demanding actions and solutions. We don’t have to worry so much about whether we use “climate emergency,” “climate crisis,” or “global heating.”
There doesn’t have to only be one phrase. What’s important is that we keep the conversation going at our dinner tables, at work, and at school. What matters is that we keep talking about climate change using a variety of angles to appeal to different audiences, whether it’s about water, technology, health, or kids, so that our leaders develop the political will to rapidly shift away from fossil fuels.
(Image: Rose Lincoln/Harvard file photo)
‘I’m really impressed with the interest — particularly of young people — in the problem.’
Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies; faculty chair of the Harvard China Project on Energy, Economy and Environment
It’s difficult to choose just one word — maybe “carbon zero,” “carbon negative.” If you believe that we have to limit temperature growth to 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees C, then you have to start thinking about essentially no fossil fuel use at all after 15 or 20 years. Even more than that, you have to start thinking about having negative carbon, in which you begin to draw carbon out of the atmosphere in order to avoid a problem.
The depressing thing is if you look at what the country commitments are in the Paris Agreement, even if all the countries did what they said they would do, this problem is going to get worse. So then the question is: What do you do about it?
I’ll continue to try to understand how you can make the transition as rapidly as possible to a zero-carbon future for countries such as the U.S., China, and India, the big players. I’ll also start thinking about some of the negative-carbon possibilities.
We had a paper six months or so ago that looked at harvesting crop waste, combining it with coal, and gasifying it to produce electricity, and then capturing the CO2 and burying it or using it. So that’s a way to think about negative-carbon possibilities.
On the other side, I’m really impressed with the interest — particularly of young people — in the problem. There’s also interest by our alumni groups. Alumni clubs around the country have started coming to the University saying, “We would like to have somebody come and talk about the climate issue.” The interest is really high.
As far as “carbon negative” goes, Al Gore has opened his family farm in Tennessee to people who want to do experiments on how you can capture and retain more carbon in soils. I think the way we can do it is using photosynthetic uptake of carbon and instead of having the carbon simply go back into the atmosphere, find ways to capture it and use it or bury it or sequester it.
Stopping unnecessary deforestation, reforesting areas that are not particularly productive, thinking about more conservative agricultural systems, and managing soils would be good ideas. You want to let the plants take carbon out of the atmosphere and then grab that carbon. But there’s no easy solution.
(Image: Harvard file photo)
‘The amount of action and momentum that this word cloud reflects is a cause for some real hope.’
Director of the Planetary Health Alliance; principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
My general reaction is that this is a great word, but that the short list is very instructive as well. Because really the crisis is much broader than climate.
The growing use of these terms reflects an awakening recognition of core themes in the field of planetary health: that the scale of human activity has outstripped the capacity of our planet to absorb our wastes or provide the resources we are using. As a result, we are disrupting and transforming most of the natural systems on the planet including the climate system but also biodiversity (fueling the sixth mass extinction), global pollution of air, water, and soil, scarcity of fresh water and arable land, and deforestation. Hence other words like “extinction” crisis or “ecocide.”
These transformations interact with each other in complex ways to alter core conditions for human health and well-being: the quality and quantity of food we produce, the air we breathe, the water we can access, our exposure to infectious disease, the very habitability of our homes. They also impact our mental health, with “eco-anxiety” or “ecological grief” being one manifestation of those mental health effects.
One of the exciting developments this year has been a groundswell of activism and movement building to address this crisis, including the rise of Extinction Rebellion, the BirthStrike movement in the U.K., and the School Strike movement led by Greta Thunberg, among many, many others.These efforts have called out “climate denial” and the associated legislative capture by special interests that have prevented action for too long as part of addressing the “climate crisis” with “climate action.”
All of this activity and recognition of the urgency of the moment we find ourselves in has us thinking about what we can do differently, both individually and collectively, driving more attention to things like “flight shame,” “plant-based” diets, and “net-zero” emissions. The scale of the ecological and human crisis we face is pretty terrifying, but the amount of action and momentum that this word cloud reflects is a cause for some real hope.
(Image: Rose Lincoln/Harvard file photo)
‘More important than immediate action would be to have clear policies that are significant now, sustainable over the long term.’
Raymond Plank Research Professor of Global Energy Policy; research director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group
My copy of Webster’s Dictionary defines an emergency as “a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence or occasion requiring immediate action.” Thus “climate emergency” is a misnomer.
The conversation about appropriate climate policy is more than three decades old. Given our best understanding of the science, it is going to be a problem the world will have to deal with for centuries to come. More important than immediate action would be to have clear policies that are significant now, sustainable over the long term, and clearly connected to the underlying facts.
One such policy, necessary but not sufficient, would be a material carbon price along the lines of the bipartisan proposal of the Climate Leadership Council. Promises that mandates for clean energy will be effective, quick, and cheap are unlikely to be fulfilled, and thus mislead.
Climate presents an example of a “wicked problem.” Real solutions are likely to be incomplete, slow, and expensive, but worth it.
(Image: Kris Snibbe/Harvard file photo)
‘To tackle this existential challenge we need to align all of our collective actions now.’
Director of the Harvard Forest
This is exactly the right term as it clearly articulates the focus on the problem and the immediacy of the need for action. Embedded in the word “climate” is the clear sense of the enormity and importance of the issue — global and yet affecting all forms of life — and the reality that any fix will necessarily require massive, long-term effort. But the word “emergency” conveys the reality that this issue cannot wait. To tackle this existential challenge we need to align all of our collective actions now.
I emphasize collective because a global emergency scales from the individual to the global community. Each of us has a role, in our lives, across the Harvard campus and neighborhoods, and at community, state, national, and international levels. That scaling works to our benefit. We can act individually and together to make Harvard and its backyard exemplars of the way forward for the world.
For Harvard, that means taking decisive action to act ethically based on clear science to stop supporting all entities that knowingly harm the environment, while also employing all of our research, education, and engagement to inform and lead in the world. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts and New England, Harvard can advance a sustainable landscape of wildlands, woodlands, farmlands, and communities.
(Image: Kris Snibbe/Harvard file photo)
‘It’s an emergency. Let’s call it one.’
John and Natty McArthur University Professor at the Harvard Business School
I love the choice of “climate emergency” as word of the year. There are the obvious reasons. Take the stream of headlines: fires in California; floods in the heartland; drought in the Southwest; the stream of reports from the world’s scientists, desperately trying to rouse the world to action; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on oceans and ice, on land, on the fact that we must limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, not 2, if we are to avoid the worst effects; the articles recalculating exactly how much of the world is likely to be under water by 2050. And this means doing the seemingly impossible — namely bringing emissions to zero in 30 years.
Then there are the less-obvious ones. The ones that are so intimate, so personal that it feels as though someone has put a hand around your heart and twisted, hard.
This spring I ran one of [MIT Professor] John Sterman’s excellent climate-change simulations. The students were divided into national blocs, charged with negotiating with each other in an attempt to put in place a global policy regime that would keep us reasonably cool. It’s a great simulation, and so it reproduced exactly what’s happening — they failed. I asked them to try harder, and they failed again.
At the end of the session, I asked the students to tell me what they had learned. One said that he had learned that unless and until we all agree to give something up, we will never solve climate change. Another put her hands on the swell of the child she was carrying and said, “But my son, my son will be only slightly older than I am now in 2050….”
It’s an emergency. Let’s call it one.
James J. McCarthy: January 25, 1944 – December 11, 2019
"For 40 years, Jim McCarthy was a central part of Harvard’s efforts on the environment. Jim’s own research on biological oceanography probed the nitrogen cycle in the oceans, seeking to understand how the ecology of plankton affected and was affected by nutrient cycling. But Jim’s impact went far beyond his own research. Jim promoted the best in all of us through his numerous leadership positions inside and outside of Harvard and also through his extraordinary devotion to students. Jim was Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology for twenty years (1982–2002) and served as Pforzheimer House Master (with his wife, Sue) and Head Tutor for the Environmental Science and Public Policy Concentration. Outside of Harvard, Jim served as co-Chair of Working Group 2 (Climate Change Impacts) of the 3rd Assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and as lead author for the Arctic Climate Assessment of 2004. Jim was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Board Chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a member of the U.S. Arctic Commission. He received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2018.
Beyond his numerous professional accomplishments, I am thankful for Jim’s friendship. For many who knew him, Jim was a gentle and caring colleague who cared about the people in his life. His curiosity and joy of the world was infectious, whether his fascination with polar exploration, his love of telemark skiing and fly fishing, or simply a conversation about the state of the world over a good cup of tea. I will miss him deeply, but his wisdom and his good humor will stay with me forever."
Dan Schrag, Director, HUCE; Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, Harvard University
"From the very beginning of his scientific career, Jim understood that many of the most fascinating problems in environmental science can neither be understood nor solved without drawing on insights from multiple disciplines. He brought that insight to bear in his own choices to work in oceanography, marine biology, and climate science, where interdisciplinarity is indispensable; and he brought it bear in his work at the intersection of science with public policy, where social sciences and humanities no less than a multitude of scientific disciplines are germane. Beyond the interdisciplinarity in his own work, Jim was a highly successful evangelist for that rubric, having long used his many platforms to communicate to his students, mentees, and the wider scientific community the importance of interdisciplinary approaches both within science and at its intersection with policy. Scientist, teacher, mentor, institution builder and leader, scientific statesman—Jim McCarthy excelled in every role. It is impossible to say which of these roles he relished the most, perhaps because he understood how they all intersect."
John P. Holdren,Teresa and John Heinz Professor, Kennedy School of Government; Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; School of Engineering and Applied Science, Harvard University
"Jim was a global thinker—seamlessly integrating different disciplines to discover new insights about the ocean, climate change, and the planet. The depth and breadth of his thinking challenged and invigorated his students and colleagues alike. His joy in science was palpable; his passion for sharing scientific knowledge widely was inspiring. His lively engagement was a joy to behold, enriching everyone present. We will miss his gentle demeanor, penetrating mind, and passionate spirit."
Jane Lubchenco, Distinguished University Professor, Oregon State University; Recipient of the Harvard GSAS Centennial Medal, 2019; Former Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA; 2009-2013); Former inaugural U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean (2014-2016)
"In many ways, Jim was the heart and soul of the Environmental Science and Public Policy (ESPP) concentration, which he helped found and then served as head tutor for many years. In thinking of his contributions to ESPP, what stands out for me is his kindness and steady hand. Jim always had time to listen to a student (or a colleague) and his gently delivered advice would be accompanied by that wonderful twinkle in his eye. His commitment to students and to making the world a better place inspired me, and I am sure many others, to do more and to care more. The ESPP students who now carry on his work are an important part of his legacy."
Missy Holbrook, Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; Head Tutor, Environmental Science and Public Policy, Harvard University
Listen to Professor McCarthy reflect on his career in a 5-part podcast series recorded in February and March of 2019: http://environment.harvard.edu/honoring-jim-mccarthy.
Watch the September 2019 symposium honoring Professor McCarthy: http://environment.harvard.edu/ocean-futures-jim-mccarthy.
With economies and populations surging, an industrial revolution is inevitable on the African continent. The question is, what’s going to power it? With renewable energy cheaper and more efficient than ever, countries in Africa have the unique opportunity to harness abundant renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal to leapfrog the dependence on fossil fuels that has poisoned the air and environment in Europe, the U.S., India and China.
But will they?
New research from Harvard University and the University of Leicester finds that if Africa chooses a future powered by fossil fuels, nearly 50,000 people could die prematurely each year from fossil fuel emissions by 2030, mostly in South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi.
The research is published in Environmental Science and Technology.
“Our work shows the substantial health benefit of shifting to clean energy sources in Africa, which we hope can help incentivize the transition towards renewable energy over fossil fuels,” said Eloise Marais, a former graduate student of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and senior author of the paper.
Marais is now an Associate Professor at the University of Leicester.
The researchers focused on air pollution from power plants and transportation, as many African countries are currently working to increase fossil-fuel power plants and vehicle infrastructure. South Africa, for example, is commissioning the largest dry-cooled coal-fired power plant in the world. Namibia, Ghana and Mozambique are all turning to offshore power plants — known as powerships — that run on the dirty residue from crude oil refining.
The researchers calculated emissions from all the current power plants on the continent as well as the projected emissions of all power plants proposed as of November 2017. They calculated vehicle emissions based on increases in population that they showed is strongly tied to vehicle usage. They then plugged all the data into the GEOS-Chem global transport model, the open source pollution model developed and housed at Harvard.
The researchers found that continent-wide,13,000 people would die prematurely each year from exposure to vehicle emissions and 39,000 people would die from exposure to pollutants from power plants. Most of those deaths are in southern Africa, where most of the new power plants are being planned.
Interestingly, some countries without any planned power plants also show high rates of mortality. Pollution from power plants in South Africa and Botswana, for example, travels as far as northern Angola because of winds and air circulation.
“This research shows that if we can cut emissions in southern Africa, and South Africa specifically, it can have a far-reaching impact on health,” said Marais.
"Africa has the opportunity to avoid the mistakes that much of the rest of the world has made in electricity generation and transportation,” said Joel Schwartz, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-author of the study. “The technology to avoid these mistakes already exists. Making these choices for clean energy will greatly benefit the health of Africans."
“Our work suggests that the countries of Africa can show the way toward cleaner energy, with benefits for both the earth’s climate and the air that millions breathe,” said Loretta Mickley, Senior Research Fellow at SEAS and co-author of the study.
This research was co-authored by Rachel Silvern, Alina Vodonos, Eleonore Dupin, and Alfred Bockarie. It was supported by the Wallace Global Fund and the UK National Environmental Research Council.