By Bennet McIntosh
To hold a delicate butterfly harmlessly, conventional wisdom advises, softly pinch its wings together. Because butterflies depend on taste receptors on their feet to find food and a suitable nest for their eggs, it’s wiser, the theory goes, to handle appendages that are only as alive as toenails or hair.
But the story is not that simple. Far from inert membranes, butterfly wings hold intricate networks of veins, sensory cells, and often scent pads for releasing and spreading mating pheromones. This winter, a collaboration between Harvard and Columbia researchers revealed just how alive these wings really are—including heat-sensing cells and tiny “wing hearts” that pump fluids through their delicate veins. And the fact that butterflies seem to use the heat sensors, and microscopic structures on their wings that reflect and radiate infrared light, to stay cool, demonstrates that much of the world a butterfly experiences involves light beyond the visible spectrum.
Hessel professor of biology Naomi Pierce, who is Harvard’s curator for Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), met Nanfang Yu when the latter, then a postdoc, contacted her with an unusual research proposal. Yu was studying electrical engineering with Wallace professor of applied physics Federico Capasso, and had noticed that moths’ feathery antennae bore an uncanny resemblance to structures for guiding infrared light, suggesting that moths might use them to “see” light outside the visible spectrum, perhaps for finding food or mates.
By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy
Everyone knows that telltale pine forest smell. Candles and deodorants try to duplicate the scent. The most iconic air fresheners are even shaped like little pine trees. But that perfume may not be so innocent.
“The plants don’t do this because we find it pleasurable to walk around in a pine forest,” said Frank Keutsch, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard. Although scientists have demystified much of plant chemistry, some questions—like why pine forests smell so darn good—still don’t have a clear answer.
For Keutsch, an atmospheric chemist, this question is intriguing for reasons far more important than fragrance. Pine scent comes from a collection of molecules known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When trees emit these chemicals, they can react with oxidants to form other pollutants like particulate matter and ozone, both of which can impact climate change and also respiratory diseases, potentially even COVID-19.
To figure out exactly how forests impact air quality and human health, experts like Keutsch first need to understand the complex oxidation chemistry behind that pine forest smell. To do that, he and two chemistry PhD candidates in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—Joshua Shutter and Joshua Cox, or "Team Plant"—are studying what happens when specific VOCs interact with plant leaves and how these interactions are different now, in modern air, compared to pre-industrial.
By Erin Harleman, Harvard University Center for the Environment
Although his path to a career as an environmental economist was hardly linear, for Robert Stavins, sorting out the right questions to ask has informed his choices along the way. As an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, Stavins set out to study astrophysics, but found himself drawn to questions about cosmology, which prompted one of his professors to suggest philosophy. If you’re wondering how one makes the leap from philosophy to economics, Stavins says, “I had a mathematical approach to learning, and economics provided a way to address important social questions quantitatively. I still believe that what is most important is the set of questions that we ask, because the questions we ask limit tremendously the scope of feasible answers. I remain aware of that in the work I’m doing today.”
What set the course for Stavins’ lifetime of work as an environmental economist was a post-undergraduate detour to Africa. With a philosophy degree in hand, Stavins joined the Peace Corps and spent four years working in Sierra Leone, West Africa on agricultural extension projects—specifically, rice paddy development. “West Africa brought me face to face with the tradeoffs between economic development and environmental quality because it’s quite dramatic in developing countries. You really see the stage of development where society evolves from agrarian to industrial, and as a result, goes from a pristine environmental state to a state of substantial environmental pollution,” says Stavins. With a new lens through which to view the world, Stavins returned to the United States to pursue an M.S. degree in agricultural economics at Cornell University. From there, Stavins moved to California to work as an Environmental Defense Fund staff economist. “At that point, there was a fork in the road. One fork was a law degree, which at the time was the most conventional path for an environmental advocate. But I was interested in taking a more quantitative approach, and that led me to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D in economics. And I never left!” says Stavins.
As the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development at the Kennedy School, where Stavins has been teaching courses on environmental and natural resource economics and policy since he graduated in 1988, Stavins’ work focuses on both domestic and international climate change policies. Domestically, Stavins has examined policies affecting California and West Coast water supply and demand, and the costs and benefits of implementing various emissions-reducing policies. On a global scale, Stavins thinks about some of the key issues that remain for the 2016 Paris Agreement to achieve its full potential. Over his 30-year career, Stavins' research has focused on diverse areas of environmental economics and policy, including examinations of: market‑based policy instruments; regulatory impact analysis; innovation and diffusion of pollution‑control technologies; environmental benefit valuation; policy instrument choice under uncertainty; competitiveness effects of regulation; depletion of forested wetlands; political economy of policy instrument choice; and costs of carbon sequestration.
At Harvard, Stavins also serves as Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program (HEEP), which he also launched; Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government; Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs; and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. He has published over 100 scholarly articles, and has contributed to dozens of books. Since 2009, Stavins has authored the blog, An Economic View of the Environment, and in 2019 he launched the podcast Environmental Insights, where he discusses policy and practice with the HEEP community and leading academics and policy makers beyond Harvard.
A unifying theme of Stavins’ work is that he remains deeply interested in and committed to applying economic models and methods to solve real-world problems. “I’m very pragmatic. My approach to the environment is not ethical or religious—and it’s not an advocacy approach. I’m much more interested in reducing pollutant emissions than I am in demonizing the bad guys, which sometimes brings me into conflict with advocates and even with impassioned students,” explains Stavins, who considers himself politically bipartisan and has worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations and lawmakers.
Stavins’ pragmatic worldview extends beyond applying market-based tools to evaluate, design, and implement environmental policies. A longtime lover of wine, in 2006 Stavins became a founding editor of The Journal of Wine Economics, a triannual publication that examines all economic aspects of wine production and consumption, by and for self-proclaimed “wine freaks.” Naturally, Stavins applies a simple economic model to a question many people ponder: what bottle of wine should I buy? “For one thing, it depends upon one’s income. If I was a billionaire, I would be drinking Romanée-Conti (Burgundy) on a regular basis. I’ve never tasted a bottle and I never will, because I’m not going to spend $18,000 on a bottle of wine. But if you drew a plot, and fitted a line to it, you would see a positive correlation of the better wines being more expensive,” says Stavins, who offers a hopeful economic truth for the budget-minded: “Fortunately, there are always outliers—you just have to know what you’re looking for.”
By Jonathan Mingle
Zhiming Kuang studies the physics of how air, moisture and energy move around the globe, and how that large-scale circulation interacts with tropical convection—with important implications for anticipating how rainfall patterns might change as the Earth warms. He develops theoretical and numerical models to better characterize large-scale features of the atmosphere, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the South Asian Monsoon, drawing on advanced mathematics, statistics, physics and data analysis to render these complex systems in ever-finer detail.
With a degree in space physics from Peking University and a Ph.D. in planetary science from Caltech, Kuang came to Harvard in 2005. As the Gordon McKay Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and SEAS, he teaches courses on the physics of climate, mathematical modeling and tropical dynamics.
“I always wanted to do physics,” he says, “but I gradually developed the sense that I wanted to do something with more practical applications.” This desire drew him into atmospheric and climate science, where he continues to plumb the theoretical depths of his field even as he works to develop useful tools such as seasonal forecasting methods for the monsoon.
Because of the wide range of scales involved in studying it, describing tropical convection in detail has been a challenge for researchers. Kuang’s models capture the connections between tropical convection and the atmosphere’s large-scale flow, including new explanations for the emergence and behavior of large-scale “tropical waves”—troughs of low pressure that move from east to west over the ocean, contributing to the formation of storms. These waves aren’t well-predicted by global climate models, according to Kuang.
Another exceedingly complex climate phenomenon is the South Asian Monsoon, on which over a billion people depend for their water supplies. Kuang’s work on the controlling factors of the monsoon has upended conventional wisdom. In an influential 2010 paper with William Boos, a former Environmental Fellow at HUCE, Kuang demonstrated that the monsoon circulation is largely controlled by the insulation effect created by the Himalayan mountain range, rather than the massive heating of air above the highly reflective Tibetan Plateau, as scientists previously thought. The findings suggest that changes in the Plateau’s albedo might be less important than changes in land use south of the Himalaya, which can alter the temperature of the boundary layer and the amount of moisture available to help fuel the monsoon system.
Kuang’s other core area of focus is exploring the complex physics behind the large-scale process of convection—the “why” to complement the approximation of “how” it works. That involves building statistical models and conducting novel theoretical experiments to describe the behavior of clouds and other convective dynamics.
Leveraging these insights and techniques, Kuang is keen to improve our ability to predict extreme weather events. He is engaged in projects investigating the physics of how the eyewalls of hurricanes collapse and how tornadoes are formed. He also wants to improve seasonal forecasts of the monsoon, and our ability to predict “blocking events,” episodes of stagnation leading to extreme weather such as cold snaps and heat waves. These questions are related to a new project Kuang is pursuing with HUCE colleagues: studying smog events in China, and how acute pollution episodes might be connected to such blocking events in Siberia.
By creating more realistic representations of these chaotic, dynamic processes, Kuang helps enable better predictions of both long-term climatic changes and short-term weather forecasts alike.
Cynthia Friend, the first woman to earn tenure in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard, and the department’s first female Chair, is working on greening the worldwide chemical industry. She designs new catalysts—used to speed up chemical processes and make them more efficient—and leads an interdisciplinary team of scientists in an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), launched in 2014. Recently, we spoke to Friend and Dr. Jeffrey Miller, the EFRC Research Program Director, about the Center’s mission, climate change, and why it’s important for researchers to work with industry.
As the lives of millions of people worldwide were disrupted by social distancing measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, an unexpected piece of good news surfaced: levels of air pollution in major cities had dropped by up to 50% due to the global reduction in traveling, manufacturing, and construction. The most dramatic effects were seen in India, home to 14 of the 20 most polluted cities on Earth, where people posted photos on social media showing blue skies and clear air for the first time in recent memory.
The temporary reprieve was a stark reminder that the engine of modern society runs on the combustion of fossil fuels, which releases a noxious mix of chemicals into the air including poisonous carbon monoxide gas, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) like formaldehyde that can cause cancer, and nitrogen oxides that react with VOCs to create ozone, which causes breathing problems and even premature death. The World Health Organization estimates that seven million people are killed every year due to air pollution, and Greenpeace Southeast Asia has reported that polluted air costs the world trillions of dollars in medical care annually.
The problem of dirty air is not a new one: even burning wood releases toxic chemicals that can cause health issues when inhaled. But the explosion of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented levels of air pollution that continued largely unchecked through the early 20th century, exacerbated by the widespread adoption of gasoline-burning cars. There were no effective ways to remove pollutants from exhaust fumes until the 1950s, when mechanical engineer Eugene Houdry invented the first catalytic converter to address the black smog that was choking Los Angeles and other American cities.
By Erin Harleman, Harvard University Center for the Environment
Since her days as an undergraduate, Marianna Linz has been charting her own course at Harvard, both in the lab and the classroom, where in 2019 she became Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering and of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Linz graduated from Harvard in 2011 as the first joint concentrator in Chemistry and Physics and Earth and Planetary Sciences. “I came to Harvard wanting to create the carbon-neutral replacement for Styrofoam. I decided I was going to save the planet by fixing all of our materials,” says Linz. But an introduction to EPS courses piqued Linz’s interest, and she recognized that her passion for saving the world could take a very different form by studying how the planet works. “Understanding individual materials, although very practical, in some ways started to seem less important than figuring out the whole climate system,” explains Linz.
Linz went on to pursue a PhD in Physical Oceanography from the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Joint Program, followed by postdoctoral research at UCLA. During her time at MIT-Woods Hole, Linz became involved with the Cambridge nonprofit Science Club for Girls, an initiative to introduce girls and young women from underrepresented communities to STEM activities. Linz developed curricula on Earth science and physics for girls in kindergarten and first grade. But she realized that something key was missing from her work with children—discussions on climate change. “That didn’t seem right. I spent some time thinking about how I would explain the greenhouse effect and climate change to these young girls. I knew it was something worth teaching at that level,” explains Linz.
As she started to develop a climate change curriculum for young girls, she came across an article in The Guardian about how the fossil fuel industry was providing resources to underserved school districts in Oklahoma extolling the virtues of their products. “I thought, well that’s just awful, but there must be good books out there about climate,” says Linz. So she set out to find those books, and when she found very few, she decided to write her own. Linz’s picture book, Cool For You, contains rhyming couplets that explain the basic science of climate change and how kids can take action. Linz is still involved with Science Club for Girls, donating nearly 200 copies of her book to young children in the program.
Returning to Harvard this year as a faculty member, Linz brought her passion for teaching climate science back to where it all began. In the fall, she taught a lab course on climate and atmospheric physics, where students manipulated mini rotating tanks to observe various phenomena such as hurricanes, wave motion, and how atmospheric circulation between the cold poles and the warm equator influences weather patterns. “I tried not to lecture at all. My students were so creative, and I really enjoyed the hands-on, active learning aspect of this class,” says Linz. Instead of setting up a large and complicated lab, Linz assembled makeshift mini labs using office shelf components, LEGO motors, and kitchen turntables with floral vases on top (the ‘tanks’), enabling students to essentially bring the lab back to their houses, where they could repeat experiments as necessary. In preparation for a potential shift to remote learning in the fall, Linz is pricing out the cost of shipping every student their own at-home kit. “Being able to run a lab class remotely would be super cool, but we have to figure out if we can do that reasonably,” she says.
In the meantime, a few of Linz’s students will be assisting with her group’s research projects this summer. One question Linz hopes to answer is whether or not we will experience more extreme simultaneous heat waves on a global scale. Some studies have suggested a higher likelihood of these events, but the mechanism by which this can be measured hasn’t been proven in the lab. “We are trying to see whether or not the mechanism by which you have these increasing simultaneous heatwaves holds in a very simple climate model,” explains Linz. A related project looks at what factors contribute to the distribution of temperatures. “We are trying to understand extreme events. Not just how often we will have heat waves in the future, but what really sets the full distribution of temperatures that we experience,” explains Linz.
Linz is also looking at how chemicals move around in the stratosphere in an effort to understand the decreasing ozone layer over the mid-latitude region. Because there has been so much variability in the ozone layer over this region, it has proven difficult to pinpoint a trend. “One of my projects looks at how long of a record we actually need to say there’s a trend, and quantifying when we would be able to see a trend like that is important,” says Linz.
Whether engaging kindergarteners or Harvard students, working in a conventional lab or building homemade portable kits, Linz brings a unique perspective to her role as mentor and academic. Self-identifying as ‘neuro-divergent,’ Linz understands that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching or learning. “It’s so important to recognize that people are different, and that our brains work differently. As scientists who are independent researchers, it’s the perfect opportunity to recognize that we can do things differently,” says Linz. In her lab, Linz embraces a “you do you” philosophy toward work style, and she hopes that by talking about what it means to accept our infinite variations in neurocognitive functioning, new models for teaching and learning might emerge.
By Danielle Kost, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge Senior Editor
Rebecca Henderson spent her young adult years living two lives.
At work, she preached the risks of resisting change to MBA students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drawing on lessons she learned while watching factories close as a management consultant. But at home, she found comfort in the seeming permanence of nature and trees, whose leafy branches provided solace to her as a child.
“I kept my job and my passions in separate boxes,” writes Henderson, who joined Harvard Business School in 2009 and is now the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University. “Work was lucrative and fun and often hugely interesting, but it was something I did before returning to real life.”
Business was ever-changing, but nature was constant. It wasn’t until in the mid-2000s, at her brother’s urging, that she started to read about the science of climate change—and the part that business has played in accelerating it. The revelation shook her world view.
After debating whether to quit her job at MIT, Henderson started seeking out like-minded leaders who shared her concerns. Her experiences and the research that came out of them culminate in her new book, Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, a deeply personal exploration of capitalism’s role in addressing climate change.
Danielle Kost: What inspired you to discuss climate change in such personal terms?
Rebecca Henderson: There are two reasons. One is, if we just keep thinking about climate change as a purely rational, “does it suit me right now?” calculation, we won't move with the speed or the courage that we need.
And the other reason is, that's how I experience it. It's just crazy that we're not acting on this. It's as if we're all stuck playing an elaborate game and we all play our part without really thinking about the fact that the game is very destructive. We need to wake up to that, to take it personally and make the investments required to change it.
Kost: Your book challenges one of the most firmly ingrained philosophies in business, the goal of delivering shareholder value above all else. Why do you think this concept is outdated and damaging?
Henderson: In the ’70s, when the conversation about shareholder value first began, and in the ’80s, when it really took off, it was fine for business to just focus on making money. We had a very cohesive society and a strong government.
But right now, we have a political system that's incredibly partisan. It's very difficult to get anything done. And we have a government that is, as a result of years of attack on the very idea of government, fundamentally very weak. You can really see that in the current COVID-19 emergency, both in the slowness of the federal government’s response, and in its decision not to step up as a central buyer of things like personal protective equipment (PPE). States are bidding against each other for medical equipment, which seems extraordinary.
There are moments when you really need government. Controlling climate pollution is one example. Without the right kinds of rules, firms run the risk of causing more damage from the the carbon dioxide they emit than the value they create.
It's not that we don't have to generate decent returns for investors—of course we do. That's super important. It's the idea that the only thing that matters is increasing returns to investors. That's crazy.
Kost: You argue that when companies address climate change, they're also addressing other social problems, whether it's income equality or food insecurity. Could you discuss that linkage?
Henderson: If I’m living paycheck to paycheck, I'm not going to be a big fan of some pointy headed professor deciding to spend a great deal of money on solar panels. What are solar panels to me?
Until people feel secure and believe they can take care of their families and they're going to have a shot at a good job, it's going to be tough to persuade people to really invest at the kind of scale we need to transition to a carbon free economy.
So, just pragmatically, we need to address inequality if we're going to make progress on climate change. Moreover, I believe—and I think many business people agree—that it’s fundamentally unfair that more and more people are finding it hard to participate in the modern economy, and that we're leaving so much human potential and human growth on the table.
Kost: How do you think COVID-19 will affect the way companies think about sustainability?
Henderson: It's really interesting. Firms are talking far more about sustainability and their employees and the importance of loyalty and good jobs now than they were heading into the 2008 crash. It's distinctly different.
So, I think COVID might have a couple of effects. First, we need to be realistic. It's possible that we'll come out of this pandemic significantly poorer and less willing to invest in the long term. I hope that's not true, but I think it's a real possibility.
But it’s also the case that the pandemic is illustrating how quickly we can change when we need to. There's been an aspect of the climate change conversation that is, “Yeah, it's just too hard. It's too complicated. We're busy, you know, we just can't do it.”
And now we see that when we want to, we can do amazing things, and I have no doubt that we will roll out amazing testing infrastructure and that we’ll work our way through this pandemic. I hope that sense of possibility will translate to action against climate change.
Kost: What do you hope that an executive reading your book will do with your insights?
Henderson: For people who already started on this journey, I hope the book will give them a sense of why what they're doing is so important, how every individual effort inside every firm has the potential to add up to systemic change, and an understanding of the pathways through which business can help to play a major role in solving our problems.
For people for whom this is all new, I hope this book will encourage them to turn to their colleagues or their employees or their children and say, “I've heard that we could make some money by tackling some of these problems.” Every single firm where people have asked that question, they have found money lying on the floor.Book Excerpt Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire
By Rebecca Henderson
Pebbles in an Avalanche of Change
“What can I do?” is the question I am asked most often and certainly the most important one. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that only heroes (and heroines!) can change the world.
When we tell the story of the civil rights movement, we talk about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. When we talk about the New Deal, we talk about Franklin D. Roosevelt. When historians fifty years from now write the history of how we solved global warming, drastically reduced inequality, and remade our institutions, they will focus on a few key events—perhaps in the winter that three superstorms hit the East Coast of the United States, making fixing global warming a completely bipartisan priority, or in the summer that the harvests failed across Africa, sending millions of people north to Europe, making it clear that everyone on the planet had to be given the tools they need to feed themselves. Perhaps they will tell the story of the CEO who led the coalition that helped negotiate a global labor agreement, or of the Chinese and US presidents who sat down together to make a global wealth tax feasible, or of the leaders of the social movement that made it politically impossible not to solve climate change.
But this focus reflects the structure of our minds and the nature of modern communication, not the way in which change actually happens. We use stories to make sense of the noisy, messy, complicated reality of the world, and stories need central characters— single individuals we can identify with and root for.
The real world doesn’t actually work that way. Effective leaders ride the wave of change they find bubbling up around them. Martin Luther King did not create the civil rights movement. It grew from decades of work by thousands of African Americans and their allies, each doing the dangerous and difficult work of standing up for change. Rosa Parks was not a lone heroine who simply decided to stay in her seat one evening. She was a deeply committed civil rights worker whose decision that night was taken in close collaboration with a network of experienced female activists. Nelson Mandela did not single-handedly end apartheid in South Africa. He built on fifty years of struggle in which thousands of people participated and hundreds died.
Remember Erik Osmundsen, the CEO who took a corrupt waste collection company and made it a leader in recycling? Whenever he visits my class, he begins by saying that it’s not about him. Instead, he insists, it’s about the team of people he works with, the people willing to do the actual work—the often dull, day-to-day work— of cleaning up the waste industry. The media tell us that change is dramatic, driven by individuals, and accomplished in minutes. But real change happens one meeting at a time.
Remember Michael Leijnse—a relatively low-level employee whose name rarely surfaced in the press—but who, by spearheading sustainable tea at Lipton, showed that it was both possible and profitable, and in doing so, gave his CEO a reason to believe that he could halve Unilever’s environmental footprint while increasing its sales.
When Sophia Mendelsohn started at JetBlue, her job was to design a recycling program. But she took the trouble to meet with everyone she could, seeking to understand how focusing on sustainability could help the company as a whole and trying to ensure that everything she did solved a problem for one of her colleagues. Within a few years she was able to spearhead a major shift in how the company measured and managed itself.
Greta Thunberg was a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl when she began protesting climate change outside the Swedish Parliament. If it’s really a climate emergency, she said, why aren’t we doing anything? A year later an estimated 1.6 million students from 125 countries left school to join a global climate strike. I know of one multinational company that completely transformed its sustainability strategy because its employees were finding it too embarrassing to defend the company’s actions to their children.
You are vital, and there is lots that you can do.
By Danielle Kost, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge Senior Editor
Until a few years ago, climate change’s potential impact seemed abstract for many investors. Now, as sea levels rise, hurricanes intensify, and droughts threaten food supplies, many investors are confronting its financial realities.
But it’s not a simple calculation. These and other physical effects of climate change—as well as many, varied government policies trying to mitigate its effects—are also inspiring technological innovations that will give rise to new products, services, and business models in the coming years. How can investors effectively price these risks and opportunities?
On March 4, Harvard Business School gathered senior executives, risk experts, and leading investment professionals from some of the world’s largest asset managers to share how they’re approaching these complex questions. The conference, titled “Risks, Opportunities, and Investment in the Era of Climate Change,” explored climate change’s profound early effects on portfolio returns and highlighted the growing need for investors to understand how to measure and price climate risk.
“We have seen a real shift, with so much more recognition from chief risk officers and chief investment officers that [climate change] is a massive megatrend,” said Audrey Choi (MBA 2004), Morgan Stanley’s chief sustainability officer and chief marketing officer, during a panel discussion. “It’s a fundamental material risk to earnings and portfolios.”
This increased awareness has elevated climate change from a niche imperative to a matter of value.
“Climate is extremely important to understanding the long-term value prospects of individual companies,” said guest speaker Ronald P. O’Hanley (MBA 1986), CEO of State Street, which oversees nearly $32 trillion in assets as one of the world’s largest custodian banks. “It’s not about values. It's about value and how you're creating value, how you are showing that the companies in which you're investing are creating value.”
However, many barriers still prevent asset managers from accurately assessing and pricing climate risk, including a dearth of reporting standards and data. Many governments around the world have begun assigning prices to carbon dioxide emissions, but it’s unclear if they can agree on a common global standard.
Without industrywide measures, firms have been taking their own steps to evaluate the risks and potential opportunities that climate change is creating, including:
Embracing new climate risk terms
Investment firms are evaluating climate risk primarily along two distinct dimensions. They’re considering “physical risks,” such as the business and economic impact of warmer temperatures, more frequent and extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. Physical risks reflect “the potential for losses as climate-related changes disrupt business operations, destroy capital and interrupt economic activity,” according to Kevin Stiroh, executive vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a guest speaker.
Investors are also looking at the “transition risks” associated with shifting to a lower-carbon economy. New and more stringent regulations and practices will likely spur that transition, though it’s unclear how, when, and to what extent these changes will materialize. Stiroh noted that this transition risk includes technological innovations and changes in consumer sentiment, both of which affect the value of assets and liabilities.
Physical and transition risks will likely introduce new strategic risks as new industries move to the fore as others fade, Stiroh said. Such a complex scenario will force firms to develop new models and tools.
“Traditional backward-looking models based on historical trends will no longer be reliable,” Stiroh said. “We'll need to develop a more forward-looking approach that’s grounded in scenario-based analysis.”
Finding tools to measure and analyze physical risk
Partnering with climate scientists. The investment management firm Wellington Management has partnered with climate scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) to understand how and where climate change may impact capital markets.
"THIS WAS OUR FIRST INDICATION THAT WE WERE ON TO SOMETHING, THAT THE CAPITAL MARKETS HAD NOT PAID ATTENTION TO THIS YET."
Wellington Vice Chair Wendy Cromwell explained during a panel discussion how her firm uses a heat index developed in conjunction with the WHRC to consider geographic location in its risk analysis. Comparing two municipal bonds, one from the US Midwest and one from the US South, Cromwell demonstrated the analytical impact of overlaying the heat index forecast on these two locations.
The bonds have nearly identical credit ratings and yields, even though the Southern location is projected to experience more extreme heat and humidity by the time the bond matures, suggesting greater economic vulnerability of this region.
“This was our first indication that we were on to something, that the capital markets had not paid attention to this yet,” Cromwell said.
Heeding the warning of rising insurance costs. Despite the lack of widespread data about companies’ climate risks, rising insurance costs offer a valuable bellwether, said Luca Albertini, CEO of Leadenhall Capital Partners, during a panel discussion. If the cost to insure a construction project, say, on a coastline is exorbitant, that should give any investor pause.
“If your policy is too expensive, that's the insurance industry telling you, ‘Sorry, you shouldn't be there,’” said Albertini, whose firm specializes in insurance-linked securities. Climate risk factors that make a property or project costly to insure will likely worsen with time, eroding future returns.
"WE'RE GOING TO SLAM ON THE BRAKES BECAUSE WE'RE GOING TO RECOGNIZE THE RISK."
Bracing for a sudden transition
Preparing to “slam on the brakes.” Many investors expect policymakers to react to climate change gradually, imposing cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes that gradually become more stringent, for example. But Bob Litterman, a founding partner of Kepos Capital, said during a panel discussion that policymakers will likely need to take more drastic measures to address the gravity of the situation.
“We're going to slam on the brakes because we're going to recognize the risk,” he said. “We're going to recognize what we did wrong and that we're dealing with an uncertain situation. And so, when we start to price it, we're going to err on the high side. So that leads to transition risk—the risk that we’re going to have a phase change in the economy when we price the risk.”
Litterman, who spent years leading risk management efforts at Goldman Sachs, says that this economic shift will lead to dramatic changes in valuations and other aspects of society. For that reason, investors should understand the risk their companies face if governments rapidly adopt more stringent climate policies.
Applying the “universal owner” model. The world’s largest assets owners have taken note of the scale of this exposure. Large pension funds invest so broadly—through index funds, private equity, or other securities—that they become “universal owners” of all companies.
“We have to pay attention to what's happening to the market, not only what's happening to the portfolio we own,” said Hiro Mizuno, then chief investment officer of Japan’s $1.6 trillion Government Pension Investment Fund, one of the largest pension funds in the world.
As a universal owner, diversifying is not enough when it comes to managing climate risk. “We have been told how to diversify portfolios that hedge the risk of the capital markets,” said Mizuno, a guest speaker. “But we never knew how to prepare our portfolios for this kind of huge systemic risk.”
Recognizing innovative opportunities amid the risk
“It’s unrealistic to say that coal corporations are going to transition to become solar installers,” O’Hanley said at the start of the day. “So, we need to be thinking about the disruption.” At the same time, he noted, “there will be brand new opportunities coming out of this.”
The conference culminated in a session about some of the innovative technologies that are emerging to address climate change, with presentations from the leaders of Indigo Agriculture, Form Energy, Carbon Cure, and Carbon Engineering.
These companies are pioneering ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by removing it from the atmosphere so that it can be sequestered or used it in agricultural soil, building materials, or fuels. As incumbent companies and industries embrace these technologies through adoption or acquisition, more new opportunities will emerge.
Continuing the climate risk conversation
Professors Ramana Nanda, co-director of the HBS Private Capital Project, Michael Toffel, faculty chair of the HBS Business and Environment Initiative (BEI), and George Serafeim, who leads the HBS Impact Weighted Accounts Project, co-chaired the conference. Organized by the BEI and HBS Alumni Relations, it was one of the first large HBS alumni discussions about how climate change is impacting the economy.
“How to value these effects and how to allocate portfolios based on climate risk are going to be important,” said Nanda, the Sarofim-Rock Professor of Business Administration, at the start of the conference.
As the economic fallout of COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, some risk-management parallels between climate change and the coronavirus crisis were becoming clear. As Litterman said, “If you have enough time, you can solve just about anything. It's when you run out of time that a risk problem becomes a catastrophe. And, in both of these contexts, we've probably gone way longer than we should have to address them.”
By Liz Mineo, Harvard Staff Writer
It is a symbol of the significance of the case for Lazarus, who has written the book “The Rule of Five: Making Climate Change History at the Supreme Court,” which tells the inside story of the landmark environmental case.
The Gazette sat down with Lazarus, a Supreme Court advocate and the Howard and Katherine Aibel Professor of Law, before the coronavirus quarantine to talk about his book, his passion for environmental law, and the legal strategy behind the environmentalists’ victory.Q&A Richard Lazarus
GAZETTE: When did you first have the idea for writing a book about Massachusetts v. EPA?
LAZARUS: I’ve wanted to write a book like this for several decades, from the time when I was working in the Solicitor General’s office and litigating cases in the Supreme Court, back in the 1980s. I knew I wanted to bring to life Supreme Court advocacy and make people realize how fascinating, important, and exciting it can be on both sides of the lectern. On one side, there are the advocates, who are writing briefs and presenting oral arguments, and on the other side, there is advocacy among the justices themselves when they’re trying to persuade their colleagues. The question became, what case I could write about? When the Supreme Court decided Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007, I went, “Bingo.” I knew I’ve got my case because it brought together two things I do as a law professor and as a scholar: one is that I write and teach about Supreme Court advocacy and decision-making, and two, my real passion is environmental law. There’s no greater problem that overwhelms us these days in environmental law than climate change. And the reason why I chose to write about Massachusetts v. EPA is because the court gave environmentalists their biggest win ever. That’s when I knew that I had my case.
GAZETTE: Some people say that the ruling is as significant to environmental law as Brown v. Board of Education was to school integration. What is your take?
LAZARUS: First of all, there’s no Supreme Court ruling as significant as Brown v. Board of Education, which is the most significant Supreme Court decision perhaps ever because it established that segregation in public schools is unlawful as a matter of constitutional law. Massachusetts v. EPA is the most significant decision for environmental law because not only did the Supreme Court take the case and then rule in favor of the environmentalists, but also because the rule in itself had huge sweep and impact. It’s because of Massachusetts v. EPA that we have the 2015 Paris accord, where 195 nations came together to agree to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That would not have happened without the Massachusetts case. The decision itself, when it came down to it, was significant, and its aftermath, in lawmaking, has been massive.
GAZETTE: Many people were skeptical of a positive outcome when the lawsuit was first filed in 1999 by attorney Joe Mendelson. What were the factors that led the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Massachusetts?
LAZARUS: There are a few things to focus on. One is some extraordinary personal courage by several individuals, combined with their great skill as lawyers, and on the other side, there were really bone-headed, stupid moves. Those together were probably necessary. It began in 1999 with Joe Mendelson, who worked for a shoestring public-interest organization no one had ever heard of. Mendelson, who said he’d had enough because nothing was happening with the promises of Clinton and Gore to address climate change, stayed up late at night drafting this petition, and everyone was saying, “Joe, don’t rock the boat.” But Joe filed the petition. It took enormous courage on his part, personal and professional, to do what he did. And he was not the only one. Jim Milkey, a career attorney with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, decided to take this case to the Supreme Court. Everyone was telling him, “Don’t do it.” He did it anyway.
On the other side, you have some colossally stupid decisions made during the Bush administration. George Bush had campaigned on a pledge to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S. and put several committed people in his cabinet: Christine Todd Whitman as EPA administrator, Paul O’Neill as Secretary of Treasury, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. All of them thought this was a pressing issue we had to address, but Vice President Dick Cheney outmaneuvered them. He got Bush to sign a letter to Congress, not just saying, “I’m not going to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions,” but saying that the government did not have the authority to do it. That was really stupid, and he did it without consulting any lawyers, so Cheney overreached. Then several people in the Bush administration declined to listen to the advice of their career lawyers about what to say, how to argue, and how to present their case before the courts. As a result, while they managed to squeak out a win in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, they presented a far weaker case than they had to before the Supreme Court.
GAZETTE: Your book provides a window into the inner workings of the Supreme Court. What does it take to win a case before the Supreme Court?
LAZARUS: It takes a highly skilled lawyer. There’s no substitute for that. It’s what they say about Carnegie Hall. It takes practice, practice, practice. If you argue before the Supreme Court, you have to recognize you’re going to have nine very smart lawyers asking you questions. They ask about 50 to 75 questions in 30 minutes, and you have very little time to answer them. You have to be prepared for all the questions and you have to figure out how to answer the questions quickly and efficiently. You also have to know your justices. Of the nine justices, you have to convince five of them. That’s why the book is titled “The Rule of Five.” It’s all about training, how you frame an issue, and knowing that some arguments are weak, and others are strong.
GAZETTE: What went on behind the scenes of the legal strategy that led to the victory of the environmentalists?
LAZARUS: Coming in, the environmentalists knew that the fifth vote was Justice Anthony Kennedy, and they thought long and hard about how to keep those five votes. They understood their strengths, their weaknesses, and the other side’s weaknesses. They figured out what was the only thing they could possibly argue in a very targeted way to allow a win. And that worked. Sometimes advocates before the Supreme Court aren’t willing to acknowledge that something’s a little weak, and they try to pretend they have a strength they don’t have, and the court gets frustrated. Here, Milkey (HLS Class of 1983) started his oral argument with his strengths. When the court quickly pounced on him, identifying his weaknesses, he knew exactly the right argument to make, the only one he could make that could possibly win the case. Ironically, it was to de-emphasize in certain respects the fact this is a big climate-change case, and he turned it into good lawyering; focusing on administrative law and standards review. He made just the argument to win the case. At one point, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “You really need to argue that? Because if you argue that all you win is X. You don’t win more than that.” Milkey said, “That’s our argument.” I’m sure environmentalists who had slept on the sidewalk outside the night before to hear their champion lecture the court about the importance of climate change were like, “He doesn’t sound like an environmentalist.” And that’s because Jim was being a really good lawyer. The best environmentalists who are lawyers are not the best environmentalists; they are the best lawyers.
GAZETTE: What role did the justices play in the outcome of the case? What happened between the oral argument on Nov. 29, 2006, and the ruling on April 2, 2007?
LAZARUS: That process is incredibly important, and it’s completely unseen. People don’t appreciate how important it is. When Milkey sat down, and the Chief Justice said, “The case is submitted,” that’s when the advocacy switched from one side of the lectern to the other side, where the justices were. It took a lot of advocacy within the Supreme Court to actually keep that vote of five necessary for the win. In general, what happens is that two days after the court hears an oral argument, the nine justices get together in a room, with no assistants, just the justices to discuss the case and vote. This time, they went around and the vote was five to four. Anthony Kennedy supplied the critical vote in favor of the environmentalists. At that point, though, it’s not a done deal. The Supreme Court ruling is not final until these five justices sign on to a written opinion, and the challenge is to write an opinion that can keep that vote intact. It’s not at all unusual for a justice to change his or her mind, and his or her vote. In this case, under the practices of the court, the senior justice in the majority decides who writes the majority opinion, and it was Stevens. He decided to write the opinion himself, and he wrote it in a way that looks like a group hug of Justice Kennedy. Stevens went out of his way to cite everything and anything Justice Kennedy has written in prior cases. It took eight drafts to bring Justice Kennedy over. By the 2000s, Justice Stevens had become the master of “the rule of five.” He had figured out exactly how to write things to keep their votes.
GAZETTE: Is that why you dedicated the book to Justice Stevens?
LAZARUS: Stevens gets Justice Kennedy and three others to join the majority of opinion to make it five. That’s not easy to do. That’s why I refer to him in the book as the “Jedi Master” of the rule of five. Stevens also wrote the opening paragraphs and they’re sweeping and make it all about climate change and about the pressing nature of the problem for the U.S. and the world. He actually writes a call to action.
I dedicated the book to him partly because of the huge role he played, both in voting the way he did and in crafting the opinion and getting Kennedy’s vote. The other reason is that I met with him. He was the one justice I talked to on the record for the book. I talked to several justices off the record and on background, but Justice Stevens spoke with me on the record, and he was just fabulous. The highlight of my research was not just what I learned from him, but spending time with him down in Florida. Meeting Justice Stevens was a joyful experience. We were supposed to meet one more time, and he died about a week before our meeting.
GAZETTE: In your book you described the oral argument as riveting. What were the highlights?
LAZARUS: I attended the argument because I was part of a group which had helped prepare Jim Milkey to appear before the court. At that point, I was well versed in the case, and like others in the courtroom, I listened to every word. When the justices do oral arguments, it’s the first time they discuss a case together. They’re learning each other’s views while we’re getting a hint of them from the questions they ask. I remember the moment when Justice Kennedy asked Jim, “What’s your best case?” And after Jim gave his case, Kennedy responded, “Well, I think your best case is Georgia v. Tennessee Copper.” Everyone in the courtroom sort of bristled, including myself, because Kennedy had just cited a case that no one in 42 briefs filed had referred to, and that meant he and his chambers had done their own research to figure out what they thought was the best case. For the environmentalists, that meant they likely had five votes at least for the right to bring the lawsuit. If they had lost on that issue, it would have meant that no one could ever bring lawsuits based on climate-change injury in any federal court in the U.S. Kennedy’s question was extraordinary, a source of good cheer, a little muted, but still, I was thinking, “Oh, oh, rule of five; we’ve got five votes.” I walked out of that courtroom, like many, very optimistic.
GAZETTE: How long did it take you to write the book? What were the challenges in writing it?
LAZARUS: I decided to write the book in 2007, but I didn’t start researching until 2015 because there are lots of things I do, including some Supreme Court oral arguments, and I teach and write Law Review articles. As an academic, writing this kind of book is somewhat of a luxury item.
In 2015, I started gathering documents. I had boxes filled with dozens of Freedom of Information Acts, public records requests, almost everyone’s email traffic, much to people’s horror — some were very unhappy with all the stuff that I had. But I wanted to have a good sense of what had happened behind the scenes on both sides. I spent probably a year and a half just compiling documents. In 2017, I had to take time off from it because I was running the Harvard Law School’s bicentennial. In early 2018, I began writing in earnest.
Writing a book for a popular audience was fun, but also challenging for me as a law professor. I had to write in a different voice. I had never written in this voice before, and what people advised me was to make it about people, not about ideas or theories. I also had to write it in an engaging and informal way. And every time I finished a chapter, I sent it to about five of my law students, some of whom had experience in college journalism, and asked them for their opinions. They were great. I think they liked editing their professor. I also sent a draft to three close friends who are not practicing lawyers, but love to read. One of them suggested that I make the chapters shorter. He said, “When I read a book, I’d like to feel a sense of accomplishment, and the chapters are a little long.” The book has 20 chapters because I shortened them, doubling the total number of chapters. That was very good advice.
GAZETTE: What lessons can attorneys, law students, and the general public learn from your book?
LAZARUS: There are several lessons. One is that a good lawyer can make a difference in the outcome of a case. The environmentalists were able to get the court to hear the case and they won because of good lawyering, there’s no doubt about it. The second lesson is that one needs to fight to make history. And the way to do it is by commitment and hard work, not just by sitting back and thinking that you’re on the right side of history and the others are on the wrong side. That’s not how it works. If you don’t fight for it, the history you favor is not going to happen.
The last lesson is that litigation is never enough in the world of environmental law. This case was a big win, and these kinds of wins are absolutely essential, but they’re never the end of the story. Every time you win a big environmental case, it’s inherently provisional because the same powerful forces that you had to beat in the Supreme Court don’t just disappear; they regroup and come back. It’s the nature of the beast. Environmental protection depends on win after win after win, over the longer term. That’s also true for climate change. You’ve got to keep those laws, get them enacted, maintain them, and enforce them, not just for one or two years but through decades. Litigation is essential, but it takes more than votes of justices to make transformative changes; it takes the votes of individuals. In the U.S. and in many countries, the ballot box is how we can really make transformative law. Brown v. Board of Education, decided in 1954, was incredibly important, and so was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the end of the day, it was a series of laws that Congress passed, spurred on by Brown v. Board of Education, which really led to more lasting change.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
By Juan Siliezar, Harvard Staff Writer
An enduring question in geology involves the question of when the tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust began pushing and pulling in a process that formed the planet’s continents, oceans, and other landforms. Some researchers theorize it happened about 4 billion years ago. Others say it was closer to 1 billion.
Clues can be found in very old rocks. Looking at some, a team led by Harvard researchers show that these plates were moving at least 3.2 billion years ago on the early Earth.
In a portion of the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia, one of the oldest pieces of the Earth’s crust, scientists found a latitudinal drift of about 2.5 centimeters a year. They found the motion went back 3.2 billion years and confirmed it using a novel magnetic microscope.
The researchers believe this shift is the earliest proof that modern-like plate motion happened between 2 and 4 billion years ago, suggesting that the plates pushed and pulled in ways unlike those seen earlier periods, when the Earth’s crust moved less. It adds to growing research that tectonic movement occurred on the early Earth and offers hints about the conditions under which the earliest forms of life developed.
The work was published in Science Advances on Earth Day.
“Basically, this is one piece of geological evidence to extend the record of plate tectonics on Earth further back in Earth history,” said Alec Brenner, one of the paper’s lead authors and a member Harvard’s Paleomagnetics Lab. “Based on the evidence we found, it looks like plate tectonics is a much more likely process to have occurred on the early Earth, and that argues for an Earth that looks a lot more similar to today’s than a lot of people think.”
Plate tectonics is key to the evolution of life and the development of the planet. Today, the Earth’s outer shell consists of about 15 shifting blocks of crust. On them sit the planet’s continents and oceans. As Earth formed, the plates drifted into each other and apart, exposing new rocks to the atmosphere, which led to chemical reactions that stabilized Earth’s surface temperature over billions of years. A stable climate is crucial to the evolution of life, and the study suggests that early forms of life came about in a more moderate environment.
“We’re trying to understand the geophysical principles that drive the Earth,” said Roger Fu, one of the paper’s lead authors and an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Plate tectonics cycles elements that are necessary for life into the Earth and out of it.”
Plate tectonics helps planetary scientists understand worlds beyond this one, too.
“Currently, Earth is the only known planetary body that has robustly established plate tectonics of any kind,” said Brenner, a third-year graduate student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “It really behooves us as we search for planets in other solar systems to understand the whole set of processes that led to plate tectonics on Earth and what driving forces transpired to initiate it. That hopefully would give us a sense of how easy it is for plate tectonics to happen on other worlds, especially given all the linkages between plate tectonics, the evolution of life, and the stabilization of climate.”
For the study, members of the project traveled to the Pilbara Craton. A craton is a primordial, thick, and very stable piece of crust. They are usually found in the middle of tectonic plates and are the ancient hearts of the Earth’s continents, which makes them the natural place to go to study the early Earth. The Pilbara Craton stretches about 300 miles across, covering approximately the same area as the state of Pennsylvania.
Fu and Brenner drilled into rocks from a portion called the Honeyeater Basalt and collected core samples about an inch wide in 2017. They brought them back to Fu’s lab in Cambridge and placed them into magnetometers and demagnetizing equipment. Certain minerals in rocks lock in the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field at the time they are formed. That field shifts over time, so by examining layers, scientists glean evidence for a kind of timeline of when rocks were formed and when they shifted in the plates. These instruments told them the rock’s magnetic history — the most stable bit being when the rock formed, which was 3.2 billion years ago.
The team then used their data and data from other researchers, who have demagnetized rocks in nearby areas, to date when the rocks shifted from one point to another. They found a drift of 2.5 centimeters a year.
Fu and Brenner’s work differs from most studies because the scientists focused on measuring the position of the rocks over time while other work tends to focus on chemical structures in the rocks that suggest tectonic movement.
Researchers used the novel Quantum Diamond Microscope to confirm their findings. That instrument images the magnetic fields and particles of a sample. It was developed in a collaboration between researchers at Harvard and MIT.
In the paper, the researchers point out they weren’t able to rule out a phenomenon called “true polar wander.” It can also cause the Earth’s surface to shift. Their results lean more toward plate tectonic motion because of the time interval of this geological movement.
Fu and Brenner plan to keep analyzing data from the Pilbara Craton and other samples from around the world in future experiments. A love of the outdoors drives both of them, and so does an academic need to understand the Earth’s planetary history.
“This is part of our heritage,” Brenner said.
This research was supported by the National Science Foundation
Image by Alec Brenner, Harvard University
By Clea Simon, Harvard Correspondent
The late Massachusetts congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill once famously declared, “All politics is local.”
Much the same could be said about climate activism.
Take the Arctic Initiative, a joint project of the Environment and Natural Resources Program and the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which leans on local expertise for a wide array of potential policy solutions.
Such efforts are vital, said Halla Hrund Logadóttir, a fellow in the Environment and Natural Resources Program and a co-founder of the initiative, because of the broad ramifications of climate change on the lives of Arctic peoples, and the world. As polar ice melts ever faster, raising sea levels and changing weather patterns worldwide, “What happens in the Arctic absolutely does not stay in the Arctic,” she said.
But even as traditional modes of life are being altered, perhaps irrevocably, new avenues of commerce and exploration are opening up. Once-ice-bound sea-lanes are now navigable, and the Arctic’s vast mineral resources are increasingly accessible, presenting new opportunities and dangers for the fragile ecosystem and the people who live there.
“Coming from a small community in Iceland, I knew how difficult it is to try to solve these big questions on your own,” said Logadóttir. “Through the lens of the Arctic Initiative, we are looking at how do we do this right. We are trying, through our research programs and education, to improve knowledge and science and to feature knowledge and science in our decision-making.”
As a first step, Henry Lee, who co-leads the initiative with Logadóttir and John P. Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy, asked: “How can you leverage local knowledge and advance ideas that are helpful?”
While Harvard can share its policy know-how, working with communities on everything from how best to craft strategies and statements to modeling different approaches to problem-solving, local input is vital. Lee, who is also the Jassim M. Jaidah Family Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program, gave the example of a beautifully engineered sustainable energy project — “a really great windmill” — that looked perfect on paper but failed to consider actual Arctic conditions. “If you try to put it up in Alaska, the wires freeze and the gears freeze,” he said. “You need a different kind of engineering.”
Joel Clement, an Arctic Initiative senior fellow, focuses on resilience. An associate with the Stockholm Environment Institute and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Clement, who served in the Department of the Interior for seven years, is currently working closely with the Sustainable Development Working Group of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of indigenous peoples, on such issues as food security, health, and community well-being. “We’re doing research at Harvard into how does governance affect resilience and how can we improve investment in resilient practices at the community level,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re engaging fully with indigenous people in the North.”
With such collaboration in mind, the initiative has multiple cooperative projects underway, bringing together Harvard students and indigenous youth around the world and working with groups like the Association of World Reindeer Herders on specific concerns.
That association, which is currently largely chaired by the Saami people of Sweden, includes herders from across the region. Despite their shared concerns, however, even within this group issues vary. “The ramifications of climate change on folks who are in Northern Siberia are slightly different from those in Sweden,” said Brittany Janis, project coordinator for the Arctic Initiative. “They have a very deep understanding of their local work and their local needs. Our goal is to give local leaders who already have so much knowledge some more tools and skill sets.”
Last fall, the initiative invited indigenous female leaders from across the region to Harvard. Gunn-Britt Retter, head of the Arctic and Environmental Unit of the Saami Council; Deenaalee Hodgdon, Brown University student and indigenous activist, a Deg Hit’an Athabaskan and Sugpiaq woman from the villages of Anvik and South Naknek, Alaska; and Raina Thiele, a former Obama official who focused on tribal governments and climate and arctic issues and is founder and president of Thiele Strategies. She was born and raised in Alaska and is Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ikas, all met with students and joined Clement in a public forum on how their communities are adapting to climate change.
Other events, including a workshop on “Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean,” have brought together a diverse array of participants, from academics to the corporate world, as well as representatives from indigenous peoples and governments from the eight Arctic nations, and observers.
The initiative is also laying the groundwork for ongoing ventures. In her course “Policy and Social Innovations for a Changing Arctic,” now in its second year, Logadóttir introduces students to the concerns of the region. “How do we make sure we are responding to these changes in a sustainable way?”
In the process, she teaches the class of 15 that the theory must remain connected to the reality of the locality it is meant to serve. Working on project “challenges,” which range from fire and forestry issues to renewable energy, she focuses on the necessity of collaboration. “The students work with mentors from the Arctic on an idea that can help solve one of the Arctic challenges.”
Although a trip to Greenland planned for this spring has been moved online, Logadóttir sees this as a positive. “It’s even better now we’re doing it all online,” she said. “We’re meeting with Greenlandic leaders. Students are meeting their peers in Greenland. This is a huge opportunity.”
By Leah Burrows, SEAS Communications
On April 16th, the Trump administration gutted a key component of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), a set of regulations designed to compel the country’s oil-and-coal-fired power plants to cut emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. The administration determined that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury under the Clean Air Act and that the costs of doing so would far outweigh the public health benefits.
However, environmental scientists and public health experts disagree with that rationale. There is strong evidence that rolling back mercury regulations will cost billions of dollars and will have a sweeping impact on public health in the United States, especially in the country’s most vulnerable communities.
We spoke with Elsie Sunderland, the Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Chemistry at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) about the impact of this decision.
By Jeff Neal
In the weeks leading up to Earth Day 2020, clear blue skies broke out over famously smog-ridden cities like Beijing, Los Angeles, and Delhi. Harvard Law School Professor Jody Freeman LL.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’95 believes these short-term gains in air quality, likely driven in part by economic slowdowns necessitated by the global pandemic, are no panacea for the environment. Instead, says the Archibald Cox Professor of Law and founding director of the Harvard Law School Environmental & Energy Law Program, the nation’s lack of preparedness for the coronavirus only highlights the need for a long-term climate change strategy.
In an email conversation with Harvard Law Today, Freeman, who served in the White House as counselor for energy and climate change in the Obama administration, discusses the progress the nation has made in protecting the environment since Earth Day was founded in 1970, the Trump administration’s efforts to undo Obama-era federal climate regulations, and COVID-19’s urgent lessons for the planet’s health.
By Colleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer
There are few more vivid examples that show how falling carbon emissions can drastically reduce the air pollution fueling global warming than the clearer skies above scaled-back cities around the world during the coronavirus pandemic.
In an announcement Tuesday, Harvard signaled its expanding commitment to cleaner skies, targeting climate change through a new pledge to reduce emissions by monitoring its investment portfolio. Describing climate change as “a defining issue of our time,” Harvard President Larry Bacow said the University is setting a goal to have the endowment reflect “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That would match the timeline set by the Paris Agreement, an international compact designed to stem the continuing rise in global temperature. The net-zero pledge is a first among U.S. endowments.
“With this commitment, our focus is on reducing the demand for fossil fuels, an action that is consistent with the University’s overall commitment to reduce our operational carbon footprint,” said Bacow. “It will require us to work with other investors to develop tools to monitor the carbon footprint of our investment managers. If we are successful, we will reduce the carbon footprint of our entire investment portfolio and achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions.”
The net-zero goal involves man-made greenhouse-gas emissions being canceled out by efforts to remove them from the atmosphere. Harvard Management Company (HMC), which administers the endowment, plans to reach that goal through a process involving collaboration with faculty and other experts to calculate emissions, and careful work with asset managers to examine their portfolio’s transparency and emission levels. The Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body, which approved the new standard — asked HMC for an update by year’s end to outline how it plans to achieve net-zero emissions.
The announcement was welcomed by environmental experts across the University, who praised the plan.
Harvard government Professor Dustin Tingley called the move a “proactive decision” that “lays a clear path toward an ambitious goal, and does so in a way that recognizes the many partners that we will need in order to make a transition.”
“It also, appropriately, puts a focus on reducing fossil-fuel demand rather than narrowly focusing on companies and communities that have powered our country for many years,” added Tingley, who has researched global climate technologies and policies. “This will set up many opportunities for research, not just in the sciences but also in fields like economics and political science.”
“In my judgment, this is an important step by Harvard,” said Robert Stavins, A. J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, “because President Bacow has offered what can be a very sensible and truly effective way forward for the University to play a leadership role in addressing the threat of global climate change through its core functions of research and education, as well as through initiatives to reduce Harvard’s own use of fossil fuels. The strategy described by President Bacow will cover Harvard’s entire investment portfolio, and in so doing will focus both on the demand for fossil fuels as well as the supply. That is exceptionally important.”
The announcement followed this week’s creation of a Presidential Committee on Sustainability, which will advise Bacow and other University leaders by creating a comprehensive sustainability vision. The committee, co-chaired by Rebecca Henderson, the John and Natty McArthur University Professor; John Holdren, the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard Kennedy School; and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp, will draw on Harvard’s vast knowledge and expertise to develop solutions for energy and emissions reduction, around both the University and the world.
“We encourage our students, researchers, faculty, as well as staff, to use the campus and surrounding community as a living lab to test exciting ideas and pilot promising new solutions to real-world challenges threatening the global health of people and the planet,” Lapp said.
The University’s new pledge aligns with HMC’s sustainable-investing framework, which was adopted in 2014 when Harvard signed on to the U.N.-sponsored Principles for Responsible Investment, a six-point outline for a global standard. Harvard’s framework factors a range of environmental, social, and governance factors into its investment decisions.
During his presidency, Bacow has engaged with Harvard faculty and students interested in combating climate change, including through having the endowment divest from any holdings in the fossil-fuel industry. In February, professors in the University’s largest School passed a resolution calling for divestment.
In a new letter to Dean Claudine Gay of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Bacow said the Harvard Corporation’s decision was a more effective approach to ensuring climate health than divestment would be, enabling the University to continue working with partners committed to “transitioning to carbon neutrality and to funding research on alternative fuels and on strategies to decarbonize the economy.”
“If we are to develop a productive path forward, we and others will need to work with these companies, recognizing our dependence on their products for the foreseeable future, the nature of the assets under their control, and the special knowledge and expertise they possess,” he wrote. “Any effort to put a price on carbon — to offer just one example — will require an inclusive coalition of shareholders, governments, and other stakeholders. Meaningful change cannot begin with a symbolic act that disregards these realities.”
The new recommendations build on years of efforts to address climate change and sustainability at the University and beyond. “Harvard’s pledge today supplements our many ongoing efforts to prepare for and accelerate the necessary transition to a fossil-fuel-free economy,” Bacow said in Tuesday’s announcement.
The University has made a number of moves toward environmental protection in the past. During the administration of Bacow’s predecessor, Drew Faust, the University formalized the Office for Sustainability and created its first sweeping goal to reduce on-campus greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent, which was achieved in 2016. In 2018, Faust announced a new climate action plan calling for campus operations to be fossil fuel-neutral by 2026, and fossil-fuel-free by 2050.
In 2004, then-President Larry Summers established a University committee to recommend a policy on sustainability, which led to adoption of campus-wide sustainability principles. His predecessor, Neil Rudenstine, backed the Green Campus Initiative, which became the expanded Office of Sustainability. Ten years earlier, Derek Bok fostered the environment that led to creation of the Center for the Environment, a faculty collaboration across Harvard Schools on research and education.
Each academic year, HUCE features an environmentally-themed artist, exhibiting their work in the lounge and inviting them to give a public seminar. By sharing these inspiring artists’ work, we hope to spark conversation and explore new perspectives on the topics that underline our community. In this third year, we are excited to have Meghann Riepenhoff, a photographic artist whose work investigates our relationships to the landscape, the sublime, time and impermanence, and the role that photography plays in shaping our experiences of these universal forces. In her cyanotypes, she applies old photo techniques in new ways, engaging dynamic photographic materials in the environment. Much of her work revolves around an unusual kind of self-portraiture: photographs of the ocean, made by the ocean. The process involves taking the light-sensitive paper with cyanotype emulsion and plunging it into the water, exposing it to the elements, and producing incredible patterns and textures, creating a previously uncaptured perspective of the landscape.
In her own words, Riepenhoff describes the selections from two of her series, Littoral Drift and For Anna:
Littoral Drift, a geologic term describing the action of wind-driven waves transporting sand and gravel, consists of camera-less cyanotypes made in collaboration with the landscape and the ocean, at the edges of both. The elements that I employ in the process—waves, rain, wind, and sediment—leave physical inscriptions through direct contact with photographic materials. Photochemically, the pieces are never wholly processed; they will continue to change over time in response to environments that they encounter. As part of the larger project, I selectively re-photograph moments in the evolution of the images, to generate a series of static records of a transitory process. Entitled Continua, the progressive images are shown as polyptychs. Perhaps where the fugitive cyanotypes are analogies for a terrifyingly fleeting and beautiful existence, the process of re-photographing them is a metaphor for the incorporation and mediation of photography in the contemporary human experience.
For Anna is in homage to Anna Atkins, an amateur botanist who is most known for her cyanotype photograms of algae specimen, these works are camera-less cyanotypes made at the shoreline, where algae and debris from the landscape adhere to the photographic materials.
Riepenhoff’s work has been exhibited and is held in the collections at the High Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), and the Worcester Art Museum. Additional collections include the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which holds Riepenhoff’s 12’x18’ unique cyanotype. Additional exhibitions include Yossi Milo Gallery, Jackson Fine Art, Galerie du Monde, Euqinom Projects, the Aperture Foundation, San Francisco Camerawork, the Denver Art Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston).
Publications include ArtForum, Aperture PhotoBook Review, The New York Times, Time Magazine Lightbox, Wallstreet Journal, The Guardian, Oprah Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, Wired Magazine, and Photograph Magazine. Her first monograph Littoral Drift + Ecotone was published by Radius Books and Yossi Milo Gallery.
Riepenhoff is the recipient of a Fleishhacker Foundation grant, residencies at the Banff Centre, Rayko, and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and an affiliate studio award at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She is a 2018-2019 Guggenheim Fellow.
Riepenhoff is based in Bainbridge Island, WA and San Francisco, CA. She received a BFA in Photography from the University of Georgia, and an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute.
Learn more about Reipenhoff, her methods, and medium:
The Harvard University Center for the Environment extends a warm welcome to the 2020 class of Environmental Fellows: Vinicius de Aguiar Furuie, Meir Alkon, John Philbin, and Agnes E. Thorarinsdottir. These fellows will join a group of remarkable scholars who will be beginning the second year of their fellowships. Together, the Environmental Fellows at Harvard will form a community of researchers with diverse backgrounds united by intellectual curiosity, top-quality scholarship, and a drive to understand some of the most important environmental challenges facing society.
VINICIUS de AGUIAR FURUIE
Faculty Advisor: Bruno Carvalho and Ajantha Subramanian
PhD: Sociocultural Anthropology, Princeton University
Vinicius de Aguiar Furuie is an anthropologist researching Amazonian river trade among riverside populations affected by climate change and large-scale infrastructure projects.
Vinicius earned a BA in Journalism from the University of Sao Paulo and an MA in Cultural Studies from the University of Tokyo, where he wrote an ethnography on post-Fukushima antinuclear social movements. He received a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Princeton University with a dissertation based on 20 months of fieldwork conducted with "regatão" river traders of the Xingu basin, in the Eastern Brazilian Amazon. His fieldwork was based in Altamira, the main site of recently built Belo Monte dam and a current hotspot of logging and forest fires. He studies local understanding of economic morality in communities that exchange non-timber forest products such as Brazil nuts, rubber, and medicinal oils for industrial goods.
As an Environmental Fellow, Vinicius will work with host Professor Bruno Carvalho and co-host Professor Ajantha Subramanian on the importance of local categories of moral exchange for public policy design, as well as registering the impact of dam construction on Amazonian urban populations.
Faculty Advisor: Dustin Tingley
PhD: Politics, Princeton University
Meir Alkon researches political economy with a focus on the politics of large-scale energy and economic transitions.
Meir received his PhD jointly from Princeton’s Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and he earned his BA from Stanford University. His research bridges political economy and interdisciplinary approaches to public policy, analyzing the behavioral and institutional foundations of environmental and economic governance. Meir’s research has been published in journals including The Journal of Politics, World Development, Energy Policy, Studies in Comparative International Development, Economics and Politics, Energy Research & Social Science, and Energy for Sustainable Development.
As an Environmental Fellow, Meir will examine the political drivers and environmental impacts of China’s overseas energy investments, including through the Belt and Road Initiative.
School: John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Faculty Advisor: Prineha Narang
PhD: Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley
John Philbin works at the intersection of theoretical chemistry, condensed matter physics, and computational material science to understand and develop the next generation of nanomaterial-based technologies.
John earned a BA and an MS in Biochemistry and Chemistry, respectively, from The University of Pennsylvania in 2014. Following graduation, John transitioned from experimental chemistry to theoretical and computational chemistry by studying catalytic reactions involved in biofuel production at The Institute of High Performance Computing in Singapore. He then moved to Professor Eran Rabani’s research group at UC Berkeley where he completed his PhD in Chemistry in 2020. John’s PhD focused on developing and applying atomistic electronic structure methods to nanomaterials to elucidate the underlying physics that control the efficiency of nanomaterial-based solar cells, lasers, light-emitting diodes, and photocatalysts. John has co-authored many peer-reviewed publications and illuminated influential structure-function relationships of nanomaterials. John also turned these relationships into basic design principles to accurately predict and understand the efficiencies of nanomaterials.
As an Environmental Fellow, John will work with Assistant Professor Prineha Narang from the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. John and Prineha plan to explore how light-matter interactions in nanomaterials can be understood and utilized to rationally design novel nanodevices.
Department: Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Faculty Advisor: Daniel Nocera
PhD: Chemistry, Northwestern University
Agnes Thorarinsdottir is an inorganic chemist studying the physical and chemical properties of metal catalysts that facilitate the conversion of solar energy to chemical fuels under environmentally benign conditions.
Agnes earned a BS in Chemistry from the University of Iceland in 2015 and a PhD in Chemistry from Northwestern University in 2019. Her doctoral work focused on manipulating the electronic structure of transition metal-based molecular compounds to design bioresponsive magnetic resonance imaging contrast agents and to elucidate design principles for molecule-based magnets with high operating temperatures. While at Northwestern, she served as the president of the Northwestern’s Chemistry Honor Society Phi Lambda Upsilon and the vice president of the student-led safety organization Research Safety Student Initiative, which she co-founded.
As an Environmental Fellow, Agnes will work with Professor Daniel Nocera from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Their work will focus on developing new sustainable catalysts for the solar-driven splitting of natural water into oxygen and hydrogen and using spectroscopic techniques to study their electronic structures in operando conditions.
By Marina N. Bolotnikova
Last summer—seemingly a lifetime ago—the news was dominated by reports of the escalation of human-created fires in the Amazon rainforest. For many readers, the Amazon fires brought awareness not just of the immense suffering deforestation inflicts on the people and animals who live there, but also of tropical rainforests’ role in maintaining a stable climate for the planet. Tropical forests hold about 25 percent of the world’s carbon in their trees and other plant species; when they’re burned, all of that carbon is emitted into the atmosphere—and all of the vegetation that acted as “carbon sinks” to absorb carbon disappears. Without rainforests, climate scientists warn, the global-warming consequences could be catastrophic.
Yet rainforest destruction continues unabated, not just in the South American Amazon, but also in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, to clear land for the cultivation of beef, timber, and oil crops like soy and oil palm. And deforestation doesn’t just impact species on the tracts that are directly burned—it’s also harmful to neighboring forestland still left standing in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand. In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Elsa Ordway, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and co-author Greg Asner of Arizona State University mapped and measured these “edge effects” on rainforests that border oil-palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo. Forestland that was within about 100 meters of a boundary with a plantation, they found, showed a 22 percent decline in above-ground carbon compared to forest interiors, reflecting a reduced ability for trees there to store carbon.
By Clea Simon, Harvard Correspondent
Must we go nuclear to go green? What will be the trade-offs — and the risks — if we do? These were the central questions Monday night, as former Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz and former Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan B. Poneman ’78, J.D. ’84, discussed “Nuclear Energy: Climate and the Bomb” at an Institute of Politics Forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In a wide-ranging conversation, moderated by Meghan O’Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, viability and safety as well as expedience and practicality were all on the table.
“We’ve had good news on the cost of renewable energy,” said O’Sullivan in her introduction. “But there’s a growing realization that the nature and the scope of the crisis demands more.”
Tackling the topic first, Moniz agreed. “Even in the four-plus years since [the global] Paris [Agreement on climate],” he said, “the challenge has been recognized as much greater” than was once thought. Growing evidence, he said, has shown that slowing carbon emissions will not suffice to halt climate change. “We see increasingly now it’s got to be net zero emissions,” which requires carbon removal as well.
Current renewable energy technology is simply not up to the task, both speakers agreed. Although Moniz cited improvements in batteries to store energy from renewables, he noted that they currently only focus on hours of storage. With energy sources like solar or wind varying drastically from summer to winter and hydroelectric potentially vulnerable to drought, “you’d better figure out seasonal storage,” he said.
Nuclear, which is carbon-neutral, is one answer. “Is it essential? No,” said Moniz. “I can think of other ways around it. But does nuclear help a solution enormously? Yes.”
Poneman made the point more forcefully. “You can take all the wind and all the solar you want, and it’s not going to solve the problem,” he said. “We’ve got to get out of the zero-sum game where renewables push out nuclear.”
With public concerns about safety, particularly in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, both acknowledged that security and reliability are essential to winning public support. However, said Poneman, new technologies may show a way forward. He cited new reactor designs that use safer substances such as molten salts, liquid metals, or gas as coolants and liquid fuels that expand if they overheat, “passively shutting themselves down.” Additional safety features like off-site electricity would specifically avoid what happened in Japan, he said.
Such new reactors would likely be smaller and modular, constructed in manufacturing facilities as opposed to being built on site. Such construction would assure quality, said Moniz. However, both explained, they would need to prove their commercial viability to move forward. This, said, Poneman, would require a “public-private partnership.”
“We’ve got to be pragmatic and build coalitions,” added Moniz. “We’ve got to get away from the rigidity of ‘I’ve got the answer.’”
The stakes, both stressed, are high, in part because any talk about nuclear energy not only takes into consideration global safety, but also touches on the possibility that the enrichment process used for nuclear fuels can be a cover for additional enrichment to produce weapons. The ideal, said Moniz, would be for all countries seeking assistance in developing nuclear power programs to enter agreements like the one between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, in which the UAE agreed never to seek to enrich its own fuel.
However, both noted this kind of treaty is not likely. Because the U.S. is no longer the sole provider of nuclear reactors or fuel, “we cannot call the shots,” said Poneman. “If we say no, they can go to Korea or France or Russia or China.”
That does not mean there is no international consensus, said Moniz. Even with the U.S. pulling out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal, he said, Tehran is still allowing verification by IAEA inspectors. “Iran recognizes that the foundation of the international community having confidence that they are not doing a weapons program relies on them staying with that,” he said. [The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Iran is dramatically ramping up production of enriched uranium after the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to abandon the accord, the IAEA confirmed in a report that also criticized Tehran for blocking access to suspected nuclear sites.]
Perhaps a way forward, Moniz suggested, would be to urge other advanced nuclear powers to adopt the “gold standard” of the U.S.-UAE agreement and, when that isn’t feasible, focus on verification. Enforcing these standards, said Poneman, calls for the U.S. to reconsider nuclear as a global reality, and to resume our role in its development. “If you care about nuclear safety and you care about nuclear security, you have to want U.S. leadership,” he said.
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