Confronting climate change from the factory, the classroom, and beyond

Harvard faculty at symposium on climate change, from left: Steven Wofsy, Karen Thornber, Laura Schifter, Tamarra James-Todd, Stephen Ansolabehere
Harvard faculty at symposium on climate change, from left: Steven Wofsy, Karen Thornber, Laura Schifter, Tamarra James-Todd, Stephen Ansolabehere

Faculty from multiple disciplines discuss challenges, solutions at symposium held as part of Harvard President Claudine Gay’s inauguration

October 3, 2023 – Tackling the consequences of climate change requires an all-hands-on-deck effort, drawing on expertise from a wide range of disciplines and people, according to a panel of Harvard University experts.

The group—including faculty in atmospheric science, education, the humanities, environmental health, and policy—gathered on September 29 at Harvard’s Jefferson Laboratory as part of events surrounding the inauguration of Claudine Gay as Harvard’s 30th president. Panelists touched on topics such as the ethics of climate change, how education systems can address the issue, how the manufacturing and use of consumer products contributes to the problem, and how to get people talking about thorny political issues surrounding climate.

The panel was moderated by Kari Nadeau, John Rock Professor of Climate and Population Studies, chair of the Department of Environmental Health, and interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Panelist Steven Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science, talked about his work on remote sensing technology to detect emissions of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. The technology has been able to provide images, taken from an airplane, showing locations and amounts of methane emissions, including from refining operations in Salt Lake City, Utah, gas processing facilities in Barstow, Texas, and livestock herds in Greeley, Colorado. Set to be launched into space next year, the technology will help show where and why emissions are occurring—both on a large and a small scale—and aid in efforts to reduce those emissions, Wofsy said.

The arts, humanities, and humanistic social sciences can make valuable contributions to climate discussions, including shedding light on the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change and climate change solutions, noted panelist Karen Thornber, Harry Tuchman Levin Professor in Literature and Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. These disciplines can also provide larger platforms to underserved communities, which typically suffer the severest impacts of climate change in spite of typically being least responsible for it.

Education is also an important area for climate action, according to Laura Schifter, lecturer on education. She highlighted recent climate change-related issues faced by schools, including September closures in cities like Milwaukee and Baltimore due to extreme heat. She added, “There is no path to decarbonization without getting K-12 schools on board.” She noted that the sector is one of the largest users of energy, from heating schools to gassing up diesel school buses to providing school meals. In addition, public schools can help educate kids about climate change. “We can teach them to be the leaders of tomorrow,” she said.

Tamarra James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler Associate Professor of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School, studies the health impacts of chemicals in consumer products. She discussed the life cycle of those products—including the extraction of chemicals from the environment, manufacturing processes that may pollute air and water, and waste generated by the products’ manufacture and use. “Even though it may not feel like consumer product chemicals have any implication for climate, they do,” she said, stressing the need to work with communities that are most impacted.

The nation’s deep divisions about the politics of energy and climate pose additional challenges, said Stephen Ansolabehere, Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government. He and colleagues are examining what the path forward is for states including Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, and New Mexico—all places with economies that rely on fossil fuel production and that may encounter tough times as the nation turns increasingly to electric energy. He added that auto-producing states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan may also face a challenge—workers who lose their jobs because electric cars won’t require as many workers as are needed to produce combustion vehicles.

Ansolabehere thinks that getting opposing groups to work together is key to addressing these issues. “What we’ve seen, again and again, is that companies are averse to engaging with communities,” he said. “Communities don’t trust the companies. Governments don’t feel that they should take sides. Right now we’re in a period of lack of engagement.” He said he’d like to see “a much more engaged conversation about these issues, because it’s the only way these problems are going to get solved.”

The panelists discussed other challenges. Wofsy noted that scientists need to learn how to successfully communicate their research to the world. James-Todd said she sees the need for academics to get out of their silos to have effective climate conversations. And Schifter said she sees a lack of awareness and knowledge about climate change among educators.

“Still far too many people see climate change as a separate issue and not an issue that they’re responsible for,” she said. “We’ve got to recognize that people in education probably did not have the opportunity to learn about climate change when they were in school. So that’s a whole bunch of people that we have to get to understand the fundamental basics of climate change. … We need people to understand in education that climate change is the context by which they are going to be doing their jobs, now and into the future.”

The panelists also offered some recommendations to President Gay. Thornber, for instance, said that Harvard should develop “a more robust formal and informal curriculum [on climate change] for our students at every stage, and in every school, and create more diverse research opportunities for students, staff, and faculty alike.” She also called for more collaboration with alumni in climate change fields, with external leaders in politics, business, and education, and with community leaders, activists, and creative individuals.

“Harvard occupies an outsized role in the public imagination,” she said. “We have a remarkable opportunity with President Gay as our leader not only to transform what we prioritize at Harvard, but to contribute to the transformations and thinking and action necessary to create a world of reduced climate crises and of greater equity in health, human and nonhuman alike.”

Karen Feldscher

photo: Jon Chase/Harvard University