By Kyle Green ’14, thurj Staff

The world is finally beginning to take climate change seriously with the advent of new energy-saving policies, a rise of awareness in the general public, and an increasing interest in environmental research. Harvard too has joined the effort to confront our environmental concerns. Together, administrators, faculty, and students have jointly shown a strong commitment to protect the environment from the smallest to the largest of scales. From the campus-wide initiatives by the Harvard Green-Living Representatives to the daily reminder on the projector screens to power down, it is nearly impossible to go through the day without being reminded of our commitment to be a community focused on conservation and environmental protection.

 Of course, while the Harvard community aims to conserve resources throughout our facilities, faculty and students alike are confronting some of the most pressing issues concerning the environment in modern times. With the onset of industrialization, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have continued to increase to dangerous levels. The release of greenhouse gases is accelerating the capture of heat and laying the foundation for greater obstacles in the years to come. Moreover, resources such as oil are becoming increasingly scarce, pollution remains a contaminant of our city streets, and cumbersome litigation is impeding essential progress. However, geologists, chemists, economists and other professionals are becoming increasingly concerned with the issues of global warming, pollution, conservation of resources, and energy policy. Together, these professionals aim to raise public awareness of global warming.

 What is Harvard doing about these issues?

At Harvard, students and faculty are taking steps and conducting research to ensure that these important issues are addressed. Harvard’s Center for the Environment, directed by Daniel Schrag, is at the forefront of these issues. Schrag is the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, the Director of the University Center for the Environment and Director of the Laboratory for Geochemical Oceanography at Harvard. Dr. Schrag also serves as an advisor to President Barack Obama on the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In an interview with thurj, Dr. Schrag spoke about the Harvard Center for the Environment and environmental issues as a whole.

 As director of the Center for the Environment, Schrag works to carry out the organization’s mission to encourage research and bolster education about the environment. The Center for the Environment donates thousands of dollars to bolster research opportunities throughout the college. This summer, the group plans to mete out a generous $60,000-$80,000 to undergraduates for research on environmental issues.

 With the pressing concerns of climate change, conservation, energy use, environmental degradation, overpopulation, pollution, resource depletion and more, it is difficult to prioritize their importance, even for knowledgeable environmentalists and environmental researchers. Upon inquiries about which environmental issues he believes are most salient, Dr. Schrag responded, “I think all of these environmental challenges are important, so it’s not that you try to prioritize one over the other. You need to think about all of them and this is one of the reasons why Harvard is so special.” Schrag continues, “We are one of the few universities in the world that has expertise across all the different disciplines required to tackle this problem.” With a world-class faculty concerned with the environment, ambitious and creative students, and the Center for the Environment, which aims to unite the Harvard community in a common goal, great progress will undoubtedly be made in the coming decades.

 Earth-friendly legislation

Of course, research alone cannot solve these environmental issues. Effective and bold legislation is needed in Washington to create a tangible impact and to begin to make progress. Many debates in Washington and in foreign governments revolve around energy policy and the potential dangers of global warming. Often, Washington seems reluctant to make energy policy a priority. Many would argue that this is due to a lack of public support, as many Americans remain skeptical of the reality of global warming. However, Dr. Schrag contends, “Surveys have shown that there is a general concern for the environment, but there isn’t a willingness to sacrifice money to pay for it. It is not that people are not concerned, they are. They just do not want to pay for it out of their own pockets.” Despite this reluctance, many investments are being made to help protect the environment and enforce laws that are already in place. Just recently, the Tennessee Valley Authority invested $3 to $5 billion on new pollution controls to correct Clean Air Act violations. This will prevent approximately 1,200 to 3,000 premature deaths, 2,000 heart attacks and 21,000 cases of asthma attacks each year.[1] With this type of legislation, the United States can set a standard for the world to follow.

 Prioritizing for the future

When President Obama swore his presidential oath in 2008, many environmental activists hoped that he would fight to pass legislation that would raise the price tag on carbon and begin putting incentives in place to decarbonize the energy system. The President signed an executive order committing the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2020. However, after inheriting two wars, facing a pressing financial crisis, and encountering difficulty when passing healthcare reform, it seemed impossible to make energy policy a top priority. “Some say that the president didn’t prioritize [energy policy] enough relative to heath care. That is a difficult judgment and I am not sure that I want to second guess his decision at the White House,” Schrag admitted. Although progress often seems to be moving slowly, Schrag maintains that there is hope. “We have to remember it’s a 100 year war and we lost some of the first battles, but that doesn’t mean we give up. Ultimately this is still a long, difficult issue and transforming America and the world’s energy issues is going to take a long time. But it is possible.” In essence, it is understandable that there is frustration with the pace of energy policy reform in Washington. However, as Dr. Schrag explains, when change is ready to be made in Washington it will happen quickly. Meanwhile, each one of us in the Harvard community needs to continue to support environmental research, continue to spread awareness about the issues, and continue fighting for the protection of our sensitive and fragile environment.

 


[1]. United States. EPA Landmark Clean Air Act Settlement. 2011. Web. 30 May 2011. <epa.gov>.

 

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