A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

To the Members of the Harvard Kennedy School Community,

As I wrote to you last month, the terrible toll of climate change and environmental degradation is one of the profound public challenges being addressed by the Kennedy School’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Addressing this challenge is critical to our mission, and I want to update you on some of our activities in this area.

Climate change causes human deaths, destabilizes ecosystems, accelerates biodiversity loss, and damages economies. In addition, environmental damage from pollution, plastic waste, and deforestation harms human and ecosystem health. If our societies continue on their current paths, food and water scarcity, resource conflicts, displacement of vulnerable populations, spreading of diseases, and extreme weather events are predicted to become substantially worse in the years ahead. The unusually strong wildfires ravaging the world and the exceptionally active hurricane season in the Atlantic are just two warnings of what lies ahead unless societies change course. Moreover, the consequences of climate change and environmental damage are often borne disproportionately by people with low incomes and people who suffer from injustice of many sorts.

At the Kennedy School, we are committed to making people’s lives better by addressing public challenges—and therefore we have a moral responsibility to help make human activities sustainable. We are acting on this responsibility in two broad ways: We are improving our operational practices on campus to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impact; and we are teaching, conducting research, and engaging with public officials to better understand sustainability challenges and to develop fair and effective ways to address those challenges.

Our new website

Many of our activities are captured on a new website, Climate@HKS, which I encourage you to explore. This website is a public-facing digital resource that shows the people, programs, and actions related to climate change that are occurring across the Kennedy School.

Our operations on campus

wrote in February about our operational improvements to address sustainability, which we have continued to work on despite shifting to a mostly virtual school. We have been implementing upgrades throughout our buildings to reduce energy consumption, including new air handlers, consolidated chillers, improved insulation, more LED lights, and occupancy sensors, and the solar panels on the roofs of our Ofer, Wexner, and Rubenstein Buildings have been generating renewable energy throughout the year. In addition, the Plastics Reduction Working Group of faculty, students, and staff collaborated with our Planning and Operations department to develop approaches to reduce plastic waste on campus. 

Moreover, a group of our colleagues—with the support of the HKS Sustainability Leadership Council of faculty, staff, and students—have created a survey to determine the greenhouse gas emissions arising from air travel by faculty and staff for professional purposes. Such travel is important for our mission, but it generates a substantial carbon footprint that we need to understand better to inform our actions once widespread travel is possible again. If you are a faculty or staff member, you will see that survey soon, and we encourage you to fill it out. 

These actions alone will not solve the climate crisis, but we are working to make the kinds of on-campus changes that will not only contribute to Harvard’s goals of being fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050 but will benefit our planet and its inhabitants for generations to come.

Our teaching, research, and engagement

In recent years we have increased our teaching, research, and engagement with policymakers and public leaders on climate, sustainability, energy, and the environment.

Our students have asked for more climate-related courses at the Kennedy School, and this semester our faculty are responding with two new courses: IGA-402, “Confronting Climate Change: A Foundation in Science, Technology and Policy,” and IGA-408, “Climate Disruption: Emerging Topics in Policy, Politics, and Technology of Climate Change.” We have compiled more than a dozen of our courses related to climate and sustainability in a new Climate@HKS course guide that you can find on the website. In addition, interested students should explore further course offerings, at the Kennedy School and elsewhere at Harvard, through KNet, the Harvard Syllabus Explorer, and the Harvard University Center for the Environment Course Guide. We are pleased that we can provide support for some students who demonstrate a commitment to environmental issues via the Louis and Gabrielle Bacon Environmental Fellowship and the Roy Family Fellowship.

Through many projects carried out in our research centers, our faculty are conducting fundamental research and interacting with practitioners on a range of climate and sustainability issues. You can learn more at the Climate@HKS website, and I will mention some examples here. Henry Lee and Bill Clark lead our Environment and Natural Resources Program, based in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This program, along with our Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, led by John Holdren and Dan Schrag, runs the Arctic Initiative—which focuses on the effects of climate change on the Arctic region—in addition to other projects on climate policy, energy, and sustainability. Meghan O’Sullivan runs our Geopolitics of Energy Project, which investigates the relationships between international politics and energy demand and supply. Rob Stavins directs the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, the latter of which examines public policy options for addressing climate change. Joe Aldy leads research projects on climate change policy out of our Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. David Keith heads Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program. And Sheila Jasanoff leads our Science, Technology and Society program, which looks at, among other topics, the prospects of sustainability transformations in human use of the environment. 

These programs and projects often hold seminar series, lectures, and other events—some specifically for policymakers and experts, and others open to the Kennedy School community and the public. Our faculty members also share their expertise through blogs, podcasts, newspaper columns, and other media on a regular basis. 

Moreover, many alumni of the Kennedy School are actively involved in work on these issues. One example appeared in HKS Magazine last year, and a number of others will be featured in the next issue; we will also be adding to the new website a page that features alumni.

This work is urgently needed. Because of climate change and environmental degradation, millions of people around the world are suffering from extreme weather patterns, poor air quality, pollution in the oceans, and many other devastating phenomena. These problems will not go away on their own, and we have a moral responsibility to do our part—to apply all of the dedication and knowledge we can muster. I hope you will join this commitment.