fbpx The Arctic innovators: Bringing optimism and energy to conversations about the changing Arctic | Harvard Kennedy School

THERE’S MORE TO THE ARCTIC THAN THE LONELY POLAR BEAR on the shrinking ice floe. Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative is helping more people understand and confront the complex puzzles posed by climate change—from environmental to security to economic challenges. At the core of that effort is a program that both educates Harvard students and enlists their imagination in formulating creative solutions.

Halla Hrund Logadóttir MC/MPA 2017, who hails from Iceland, leads the Arctic Initiative at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. A concern with the lack of young and diverse voices in discussions about climate change in the Arctic, as well as the fact that these conversations often diagnose problems but only rarely suggest ways to address them, motivated Logadóttir to co-found the initiative while a student and Louis Bacon Environmental Leadership Fellow at the Kennedy School. One of the initiative’s principal components is the Arctic Innovators program. Now in its second year, the program includes a course, “Policy and Social Innovations for the Changing Arctic,” that Logadóttir teaches with John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy. Holdren and Henry Lee, senior lecturer in public policy and the Jassim M. Jaidah Family Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Belfer Center, serve as faculty directors of the Arctic Initiative.

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Halla Hrund Logadóttir MC/MPA 2017, co-founder and director of the Arctic Initiative

“At the Kennedy School, we ‘ask what you can do,” Logadóttir said. “It was important to me to get younger people involved in dialogues about the changing Arctic, but also to get them to think about solutions.” The Arctic is a more complex region than many people may realize, comprising parts of Alaska, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. And since rising temperatures and melting ice in the region have global repercussions, it is a bellwether for climate change around the globe. “What happens in the Arctic,” Logadóttir said, “does not stay in the Arctic.”

This fall, the Arctic Innovators course gave 24 Harvard students a unique chance not only to conceptualize a solution to a problem in the Arctic but also to travel to Reykjavik, Iceland, to pitch their ideas at the Arctic Circle Assembly, an annual gathering where scientists, policymakers, students, activists, and representatives of organizations from all over the world discuss the future of the region. The students in the course—who were paired with expert mentors—also pitched their ideas on campus and wrote op-eds.

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John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and co-director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program

What makes the Arctic Innovators course special is the way in which they harness “the skills and creativity of highly motivated graduate students to address Arctic challenges in imaginative new ways,” Holdren said. The ideas the students developed were wildly diverse, ranging from saving indigenous languages to studying waterways to generating renewable energy to safeguarding security.

Colleen Narlock MPP 2020 was interested in how to preserve medical knowledge as climate change affects biodiversity in the region. “Historically most of the medications that we use today come from discoveries in nature. For example, aspirin comes from the bark of a willow tree. For a majority of medications, that’s how these discoveries are made. I was concerned with how climate change is affecting biodiversity in the Arctic and our ability to discover medicines there,” she said. “My idea was to create a data bank: a giant library of information that can be used for decades to come even if plants and animals are no longer there or if they have changed.”

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(Clockwise from top left): 1. Fran Ulmer, a non-resident senior fellow with the Arctic Initiative 2.–3. An HKS delegation at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland 4. Students presenting ideas for a sustainable and secure Arctic at a campus event

With a background in environmental issues, Katie Segal MPP 2020, a Louis Bacon Environmental Leadership Fellow, was drawn to the course in part because of its regional focus. Her idea was to use biogas from sewage in the Arctic to create renewable energy. Segal’s favorite part of the course was pitching her idea at the Arctic Circle Assembly, where she had a chance to get feedback from engineers and have conversations about both the technical and policy aspects of her idea. “Having this shared experience with classmates in Reykjavik made the course special,” Segal said.

Patrick Lynch MC/MPA 2019, who spent eight years studying waterways in Patagonia, was interested in the human aspect of climate change in the Arctic. “There are 4 million people who live in the Arctic,” said Lynch, a Louis Bacon Environmental Leadership Fellow. “We need more people to care about the Arctic.” Lynch’s social innovation idea is to create films on Arctic rivers in order to get people to learn and care about issues in the region. He thinks it is especially important to know how to communicate these ideas to policymakers. “If you have an idea that can improve the world, how dare you keep it to yourself,” Lynch said.

Photo of the Arctic.

Alexander Zaytsev, a doctoral student in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of the course. Originally from Moscow, Zaytsev has a personal connection to the region: his uncle lives in the Russian Arctic. Zaytsev became interested in how natural gas that bubbles to the surface when oil is extracted could be put to good use. This so-called gas flaring is wasteful and is a public health and environmental concern, so Zaytsev is exploring ways that gas flares in the Russian Arctic might be used to generate electricity for local communities. “This has been done elsewhere,” Zaytsev said, “but it hasn’t been done much in Russia yet.”

These ideas were just a few of those proposed by the 24 Harvard students in the Arctic Innovators course. Logadóttir is enthusiastic about how the course will continue to develop in the next few years, along with the Arctic Initiative’s newly established research programs that focus on creating solutions for the changing Arctic. “Together,” Logadóttir said, “we can all move the needle a little bit.”

Additional photos by Jessica Scranton and Chris Marquardt