Over 100 climate leaders, advocates, and eager learners from around the world gathered at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) campus for the first Harvard Climate Forum (HCF). Organized by the Professional and Lifelong Learning team at Harvard and supported by The Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, this one-day forum also brought together faculty from six of Harvard’s schools (Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), SEAS, Harvard Business School (HBS), Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Law School, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health) for interactive presentations and collaborative group work, all with one common goal in mind: sharing ideas, resources, and expertise to work towards climate change solutions.

“We’ve brought together faculty from across the university because we realize that if you’re going to do justice to the challenges of climate change, you need to have insights from all of these perspectives and schools,” said Joe Aldy, a professor of the practice of public policy at HKS. “Being able to bring together both the insights from our scholarship and the insights from our engagement in the real world enables us to effectively tie together a really coherent program for the participants in the HCF, so that they can take away energy, insights and tools to go drive change in the corner of the world in which they operate.”

Aldy was central to the organization of the HCF from the start, and his presentation, “Frameworks for Addressing Climate Change: Information, Incentives, and Institutions,” sparked passionate engagement throughout the room regarding how the participants can effectively incentivize their own organizations to be part of climate solutions.

Peter Tufano, Joe Aldy, Joseph Allen, Bridget Terry Long, and Carrie Jenks.
Peter Tufano, Joe Aldy, Joseph Allen, Bridget Terry Long, and Carrie Jenks.

Aldy was joined by his colleagues Bridget Terry Long, dean of the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning, Harvard University; Carrie Jenks, executive director of the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School, who presented “The Basics of Climate Change: What to Know to Be ‘Action-Ready’”; Peter Tufano, Baker Foundation Professor at HBS, who presented “Collaboration for Change,” and  Joseph Allen, assistant professor in environmental health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The forum was preceded by a networking event where attendees heard from David Hwang, dean for research at SEAS, Steven Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science at SEAS, who presented “Modeling the Impact of Climate Change,” and Heather Henriksen, chief sustainability officer at the Harvard Office for Sustainability, who presented “Addressing Climate, Equity, and Health at Harvard.” Participants were also given tours of the Science and Engineering Complex, built in 2020 and engineered to minimize energy consumption.

The impact of uniting faculty climate experts from so many areas across the University was significant, and an undisputed highlight was the panel discussion featuring Aldy, Long, Allen and Jenks, moderated by Tufano, where they tackled questions including what options they see as the most fruitful in terms of climate action and how we can present a clear narrative about the positive impacts of these possible levers. Their answers prompted an enthusiastic back and forth between the panelists and the participants, who were excited to share their own learnings from their day-to-day work. 

Joe Aldy.

“When we think about the challenges of climate change, there’s a role for everybody.”

Joe Aldy

Just as the participants were able to converse in real time with the faculty panel, they will also be able to take their learnings from the HCF and apply them to their work and organizations immediately, which was a primary goal in the creation of event. “The Professional and Lifelong Learning alumni population enables faculty research to move from academia to the real world—we wanted to activate that very large community,” said Debra Iles, senior associate dean for Executive Education at HKS and a leader of the HCF’s planning committee. “We teach leadership at HKS Executive Education, and when you really start to understand the implications of climate change and the timeframes we’re dealing with, it seems obvious that we need to address this topic. There is a real sense of urgency.”

The HCF was also a product of the groundbreaking work of The Salata Institute For Climate and Sustainability at Harvard University, which was established in 2022 and seeks to “develop and promote durable, effective, and equitable solutions to the climate change challenges confronting humanity.” The success of their Harvard Climate Action Week in May 2023 made it evident that there was a need for more events focusing on the challenges of climate change, and the Professional and Lifelong Learning community presented an exciting opportunity to quickly implement the ideas via the Harvard Climate Forum. 

The various ways in which the attendees plan to take their learnings back to their daily work are nothing short of inspiring. Shawn P. Mobley, president and chief operating officer of U.S. Clean Energy, plans to reapproach his company’s narrative: “Clean energy is our core business. However, I know we can tell our story better—better explain why we do what we do. Memorable climate story telling is hard. This forum refocused my effort to improve our internal and external measurements and messaging.”  

Hsuan Lillian Labowsky, a chemistry and physics teacher at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, will be bringing her new knowledge directly back to her students. “I intend to make climate change a major focus of our Applied Engineering Club. The information I gathered from the forum will help my students better understand the critical/complex nature of climate change and will motivate them to think about and develop their own innovative solutions. I also hope to take advantage of offers of mentorship from several of the attendees I met.”   

Hamzah Mazari, chief strategy officer and head of investor relations at GFL Environmental Inc., left with a stronger ability to communicate with his shareholders. “This forum really gave me the knowledge to translate some of the more technical aspects of climate policy in a way that public equity investors can understand since they often do not have time to dig deep enough on the intricacies of climate issues.”

Members of the Harvard Climate Forum planning committee
Members of the Harvard Climate Forum planning committee: Jolene Lehr (SEAS), Nicole Bryant (HLS), Cathy Chute (SEAS), Jonathan Lehrich (GSE), and Deb Iles (HKS)

Another goal of the HCF was to have not just climate experts in attendance, but also what Iles called “the climate curious,” meaning energized and informed professionals in non-climate-specific roles who want to be a part of the solution, but aren’t quite sure how. The result was a diverse list of participants from all over the occupational world, from nonprofits to finance to political representatives to public school educators. As Mobley put it, “The participants were really a revelation. I met professionals from across the world, many of whom I know I will stay in contact with for years to come.”

Aldy summarized this idea by saying, “When we think about the challenges of climate change, there’s a role for everybody. What’s exciting about the HCF is that we’ve drawn representatives of virtually every industry and from countries around the world. That’s important because as we try to drive change, we’re going to need to push action through every sector of our economies, exploit every potential opportunity through governments at the local and all the way to the international level, and think about ways we collaborate across those sectors, across businesses, as well as engaging the nonprofit and for-profit sectors to be constructive in their efforts.”

The responsibility of their roles was well understood by all in attendance at the HCF, and their enthusiasm and energy to tackle the climate challenges at hand was palpable. Thanks to the work and engagement of the faculty from so many different areas of the Harvard campus, there are now over 100 climate advocates who are more prepared to bring action and solutions to their communities and organizations.

Photos by Martha Stewart

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.