Just last week, a University report called on Harvard to expand its climate change offerings by hiring new faculty and staff in the field and establishing a standing committee to direct the school’s efforts. This framing is apt, correctly recognizing Harvard’s unique place as an institution empowered with both teaching future leaders and setting national precedent for how other academic institutions should prepare their students for a rapidly warming world.
Yet, to truly make a difference, the quality of the University’s climate pedagogy must match the ambition of its investments.
This past June, Harvard announced its plans to use a recent $200 million donation to establish the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability. The magnitude of the investment, then, is there. But is the direction?
There are two dominant approaches to tackling climate change. The first strategy, mitigation, focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions today to minimize the adverse effects of global warming tomorrow. This approach is necessary. It is also privileged, favoring those communities that have already benefited from dirty development enough that they may shift their gaze from growth in the present to preservation for the future.
Conversely, the other approach — adaptation — shifts the focus to preparing countries for the current and future effects of climate change through preventative steps such as reducing disaster risk, ensuring access to freshwater supplies, and adjusting agriculture to include more drought-tolerant seeds. This is the most urgent task for the developing world: To find ways to cope with increasingly severe climate impacts that will hit them disproportionately hard.
In the fight against climate change at Harvard and beyond, however, there is a tendency to take “sustainability” to mean mitigation while losing track of the necessity for adaptation. This is a problem. According to the United Nations, striving for sustainability requires that we “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” When it comes to saving the world, mitigation and adaptation both play important roles. Yet, when it comes to Harvard’s climate offerings, the former clearly takes center stage.
Harvard currently offers a broad range of science and policy courses focused on mitigation from the perspectives of biological and physical science, Government, and Economics, among others. By contrast, just three Environment Science and Public Policy courses offered this year address the importance of adapting to the unique environmental challenges that climate change poses for the developing world. One, a junior seminar on “Addressing the Global Climate Crisis: Challenges for Both Developed and Developing Economies,” currently only includes 14 students. The other two, titled “Water Resources in Developing Countries” and “Solid Waste in Developing Countries,” respectively, seek to address narrow — albeit important — topics. This limited coverage cannot by itself provide students with a holistic, comprehensive picture of the many challenges climate change will pose to the developing world.
Adaptation, specifically focused on applications for the developing world, deserves a bigger slice of Harvard’s pedagogical pie. The cruel irony of the climate crisis — that developing countries have historically contributed the least to global warming but will suffer the most from its effects — makes this change a moral imperative.
Rich countries have built a hill atop colonialism, natural resource extraction, and environmental degradation. Now, we sit on it and look out at the horizon, watching the world below us burn. Learning about the ways that real human needs — from all corners of the globe — are harmed by a degrading environment is a fundamental precursor to building a more sustainable world. If Harvard truly wants to respond to offer a more comprehensive climate education, this is the philosophy that must pave the way.
Other universities are starting to step up to the plate. Yale, for instance, offers focus fields within an Environmental Studies major that allows students to explicitly study sustainable development or environmental justice. As more institutions of higher learning follow suit, Harvard’s choice to disregard these emerging fields will turn from oversight to negligence.
The recently-published University report is right: Harvard needs to expand its climate-related offerings. That involves vision as much as it involves resources. Hopefully, the new Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability will be a bold first step towards a sustainable world rather than just a sustainable Boston.
Climate change is a shared problem. Its solutions must be shared too.
Ella J. Deans ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House.