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Bacow and John Kerry Discuss Global Energy Transition at Inaugural Harvard Climate Symposium

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Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry discussed the global climate crisis with outgoing University President Lawrence S. Bacow at the inaugural Harvard Climate Symposium on Tuesday.

The Harvard Climate Symposium, sponsored by the recently formed Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, took place at Harvard Business School and included three other panel discussions centered around the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions across academia, industry, government, and civil society.

The symposium is part of Harvard Climate Action Week, running from May 8–12 and featuring programming from more than eight of Harvard’s schools, including Harvard Law School, the Kennedy School, and the School of Public Health.

It also marks the first major event of the Salata Institute’s Climate Action Accelerator, a nonpartisan platform supporting research and discussions on climate-related issues.

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During the talk, Kerry discussed the responsibility of countries with larger economies to “lead the way” in the energy transition, noting that “there are 20 nations in the world responsible for 76 percent or so of all emissions on the planet.”

“The United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, the EU, UK — they’re actually pursuing real plans to keep the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees,” Kerry said. “The problem is China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and others are not yet there.”

“Our challenge is to bring them on board as fast as we can to help them, to be able to reduce those emissions at a pace that matches the 1.5 degree demand,” he added.

When asked about the recent U.S. endorsement of the COP27 Loss and Damage Fund, through which countries responsible for the largest carbon emissions will provide financial assistance to vulnerable countries suffering from climate impacts, Kerry said “failure is not an option.”

“This is a matter of global equity and fairness. It’s a matter of environmental justice. We have a big responsibility,” he said.

But Kerry emphasized that the responsibility for climate action is not solely held by the U.S. and includes other nations that may also have large economies.

“We believe that a lot of this fight is going to center around, ‘Will some of those nations accept responsibility to share this burden?’” he said.

Despite questions about the durability of the U.S.’s climate commitments, Kerry said he believes “there’s no way we’re going backwards.”

“The global economy has made this decision, and it’s more powerful than any politician,” he said.

Bacow noted the role of the private sector in driving change in the climate crisis.

“Much of the drive for change in this country with respect to policy and climate change is actually not, at this point, coming from the government,” he said. “It’s actually coming from the private sector, from industry that, as you say, has made the commitment and is pushing things forward.”

Following years of activism and public pressure, Harvard announced in 2021 that it would move to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. In years prior, Bacow had publicly opposed divestment.

When asked about what universities like Harvard should be doing in the face of the climate crisis, Kerry said “divestitures have been a big issue on the table.”

“You have enormous investment capacity, you have enormous ability to affect thinking about where other capital is going to go, where it ought to go. Every major institution faces this choice right now,” Kerry said.

“One of the things that we need to do is get the fossil fuel industry to be part of the solution, not a centerpiece of the problem,” he added.

—Staff writer Sabrina R. Hu can be reached at sabrina.hu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @sxbrinahhu.

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