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We Feel the Heat

Harvard's Role Amid Climate Chaos

So, you’re lying in bed, your fresh, just-moved-in sheets drenched with sweat. Your table fan is on full blast, but that’s just blowing hot air around. Your neck is sticky, your lungs heavy with heat. You prop the door open to see if that will cool you down enough to focus on your homework.

Maybe you heard that on Sept. 7, our mayor declared a heat emergency in Boston, while students sweated through the first week of classes without a break. This blistering start to September is hardly surprising, after the hottest summer ever recorded in human history, a summer of wildfires and flash floods. If you were in the northeastern United States or Canada this summer, you probably remember the taste of ash in your throat, the sky turning yellow above you, the sun becoming a hazy dark red circle like a dying star.

But no matter where you live, you’ve likely been hearing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, the disaster projections, and the increasingly desperate scientists urging leaders to take immediate, drastic action on climate to preserve a livable world — action that leaders seem very slow in taking.

In short, you’re witnessing a crisis, and you’re scared. But from your University, the wealthiest university in the world, all you’ve received over the past week is an emailed reminder to “take precautions” in the heat.

The climate crisis is a vast, ever-growing problem, and Harvard has publicly committed to leadership in response to it. But what do these claims amount to? Harvard aims to become fossil-fuel-neutral by 2026, but its goal year to finally end reliance on fossil fuels is all the way in 2050. By that time, the effects of climate change will already be exposing over five billion people to a month or more of extreme, health-threatening heat outdoors each year. Where is the urgency?

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And in the here and now of a crisis that has already begun, what is Harvard doing to tangibly address what our community is going through? While administrators may spend the day in air-conditioned offices, the unrenovated student dorms provide undergraduates little respite from the baking sun — and, without recommendation and approval, undergraduates are even barred from installing air conditioners in their rooms.

Worse, dining hall workers are suffering unbearable heat in dish rooms and kitchens. Following student complaints, the administration finally took action last week — but that action was simply to close the dining halls and suggest putting out paper plates in lieu of washing dishes, sacrificing sustainability for a quick, cheap fix to an ever-growing problem.

Where is the acknowledgment that we’re in an emergency? The solution isn’t as simple as installing more air conditioning units or more solar panels. Addressing the climate crisis long-term will require transforming our buildings, our consumption, and our approach to energy.

This isn’t an easy task, but Harvard has a concentration of carefully curated talent on a campus with an endowment worth tens of billions of dollars. Is fossil-fuel-free by 2050 really the best we can do? Is paper plates in the face of abject working conditions really the best we can do?

Here’s the trouble: When the full impacts of the climate crisis are felt, when the trees in Boston wilt with summer heat in the fall, it isn’t Harvard administrators who will bear the brunt of it.

Outside this campus, developing nations will suffer so much more than anyone in the United States. But even here, it’s the teenaged freshmen who have just arrived on campus, the upperclassmen in older Houses without air conditioning, and, most of all, the dining hall workers who prepare our food day in and day out, who will first feel this heat.

Harvard needs to act now. My column will examine specific, immediate steps Harvard can take toward climate justice, but the first is very simple: Acknowledge the emergency.

Prioritize creating a new environment that is safe and healthy for the whole community. Give students breaks when heat advisories are declared. Devote substantial resources to providing cool spaces for students and workers. Ensure our health services — including mental health services — are at full capacity for students suffering through an ever-worsening crisis.

Treat this problem with the seriousness Harvard treated the pandemic back in 2020. I still remember when the entire student body was given five days to leave campus. Harvard can move that fast when it wants to.

If you’re a student struggling dizzily through your homework tonight, wiping sweat smudges from your glasses, scheming for ice packs to fold under your pillow, you have a right to be scared. What we’re experiencing is not normal.

But you have a right to be angry, too. You have a right to demand better from Harvard. We all have a right to a university that cares about us. As we sweat our way through September, Harvard would do well to acknowledge that right.

Phoebe G. Barr ’24 is a History and Literature concentrator in Lowell House. Her column, “Harvard's Role Amid Climate Chaos,” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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