This article was originally published in the Harvard Gazette.
The recipients of the first grants awarded by Harvard’s Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability will tackle a range of climate change challenges, seeking to reduce future warming and assist those whose lives already have been affected by the crisis.
The grants to five research clusters, announced Monday, will provide more than $8.1 million over three years to projects that bring together 30 faculty members from disciplines spanning Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Kennedy School, the Graduate School of Design, the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
The projects will also engage with other institutions and organizations, including frontline groups in West Africa, India, and Bangladesh. Collaborators hail from the University of Lagos, the University of Ghana, South Africa’s MUHOLI Art Institute, BRAC University in Bangladesh, the University of California at Berkeley, and the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute in Gujarat, India.
Two projects focus on reducing warming, one by cutting emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane and the other by scrutinizing corporate net-zero emissions pledges. The remaining initiatives focus on addressing the consequences of climate change: sea level rise in West Africa; shifting rainfall patterns and drought in India and Bangladesh; and impacts on U.S. communities dependent on coal, oil, and gas extraction.
The Salata Institute launched in June and is supported by a $200 million gift from Melanie and Jean Salata. During the institute’s opening symposium in October, Jean Salata said he’s confident that the world will meet the climate change challenge, though the work will be difficult and require contributions from all aspects of society.
Jim Stock, Harvard’s vice provost for climate and sustainability and the director of the institute, said the five research clusters represent Salata’s mission to tackle climate change head-on and to focus on projects that will have meaningful impact.
“It is really exciting to see these teams come together across Harvard Schools to work on important, applied climate problems,” said Stock, who is also the Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy and a professor of public policy. “Ultimately, the mission of the Salata Institute is to make meaningful progress on urgent climate challenges — reducing tons of emissions and saving lives, if you will. Nearly every big climate problem spans School boundaries and this program provides Harvard scholars a chance to cross those boundaries as they work to have a major practical impact.”
Ensuring “net zero” is more than words
In recent years, global commitments to “net-zero” emissions have proliferated, with more than 8,300 companies making pledges. Still, gaps in the data and insufficient research make it hard to verify whether the pledges lead to emissions reductions. The Net Zero Climate Research Cluster aims to improve our understanding of these plans and suggest ways in which they can be made more effective and transparent.
Headed by Jody Freeman, the Archibald Cox Professor of Law and founding director of the Harvard Environmental and Energy Law Program, the cluster brings together faculty from the Law School, the Kennedy School, and the Business School. Though corporate pledges have generated headlines, researchers still do not have enough information to predict whether they will produce meaningful reductions and help spur energy system change, Freeman said.
“One of our questions is: What’s driving these commitments?” she said. “Is the answer reputational risk? Is it pressure from the investment community? Or is there a real desire among these companies to make this shift? What kinds of companies are making them and which are not? And, once they commit to net-zero targets, do companies change their behavior and, if so, how? Do these pledges change how they produce goods and services? Alter internal decision-making?”
Freeman said it’s important to not just understand the incentives driving the pledges, but also potential obstacles to their implementation. What challenges do corporate leaders face when they make a net-zero pledge? Can the commitments create legal liability if companies fall short? And, importantly, can we shape the incentives to better ensure the integrity, transparency, and effectiveness of net-zero pledges, and encourage more companies to adopt them?
Plugging methane leaks as a bridge to a low-emissions world
Many people focus on carbon dioxide — which stays in the atmosphere for well more than a century — as the largest climate change threat. While true over the long term, another greenhouse gas — methane — is much more potent than CO2, though it is naturally out of the atmosphere within 20 years. In the past decade, worsening floods, droughts, and heat waves have caused some to focus on methane as a way to cut near-term warming and give humans and ecosystems time to adapt to longer-term changes.
The cluster on methane emissions, headed by the Kennedy School’s Robert Stavins, is a wide-ranging initiative involving 17 co-investigators and collaborators. The project, which in addition to the Kennedy School taps expertise from the Law School, the Business School, the Chan School, SEAS, and FAS, seeks to use data from an array of increasingly sophisticated sensors to engage with policymakers and other stakeholders to reduce global methane emissions.
“By giving attention to methane, over the short- to medium-term, we can have the effect of essentially buying time in order to develop long-term strategies to address carbon dioxide emissions,” Stavins said. “This is a soup-to-nuts project, because we’re going from scientific detection and estimation of methane emissions all the way to public policy and communicating to the public.”
Adaptation in West Africa
The Gulf of Guinea has seen some of the world’s fastest rates of sea-level rise. The cluster focused on sea-level rise, urban flooding, and coastal erosion in the region will examine implications for six communities, one rural and one urban in each of three Gulf nations: Nigeria, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire.
Researchers will construct a coastal vulnerability index, identify communities at risk, and gauge anticipated disruption to farming, fishing, and other livelihood-centered activities.
Emmanuel Akyeampong, the project’s principal investigator and Oppenheimer Faculty Director of Harvard’s Center for African Studies, said the project, which has co-investigators and collaborators at Gulf of Guinea universities, will explore climate change’s impact in a place where people already watch land wash away, deal with flooding and infrastructure damage, and taste saltwater’s intrusion into freshwater supplies.
The project will first analyze past sea-level rise and build projections of anticipated changes. Researchers will construct a coastal vulnerability index, identify communities at risk, and gauge anticipated disruption to farming, fishing, and other livelihood-centered activities. They’ll develop adaptation strategies with three goals for host communities: hardening the coastline to protect high-value buildings; protecting livelihoods and easing climate-related disruptions; and voluntary resettlement.
“These communities have been dealing with this for several decades,” said Akyeampong, the Ellen Gurney Professor of History and of African and African American Studies. “How do we help them respond better? We’re hoping — through robust climate science in partnership with local scholars — to give communities options that say, ‘If you want to see the next 20 to 30 years, this is what it looks like: You can make some adaptations and you’ll be good.’ Or, maybe, ‘Ten to 12 years from now, it might be good to start thinking about relocating.’”
Preparing for climate migration in South Asia
The changing climate in South Asia will result in more extreme weather events in the near future and in drought and sea level rise on longer time horizons. These phenomena will threaten agriculture and habitat and affect the food security and livelihoods of hundreds of millions in the region.
Working with partners in India and Bangladesh, including the world’s largest non-governmental organization, Bangladesh-based BRAC, and the world’s largest union of informal sector workers, the India-based Self-Employed Women’s Association, as well as government agencies, policy research institutes, and social entrepreneurs, the cluster on adaptation and climate-driven migration in South Asia will identify, test, and deploy adaptation strategies using financial, policy, educational, and technological interventions.
Led by Caroline Buckee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard Chan School, the cluster will take advantage of expertise from the Business School, FAS, the Kennedy School, SEAS, and the Medical School, as well as UC Berkeley, the James P. Grant School of Public Health at BRAC University, and the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute. Satchit Balsari, a Harvard assistant professor of emergency medicine and of global health and population, is a co-investigator.
Listening will be an important part of the project, as farmers and others on the ground may have solutions that could be models elsewhere.
“What struck me is how much the impact of these erratic weather events is not necessarily foremost in either public consciousness or the consciousness of policymakers,” Balsari said. “And as you think about all that needs to be done, you begin to recognize the vastness of the scope of policy changes that one will need to influence in order to mitigate the impact of these extreme weather events on vulnerable populations. You have to first generate the evidence to show that these interventions work, and then figure out what the theory of change is to empower the communities to advocate for policy change to institutionalize these changes.”
During a recent visit to India, Balsari witnessed both severe heat waves and seasonal rains that damaged growing crops. He was struck by how such events might not register in the official consciousness but can be devastating to individual growers. And current strategies like crop insurance can be inadequate, as policies tend to cover drought but not excessive or out-of-season rain, which could become more frequent as rainfall patterns shift. Listening will be an important part of the project, Buckee said, as farmers and others on the ground may have solutions that could be models elsewhere.
“In Bangladesh, where there have been cyclones and floods for decades, simple advances in storm shelters and evacuation patterns have significantly decreased mortality,” she said. “We should be leveraging these indigenous innovations across the global South.”
Extreme weather “will likely increase in frequency and severity for the foreseeable future,” she added. “We are interested in the Global South and in low-income settings because those are going to be the most vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events.”
Navigating shifts in the national energy system
To meet U.S. climate goals, fossil fuel emissions must fall dramatically in coming decades. That’s likely to mean a tough transition for communities and families economically tied to the fossil fuel industry. It will also alter city and town tax bases, which pay for services to support struggling families.
“The goal is to bring people together, work through issues — what makes job training work and what makes training not work — and find those that can be a model.”
The Climate Research Cluster on Strengthening Communities for Changing Energy Systems will draw on expertise from the Law School, FAS, and the Graduate School of Design to probe the costs and benefits of energy transitions and propose solutions on which local businesses and governments can act.
Led by Stephen Ansolabehere, the Frank G. Thompson Professor of Government, the effort will develop a portfolio of projects in the coal regions of Appalachia, Wyoming, and Montana, and on the oil- and gas-rich Gulf Coast. The project will research culture, economy, society, and energy infrastructure and include external advisory groups of prominent stakeholders and leaders. The work will be summarized and communicated in a series of academic publications and white papers. Findings will be shared with local economic planning agencies and regulators and will be used to frame conversations at a series of convenings, where model regulations, laws, and policies for managing the transition will be drafted.
“The project is focused on place-based challenges and the goal is to bring people together, work through issues — what makes job training work and what makes training not work — and find those that can be a model,” Ansolabehere said. “People want to be listened to.”