The Environmental Science and Public Policy program, in coordination with the Harvard University Center for the Environment, will offer a new secondary field in energy and environment, which provides an opportunity for undergraduates in any field to learn about climate change. In January, a group of undergrads toured the Deer Island plant (pictured), which was built to clean up Boston Harbor, in part by using renewable energy from wind turbines.

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Science & Tech

Studying energy, environment

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Harvard adds secondary field where undergrads can study climate change

A major Antarctic ice sheet has begun a slow, inexorable slide into the sea, scientists said this week. A government report said last week that climate change is already bringing drought, heat waves, torrential rains, and invasive pests to the United States.

Scientists say these developments are just the tip of the iceberg on climate change, a problem that promises to worsen over time and to require attention from experts in many fields, including scientists, politicians, lawyers, businesspeople, and public health workers.

Harvard faculty members, University leaders, and students understand that it is important to train the next generation of climate scientists, but it’s also important that students in other disciplines have every opportunity to understand environmental issues.

To do that, the Environmental Science and Public Policy program, in coordination with the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE), will offer a new secondary field in energy and environment (E&E), which provides an avenue through which undergraduates in any field can learn about climate change.

“The E&E secondary field is an exciting new development in the Harvard undergraduate curriculum,” said Paul Moorcroft, chair of the Environmental Science and Public Policy program. “Both energy and environment loom as defining issues for the 21st century and for this generation of Harvard students. The purpose of the new E&E secondary field is to provide an intellectual forum for students from a wide range of concentrations to engage with the key questions, challenges, and opportunities that surround the intertwined futures of the world’s energy demands and the Earth’s environments — both natural and human-made.”

The secondary field is designed to allow students to explore issues surrounding energy and the environment from the perspective of their primary discipline. For example, an English concentrator might want to increase her knowledge of energy and the environment from the perspectives of environmental literature or history, while a student interested in global health might want to understand the effects of climate change on water, nutrition, and health.

Harvard President Drew Faust said that the new secondary field is part of a broad University commitment to support research and education on the climate-energy challenge, which promises to be a central global issue facing the generation of leaders being educated now.

“Our faculty and students have vital roles to play in confronting the challenge of climate change, and we’re committed to advancing their work,” she said. “This new secondary field creates an important academic pathway for our undergraduates to engage with one of the most pressing issues of our time.”

HUCE Director Daniel Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering, said the new secondary field was created in part because students in recent years have been asking for such a program. It is modeled after the Harvard Graduate Consortium on Energy and Environment, which combines coursework and a weekly seminar to create a community of doctoral students from various fields who share an interest in energy and the environment.

The point of the consortium, Schrag said, is not to create an interdisciplinary field for those students, but to make them knowledgeable about cross-cutting issues in energy and the environment that may affect their main area of study.

“We want them to be really good at what they do. We want them to be good economists, good chemists, good physicists. We feel like that’s important to lots of different people, because over the course of their careers they will encounter these issues,” Schrag said. “The ESPP concentration is a fabulous interdisciplinary concentration, it is really effective for the 15 to 20 students per class who concentrate in it. But I believe that every undergraduate at Harvard should learn about climate change, about energy technology, about policy related to these issues, about environmental issues more generally.”

Students interested in the energy and environment secondary field would be required to take four courses: one broad foundational course, and three advanced courses drawn from categories of social sciences/humanities, or natural sciences/engineering. In addition, students would have access to the HUCE’s resources, including its approximately 250 faculty affiliates and its regular public programs. Students will be required to attend one of those public events each semester, as well as a special seminar with the presenter.

“There are important contributions needed from many different people,” Schrag said. “People who study the arts, that’s an important way of thinking about these issues; people who study economics, no question; people who study history, of course; people who study psychology. There’s really interesting work in this space on why people make the choices they do. You want to talk about philosophy? Well, think about the ethical dimensions of some of these problems. These challenges are so great and so pervasive there’s really no field that is not relevant to this issue.”