Caro Park ’17 was a data analytics intern working in Ethiopia in 2016 when an El Niño system brought a devastating drought to the region where she was helping local teams monitoring child malnutrition in rural areas transition from paper to electronic records.
When the drought hit, it changed her.
“It was my first time witnessing the terrifying power of climate extremes, and what it looks like for the people living through them,” she said. “I saw how much worse the effects were for the more vulnerable populations — especially children,” some of whom were “so small and thin” that she thought they were infants.
“I knew that something needed to be done and that good policy and international collaboration could not only improve their immediate lives but could also mitigate future damaging effects of climate change.”
Park, now a doctoral candidate in population health sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, shared her story during a virtual panel in September on “Climate, Biodiversity, Pandemics, and Justice.” She drew on her research into how climate change and public health intersect and how vulnerable populations are affected by food insecurity created by climate disruption. The panel was the first in a five-part series called “Climate Conversations,” interrelated discussions that bring together alumni, faculty, and student experts from a wide range of disciplines. The series was created by the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) in partnership with alumni volunteers and the Harvard Office of Sustainability,” and continues with its fourth installment on Wednesday. The final panel will be Jan. 13.
In opening the series, Harvard President Larry Bacow noted the importance of bridging boundaries and facilitating collaboration on a broader scale. “Our goals must expand to include the connection and amplification of our efforts and the development of partnerships that allow us to work across traditional boundaries and national boundaries, between industry and the academy, boundaries between individuals and institutions.”
New ways of organizing across disciplines
The series organizers, Valerie Nelson and Terrence McNally, both from the Class of 1969, designed each panel to be intergenerational and multidisciplinary. Each begins with speakers sharing their personal stories to highlight the diversity of their experiences.
“We felt it was important to convene diverse voices to discuss the many dimensions of the existential threat of climate change,” said Philip Lovejoy, associate vice president and executive director of the HAA. “This is something we know alumni care about, and so we felt we had a responsibility to connect the experts and climate leaders from across the University … with the broader alumni body for conversations that matter.”
Lovejoy added that the HAA envisioned the series would “spur further conversations that will lead to action in communities around the world.”
A few of the panelist from across the series told the Gazette why an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems is so critical. Nadia Milad Issa, M.T.S. ’22 candidate, who took part in the third panel in November, “Changing Hearts and Minds on Climate Change,” said interdisciplinary work can help develop solutions “that tend to the multiple layers of addressing climate change.” Issa listed several, including “environmental science, food security, housing security, food deserts, impacted indigenous lands, spiritual-religious practices, individual and collective healing, and recovery processes.” The research associate at The Pluralism Project spoke about how the arts and performance can be part of climate and racial justice activism and discussed their research into Afro-Cuban and other spiritual and religious traditions and their relationships to ecosystems and culture.
Issa said an interdisciplinary approach also means bringing more voices into the process, rather than “placing the world and its health on a few hands.”
“The arts hold the responsibility and honor to be the reflection and conversation of global societies, [with dance creating space for reflection dialogue, or] utilized as a tool of resistance and a catalyst for radical social change,” they said.