Dhananjay Goel remembers how water had to be rationed in his grandmother’s city in north India after extreme weather events, which became more intense and regular amid worsening climate change. He decided that access to clean drinking water should be a universal human right, which eventually led to him founding DetoXyFi, a start-up based on a sustainable water filtration system made from waste wood.
The candidate for dual master’s degrees at Harvard Kennedy School and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania was one of many young emerging leaders who made presentations at the Harvard Climate Leadership Summit on Monday. The event, part of the University’s inaugural Climate Action Week, was sponsored by the new Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability. It brought together students from across Schools and concentrations with private and public sector leaders to share ideas on concrete, real-world solutions.
“I can imagine my grandmother right here in this room when I think about the work that needs to be done,” Goel said in a presentation. “I can think of myself when I think about the work that needs to be done.”
The daylong event featured keynote addresses, along with workshops and Q&A’s culminating in a Climate Innovation Lab during which several students pitched ideas to a panel of senior climate leaders. Proposals included tools to help developers build structures more sustainably, a communications strategy for bringing young women into climate activism, strategies for businesses to invest in mitigation, and a plea to embrace beauty as part of potential solutions.
The day kicked off with a keynote address from Gina McCarthy, former White House national climate adviser and EPA administrator, who told the audience that imagination would be required to make lasting change.
“I still go to bed every night at 69 years old, wondering what I’m going to do when I grow up,” she said. “It’s exciting. So don’t let anyone stop you.”
Her remarks were followed by comments from Carlos Monje, under secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Jennifer Sara, global director for Climate Change at World Bank Group, who said we need all hands on deck to address the current emergency.
Other speakers included Barbara Humpton, CEO of Siemens Corp.; Greg Degen, chief of staff for the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy; Laurie Schoeman, White House senior climate adviser; Tony Chan, chief financial and operating officer of the Bezos Earth Fund; and Sharon Lavigne, environmental justice activist and recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Topics ran the gamut from addressing climate justice to transportation, clean energy, and creating consequential public policy. One thread that ran through the day was a call to action for all the students — from those interested in being the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company to others who may find their way into local government or advocacy work.
“The reason we wanted to create this event was to provide a platform that connects students across all of Harvard’s diverse undergraduate and graduate campuses as well as a few adjacent universities to create collaboration and facilitate connection. Because as we all are aware, climate change is such a vast and complex issue,” said Karan Takhar, a dual M.P.P.-M.B.A. candidate at the Kennedy School and Wharton and one of the event organizers. “It will require working together with people who might not necessarily be from our same discipline.”
A goal of the Salata Institute, created in June with a $200 million gift from Melanie and Jean Eric Salata, is to foster an interdisciplinary approach to finding solutions to complex climate problems. Climate Action Week featured more than a dozen events led by 14 Harvard Schools, centers, and institutes across the University’s Cambridge and Boston campuses.
In conjunction with the summit, several other events took place Monday, including the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Symposium on Climate, Health, and Equity; a talk on food sustainability at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute; a reception and panel on climate justice at the Law School; and a discussion of green space and climate justice at the Division for Continuing Education.
Other events set for later this week include a conversation between the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Harvard University President Larry Bacow and the Center for International Development’s GEM23 conference on Wednesday. For a full list of events, speakers, and how to register, visit salatainstitute.harvard.edu/hcaw/.