The conservative, legacies, the Electoral College
A Note to Readers
The “7 Ware Street” column does not appear in this issue, which is somewhat shorter than usual, given continuing constraints on our advertising partners. We decided it was important to make space available for more of your letters to the editor, of which there were many—quite a few of them longer than we can usually accommodate. The column will reappear in the future.
Jonathan Shaw (“Controlling the Global Thermostat,” November-December 2020, page 42) failed to address one essential weapon in our war against climate change: nuclear power. As with solar, wind, and hydro, nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse-gas emissions. Moreover, new technology and designs continue to improve their economics and safety.
Shaw subtly suggests “renewability” is a requirement for a carbon-free energy future. I reject that connection. While evolving breeder reactor technology suggests nuclear may in fact be renewable, we must put first things first. Prioritize decarbonization now.
Countries are considering such draconian measures as a price on carbon and policies that crush the coal, oil, and natural gas industries. Those measures may be necessary. But as we consider them, let’s bring to bear all of the tools we have available.
Paul Baudisch, M.B.A. ’78
Harwich Port, Mass.
Jonathan Shaw responds: This article focused on the problem of accumulated atmospheric carbon and greenhouse effects. We have covered alternative energy sources in the past, however. You might take a look at “Fueling Our Future” (May-June 2006), in which Dan Schrag, John Holdren, and others argued that we need nuclear power—but state that even that won’t be enough.
I’ve noticed that every time Harvard Magazine runs a piece on a scholar studying climate change or proposing public policies to moderate it, the letters section in the ensuing issue features complaints from older alumni who say that writing about climate change as if it were a proven hypothesis is trendy arm-waving with scant support from rigorous science. My guess is that they’re on the mailing list of the Homeland Institute, a climate-denial outfit that appeals to some comfortable older grads who just can’t abide the possibility that those semi-hysterical patronizing liberals might be right for a change.
In case the most recent issue doesn’t feature such letters, I’ll be happy to write a few grumpy screeds just to honor the tradition.
Conn Nugent ’68, J.D. ’73
Editor’s note: Several longer letters on climate change, of all persuasions, appear online.
Thank you for reminding us that the common assumption that we will be out of the woods if we are able to limit the global increase in temperature to 2° C is not true. As a former student and fan of Professor Zeckhauser, I am glad to see he is still working on the big issues of the day.
Another common assumption is that the transition to a renewable energy future will be long and expensive. What if this assumption is also not true?
Groundbreaking research by the technology disruption expert Tony Seba of Stanford University and RethinkX, a think tank, has shown that technological innovations that reduce costs by a factor of 10 or more drive rapid industrial and social disruptions by overwhelming incumbents and red tape (think smartphones or Netflix). Seba has been tracking the convergence of key technologies and the resulting interactions in five foundational sectors: energy, transportation, information, food, and materials. These interrelated disruptions may yield significant reductions in CO2 emissions faster and at lower cost than are currently expected.
William Booth, M.P.A. ’84
The first paragraph of Jonathan Shaw’s article has a quote from Professor Dan Schrag that ceasing CO2 emissions tomorrow would still leave a legacy of climate change that will go on for thousands of years. I believe that detailed modeling studies support this conclusion. But it seems that such studies contradict the follow-on statement on page 43, highlighted in large type on the top of page 45, about the persistence of CO2. This says that, even if we cease emissions now, more than half the CO2 emitted by human activities since the industrial revolution will still be there in 1,000 years. By contrast, as described below, it seems that only about 55 percent of past emissions remain today and getting down to 50 percent would likely occur in less than about 25 years.
This point is not really central to the ideas in the article. However, given the politically charged environment for discussions of climate change, I believe we need to be extra careful to avoid statements that might be technically incorrect.
The roughly 55 percent estimate is based on assuming past emissions of 500 billion metric tons of carbon (BtC) and the current excess in the atmosphere of 275 BtC (based on the 2019 average CO2 concentration of 410 parts per million [ppm] and a preindustrial concentration of 280 ppm). The roughly 25-year estimate is based on model predictions of CO2 in the atmosphere after cessation of emissions (e.g. N. P. Gillett et al., Nature Geoscience, vol. 4, pp. 83-87, 2011; F. Joos et al., Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 13, pp. 2793-2825, 2013).
Perhaps the statement about 1,000-year persistence was inspired by the figure on page 545 of the physical-science-basis volume of the IPCC report mentioned on page 43. But that figure gives a calculation of the fate of an injection of 10 times the cumulative emissions to date (5000 BtC) and shows the effects of saturating various carbon sinks. The figures on page 548 deal with persistence of emissions after cessation in 2050 with cumulative emissions of 1000 BtC. For that case, the behavior is similar to immediate cessation and again reaches a 50 percent reduction within a few years after cessation.
Richard Alben ’65, Ph.D. ’67
Jonathan Shaw responds: Mr. Alben is correct: the arithmetic does not work. I should have made clear that more than half the atmospheric portion of human CO2 emissions will persist for a thousand years. Ocean and terrestrial carbon sinks sequester 40 percent of the total anthropogenic emissions of CO2 (read about natural carbon sinks in “The Great Global Experiment,” November-December 2002); it is half of the other 60 percent of emissions that will still be in the air for more than 1,000 years.
Your coverage of global warming has been comprehensive. However, your authors never seem to get to what is really the underlying cause. When I arrived at Harvard, the global population was about 3 billion. Today it is close to 7.8 billion. That is what is causing global warming! Yes, Americans use a lot of fossil energy. But most of the increase in global carbon emissions has come from the growing population of the developing world. Our emissions in the United States have gone down during this 50-year period. Yes, we should reduce our burning of fossil fuels but unless the pace of the planet’s population increase is reduced, our efforts will be for naught.
Ralph E. Ells ’63
Jonathan Shaw responds: To set the record straight, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions rose during this period, from 2,890,696 kilotons in 1960 to 5,006,302 kilotons in 2018. And in the People’s Republic of China, now the world’s largest emitter, the curve follows economic growth much more closely than population growth: emissions grew twelvefold during this period, as the population doubled.
I applaud the article by Jonathan Shaw. He says important things needing saying; I agree with all of them.
However, I wished to have seen comments on the deleterious effect on the climate of the current size and—worse-—the growth of Earth’s human population. A significant element of environmental protection is too often missing from these discussions; when assigning blame for environmental problems, they focus on peoples’ behavior, but don’t acknowledge the significant effects of population size. This failure ignores the fact there are already more humans alive than Earth can adequately support. Every environmental problem is mostly due to the numbers of people crowding into, using the limited resources of, and disposing of waste in our planet’s fragile ecosystem. And those numbers continue to increase. All the sequestration, adaptation, conservation, decarbonization, atmospheric engineering, construction of barriers, etc. will not save us from catastrophe if the human population continues its current growth.
Those who care about the environment must continually and forcefully remind us—especially policymakers—of the unbreakable relationship between population size and environmental degradation, and emphasize the importance of trying to at least reduce future population growth. If we do not do this, Nature—through starvation, disease (COVID, anyone?), global warming, sea-level rise, species extinction, aggravated by Man’s unfortunate propensity to settle disputes by violence—will do it for us. Those who assert otherwise—including, regrettably, many political, religious, and business leaders—reignore the obvious, often for short-term political or personal gain.
Yes, population size is a controversial subject, coming with political and religious baggage, but which we ignore at our peril. The media should always present the entire environmental picture by reminding the public how population size is central to this issue.
Richard Larkin ’64, M.B.A. ’66
Speak Up, Please
Harvard Magazine welcomes letters on its contents. Please write to “Letters,” Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138, or send comments by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article is a one-sided argument, based upon faulty computer models that are programed on the fallacious assumption that carbon dioxide functions as Earth’s “thermostat.”
In fact, there are only four fundamental forces that control or affect Earth’s climate: radiation from the sun; radiation from the earth’s molten core; changes in the earth’s tilt and orbit; and cosmic radiation and meteors. None of those forces can be controlled by mankind except perhaps, as the article suggests, with “solar aerosol geoengineering.”
As a practical matter, however, the gradual global warming that began after the “little ice age” ended in 1850 will likely continue until the next “little ice age” or major glaciation occurs. Our relatively crude computer models are incapable of forecasting any such changes because actual current human knowledge of climate forcing itself is unfortunately inadequate.
A balanced article would have acknowledged that more than 31,000 scientists, including luminaries such as Dr. Edward Teller, father of the atomic bomb, have signed the Oregon Global Warming Petition, “Petition Project.Org.” That document states there is “no convincing evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.” Why then, would we rush to spend trillions replacing our abundant fossil fuels with expensive renewables?
Finally, a balanced article would have acknowledged that the CO2 global warming hypothesis itself was proven false by two distinguished German physicists in 2009. See “Falsification of the Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects Within the Frame of Physics,” by Gerhard Gerlich and Ralf D. Tscheuschner, Int. J. Mod. Phys. B, vol. 23, no. 3, 2009. A group of scientists, Joshua B. Halpern et al., promptly challenged the Gerlich-Tscheuschner falsification paper. See “Comment on ‘Falsification of the Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects Within the Frame of Physics,’ Int. J. Mod. Phys. B, vol. 24, no.10 (2010) 1309-1332. That challenge, however, was resoundingly rebutted by Gerlich and Tscheuschner in the same volume at pages 1333-1359. Since that time, not a single physicist has attempted to formally challenge that falsification. Nevertheless, the faulty computer models keep pumping out scary prognostications on the “assumption” that the falsified CO2 hypothesis is absolutely correct.
Don W. Crockett, J.D. ’66
While the article correctly makes a case for taking measures to control climate change, the photograph of a wildfire in California is inappropriate. I live in Napa Valley, an extremely vulnerable area to those fires and it is to be remarked that investor-owned Pacific Gas & Electric’s poorly maintained power lines (and in the case of a San Bruno fire, gas lines) were the proximate cause of the majority of wildfires. PG&E through its enablers in California government routinely goes through bankruptcy, bailouts, wrist-slap penalties for felonies, and “reorganization” so as to continue in business.
Were the ever-so-green state to dissolve this company along with investor-owned and equally reprehensible Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Power, and turn them into nonprofits accountable to their customers, not their investors, big strides would be made in stopping wildfires.
Kenneth B. Salomon, J.D. ’82
St. Helena, Calif.
Shaw’s article is compelling. His main point is that we have passed the point of no return for trying to reverse climate change. Ice caps will melt, and sea levels will rise no matter what we do. Moreover, the global political framework that would be required to develop, implement, and enforce the rules to try to achieve such reversal do not exist and are unlikely to be achieved. The solution therefore is not to attempt to reverse, but to adapt to and mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change.
This raises two crucial points: First, does it make sense to spend trillions of dollars and impose stringent and expensive regulations to try to achieve the impossible? The second point, unfortunately unaddressed in Mr. Shaw’s article, is the enormous amounts of cheap and abundant energy that would be required to implement the necessary adaptation and mitigation measures (e.g. sea-water desalination, construction of dams and reservoirs, flood control, etc.). The cost, inadequacy, and unreliability of what the environmentalists call “renewables” would not come close to providing the energy needed for such measures. Only nuclear energy—cost effective, non-polluting, safe, and virtually limitless—would do the job.
Bernat Rosner, J.D. ’59
San Ramon, Calif.
The article is the most complete I have ever read on the subject. But I have a few comments.
According to an article in Nature a while ago, carbon dioxide gas absorbs certain frequencies of infrared radiation. Then as it warms it reradiates or conducts this heat in all directions. The energy it absorbs is a very small portion of the radiation from the sun, but a very large portion of the cooling radiation between Earth and outer space. This infrared radiation is the only means that the whole Earth has of cooling. Thus the average temperature of the earth rises because of carbon dioxide’s interference with global cooling. It’s like insulating your house without turning the furnace down. It also helps explain why the poles are warming faster than the rest of the earth.
One problem with using atmospheric engineering to reduce global warming is that, while reducing the energy from the sun, it may also reduce the radiation cooling the earth. It will certainly reduce agricultural productivity, but so will higher temperatures. But reducing the energy from the sun will also reduce the ability of vegetation to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is counter productive.
Switching to electric vehicles obviously will not help much unless the source of the electricity does not emit carbon dioxide. I do not believe renewable power can provide enough electricity for present needs, let alone the future requirements for electrifying all ground vehicles. I remember reading a while back in Harvard Magazine an article about Harvard physicist Mara Prentiss, who said, as I remember it, renewable power could provide all our present electricity requirements if we just cover one-third of our land mass with solar cells and wind mills!
Even if we somehow stop emitting carbon dioxide right now, Earth’s temperature will continue to rise due to what we have already added. At some point in time we will need to start removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As an engineer I know that anything we do, including atmospheric engineering, will require energy. We need a new source of energy that does not emit carbon dioxide, or any other contaminant.
My personal opinion is we need to develop and start building fast neutron reactors for electric-power generation. These will create little or no radioactive waste, and in fact I understand they are capable of “burning” existing radioactive waste, or waste produced in the future by current water-cooled-type reactors. Fast neutron reactors can also use unenriched uranium or thorium for fuel, significantly increasing our fuel supply. There are problems with the coolants used in the past, but I understand that the molten-salt type is beginning to sound advantageous. (I am in no way connected to the nuclear-power industry.)
When the earth was formed, all carbon would have been oxidized or attached to other atoms. It took millions (or billions) of years for vegetation to appear and separate the carbon from oxygen to create an atmosphere in which animals (like us) could evolve and survive. If we ruin this atmosphere now, I believe there will be no way to fix it in our lifetimes.
Donald E. Dozer ’62
Jonathan Shaw’s cover story gives an excellent summary of the too-little-understood, slowly progressing climate crisis that we must face. I hope that it will be part of a continuing series of articles dealing with this increasingly important topic.
Also, kudos to President Bacow, for speaking up about “...the ravages of climate change...” in his “View from Mass Hall” comments in that issue! Larry mentions the path-breaking, five-part, monthly “Climate Conversations” educational series that the Harvard Alumni Association is offering through January. This series is drawing large virtual audiences, and I agree that Harvard’s convening power will become increasingly important because of our changed circumstances relating to COVID and climate.
I am retired from a 37-year career as an electricity industry expert, mostly with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. One thing that was missing from the above writings was a recognition of the huge latent power of Harvard’s alumni to make a difference relating to the climate crisis—if asked. And I say “if asked” because I think that our current dire climate trajectory warrants such an unprecedented call for leadership from Larry, as titular head of the Harvard community.
While Shaw’s article focuses mostly on adaptation and geoengineering, it’s important to realize that much can still be done to reduce climate crisis impacts—if we all do our part now!
Key examples of what alumni can do to lead on climate are: 1) Encourage, or implement, climate change awareness, education, and action within any group of which you are a part; 2) Act, speak, and publish writings that lead people who are not in your direct circle of influence to also be climate leaders, thus leveraging your influence; and 3) Donate some of your time and treasure to outside organizations that are also working to help preserve a livable climate.
Thanks for your leadership!
Roger Shamel, M.B.A. ’74
Shaw’s article on the climate crisis begins with a sober and informative account of the catastrophe we are experiencing. “Even if we could become carbon-neutral tomorrow,” according to Dan Schrag, “the climate will keep changing for thousands of years, the ice sheets will keep melting, and the seas will continue to rise.” It’s too late to prevent climate catastrophe. We can only mitigate it and try to adapt. This requires “collective” action (italics Shaw’s).
But the real focus of the article turns out to be a technological fix: “deliberately altering the atmosphere” by introducing particles of calcium carbonate into the stratosphere to deflect some of the sun’s heat. The scientists involved say they are proceeding cautiously, and they warn that their project will not solve the problem—it will only buy time. Even so, this looks like “yet another excuse not to deal with climate,” as the economist James Stock says. The unintended consequences could be terrible. Even a success would be apt to create a false sense of security rather than opening a space for collective action.
Yes, we must act, and we must act collectively. But that does not mean seeking to “electrify everything” and then going on with our present way of life, minus the burning of fossil fuels. We will need to waste less, to consume less, to divert our resources from war machines to human needs, and to reduce our dependence on machines altogether, in particular machines of fast communication (including computers) and machines of fast transportation (including airplanes and private cars). My own way of life in these respects is not exemplary, I admit.
We will also need to get rid of capitalism and to replace it with a more just and more stable economic system. Capitalism means “constant revolutionizing of production,” and it demands acceleration: expanding production, expanding markets, increasing profits, multiplying artificial needs by advertising. It is incompatible with conserving and restoring the finite planet on which we live.
Geoengineering is a blind alley. “If man had but a mithkal of divine power at his disposal the world would have been annihilated long ago,” says the narrator of one version of the West African epic Sundiata. We need instead to achieve a more natural relation to the earth, water, air, plants, and animals. The writings of Thoreau, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and the traditional wisdom of people who have lived in some kind of harmony with nature, will help us more here than all the geoengineering projects ever conceived. They will not “save us.” They will not replace the need for practical projects. But they may contribute to an escape from the technological bubble in which we are dying.
Peter Wirth ’69
So, in addition to global coronavirus crisis, political crisis, and ideological crisis, we have the climate crisis. Duly noted. Despite all the technological innovations in the renewable sources of energy, the planet’s temperature rises every year to a new record. The Arctic ice is melting, the sea level is rising, the cities like Boston, Miami, and Venice are sinking. The reason is too obvious: every year we lose 32 million acres of woods to accommodate the urban and suburban sprawl. Thinking globally and acting locally, we have to wake up from the American dream of a little house on a little land, and face reality. Time to build compact, mixed-use, mixed-income, self-sufficient habitats where people can live, work, shop, and entertain within few-minute walks, instead of driving miles for every loaf of bread and a place of work. The bucolic “This Little House” and “The New Urbanism” must be supplanted (oh, horror!) by “The Towers in the Park,” the much-maligned and repudiated idea of the 1950s. Moreover, the towers themselves must become vertical gardens and the sources of clean, instead of the currently polluted, air. I hope my fellow city planners of Harvard School of Design can hear me.
Anatol Zukerman, M.Arch. ’75
Once again, Harvard Magazine trumpets extreme climate alarmism as truth. This summary of interviews with four Harvard professors makes numerous assertions about the dire results that are baked into the current path of warming unless (or even if) drastic action is taken to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Many of these assertions are highly controversial among many scientists who are expert in climate science, but whose voices will apparently not be heard at Harvard or published by Harvard Magazine. To cite but one example, the predictions of doom in a “two-degree” world represent an extreme view. Some scientists apparently believe it, but many do not, and much scholarship supports the latter view. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear both sides debate it?
I will simply repeat my appeal for Harvard Magazine and Harvard to assume their rightful places as forums for debate, rather than as megaphones for one set of extreme views, which by no means represent “settled science. You and Harvard are really missing out and depriving your audience and students respectively of this fascinating debate. You should be promoters, not “deniers,” of this debate.
Bruce Goodman ’70
It is good to know about the Harvard administration’s plans to decarbonize, but this is a woefully inadequate response to the climate crisis. The timetable is far too long (2050 is three decades away) and only a multi-pronged strategy that includes divestment from fossil-fuel companies makes any sense at this point.
Harvard Magazine should always take care to mention that many (if not most) Harvard faculty, alumni, and students support such a multi-pronged strategy as a means to both educate the public as well as put pressure on those fossil-fuel corporations not acting fast enough to transition to renewable-energy sources.
Harvard’s plan also lacks detail and benchmarks for success. Such transparency is essential for judging whether the plan is effective, and Harvard Magazine should be covering what faculty experts are saying about such benchmarks.
Judy Norsigian ’70
Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Editor’s note: The magazine has reported extensively on divestment in its news coverage, online and in print. This feature was clearly focused on research. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor obviously overlapping. Considering our coverage as a whole, we believe the magazine has done an outstanding job in both its news reporting and its probing of the science and policy issues—through dozens and dozens of articles extending over the past two decades.
As an alum who studied “Energy and the Environment” while a student, I was incredibly disappointed by magazine’s recent coverage of the climate crisis. The article did nothing to address the fact that Harvard—and its endowment—have further fueled this crisis. The institution has invested millions in fossil fuels and has refused to divest on a timeline that has any teeth.
What’s more, while on campus I learned that fracked natural gas was a viable bridge fuel—a line, four years later, I heard from the gas company itself. Harvard, its investments, and its curriculum that fails to adequately question the intersectionality of extractive economies and climate change, are at the root of the climate crisis. To talk about solutions without addressing the root cause or divestment is a missed opportunity at best and a purposeful shirking of the publication’s privilege at worst.
Nicole Levin ’15
I was happy to see that the existential threat of climate change was highlighted in the latest issue. However, if Harvard is to be a leader in the fight against further deaths and destruction caused by climate-change-induced “heat waves, wildfires, the spread of diseases, and increasing coastal erosion and inundation,” Harvard needs to divest from fossil fuels.
Climate change and the burning of fossil fuels are already having devastating effects on people around the world—although not everyone is impacted equally. I teach science to seventh-graders in East Boston, and an incredible number of my students suffer from asthma and other health conditions as a result of growing up in a neighborhood overburdened by pollution. Meanwhile, their families in El Salvador are struggling to farm with increased temperatures, droughts, and rising sea levels. For my students, their families, and others already suffering from the impacts of climate change, action cannot wait.
Harvard can and should be a leader in the fight against climate change. But to do so, it must be willing to take on the fossil-fuel industry.
Ann Finkel ’15
The article is quite detailed and includes a lot of useful information, but it is ultimately misleading. It purports to defend geoengineering research from Professors Keith and Keutsch on the grounds that the situation is so desperate (even more desperate than the scientists are telling us) that one has to consider any alternative—no matter how risky—that gives us a chance of survival. That’s okay. But then it pulls a fast one.
After quoting a few people worried that geoengineering might be used as an excuse to avoid actually addressing climate change—the article goes and does just that. It avoids mentioning known problems (acidification of the oceans) or any serious discussion of risks (e.g., drought). It demeans all ongoing activities as too little, too late. It has so little interest in the Paris Agreement process that it proposes that a few interested countries (the G7 or maybe just the U.S. plus China and India) should just go reengineer the world’s atmosphere, and the hell with what the rest of the world might think!
There’s nothing wrong with doing research in this area; it will undoubtedly be a part of the solution. However it is incorrect to present this as a silver bullet that “dials down” the crisis, i.e. takes the pressure off all activities to deal with climate change. In particular (for this magazine) it’s worth noting that whether or not you agree with the divestment people, Harvard’s proposal to make its investment portfolio carbon neutral by 2050 falls far short of what the scientific consensus is telling us. Since we’re not listening to the scientists, we must be listening to articles like this one.
That’s in fact the reason why divestment is important. It doesn’t matter what was behind this particular article—the media will always be full of excuses to delay getting serious about climate change. It will take all the societal forces we can muster to keep the fossil-fuel companies from continuing to call the shots. If Harvard can’t take a stand, who can?
Jerry Gechter ’70
I laud you and Jonathan Shaw on the article “Controlling the Global Thermostat.” Nevertheless, there are, in my view, a number of serious omission—-or better said, perhaps, omissions of emphasis that I would like to address.
After starting out majoring in geology then switching to government, I ended up doing my degree in special studies in human sciences, with Roger Revelle—who is considered by many as one of the fathers of the science of global warming and climate change—as my mentor. He headed up the Harvard Population Center at the time, but much of the focus in his small classes was on climate change, and he was a great influence on his students, including me, but more importantly, Al Gore [’69, LL.D. ’94], who has been a significant factor in clean-energy investment.
It is a shame that Revelle’s name is not mentioned in the article, nor, for that matter, is Gore’s. Which brings me to the financial world, where Harvard carries huge clout as an investor, and where, despite admonitions over several years from many of its alumni, Harvard is still a significant investor in fossil-fuel companies. While this is mentioned en passant, the importance of an appropriate program of disinvestment from this sector and reinvestment in clean energy by Harvard, and indeed others, should have played an important part in the article.
Lastly, the point was not made strongly enough in the article that we all have a role to play in this: individual action, especially by Harvard alumni, can make a significant contribution. In this respect, for example, when I was living in Vienna several years ago, with a very small angel investment, I helped a clean-energy project-development company get started, and this company (GreenSource GmbH) has now grown into a major player in the sector across Central Europe and Russia. I repeated this with another small investment in an enterprise (JCM Power) that is now a significant developer and owner of clean-energy projects in several countries in Asia, the Americas, and Africa.
Now, in my dotage, I write thrillers and poetry, with much of it focused on climate change and environmental issues.
All thanks to Harvard and Roger Revelle.
Geza Tatrallyay ’71
I am glad to see an article about the most central issue of this moment, and I would like to see more focus on simple solutions such as natural building and localization, which make concrete, airplanes, and extractive agriculture unnecessary.
In addition, I would like everyone who comments on the climate situation to specify their (yes, their singular) own personal petroleum-carbon and water footprint for the current year—including embodied energy costs of any measures they took to get there. And, ideally, the entire embodied energy of the component of infrastructure they depended on. Mine was at least six tons and about 1,000 gallons, plus half the footprint of the two buildings I lived in for half the year divided by their lifespan. My share is 2.5 tons and 500 gallons. I am still not in the black—but I’m guessing I’m closer than most reading this. (By the way, there are people in the country who are in the black; I’d like to see an investigative piece on them.) I ask all readers to join me in a yearly inventory.
Our individual choices matter. We’re past the time when it’s enough to say, “I have a bike and I recycle.” Where are the numbers? We’re Harvard. Let’s be smarter about this. Let’s be more truthful.
Joshua Myrvaagnes ’01
As begun in your cover article, I do hope that Jonathan Shaw soon will continue his exploration of climate change. Many more pieces are needed to solve this puzzle. Can you inform us about what Harvard is doing to further the role of advanced (fourth-generation) nuclear power and small modular reactors (SMRs), and “green” hydrogen fuel? Beyond “Amelioration: Taking an Awful Action” by solar geoengineering, can you cover methods of carbon capture and sequestration? Turning to national policy instruments to supplement traditional regulation, what can Harvard tell us about market-based mitigation measures—“cap-and-trade” and “carbon-fee-and-dividend”—that many conservative economists and business leaders support?
And beyond just going “From Toothless Treaties to Adaption and Amelioration”—beyond science and engineering—what can Harvard tell us about how to craft a “toothy” climate treaty? When the world realizes that climate chaos will be at least as frightful as the misuse already of chemical—and the proliferation of nuclear—weapons, does Harvard foresee that humanity must also achieve a climate treaty at least as effective as the arms-control conventions? Is it too much to predict that an effective climate treaty must also include obligations that nations self-report and allow entry by international inspectors? When there is verification that a rogue nation is continuing to kill the climate, will the climate treaty—like many other, disparate treaties and ordinary trade agreements—prescribe imposition of an escalating range of economic sanctions? Short of military force, does Harvard see any better policy tool for assuring widespread national compliance as needed to prevent climate chaos?
Richard W. Emory, Jr., LL.B. ’67
U.S. EPA retiree
Boynton Beach, Fla.
Thank you very much for Lydialyle Gibson’s fine article about Ross Douthat (“The Conservative,” November-December 2020, page 34). In it you presented a much fuller portrait of the columnist than I have gotten from reading his columns in the New York Times. Also, your article convinced me that he has more to offer than his very conservative Roman Catholic pronouncements.
Ed Fordyce ’63
Why expend so much ink on rehabilitating Ross Douthat? I regularly read a range of punditry, from far left to far right, and Douthat has long struck me as uniquely intellectually dishonest. Yes, he is a skilled pedagogue, but his underlying “truth,” articulated in dozens of his pieces in the Times, is that only religion provides a foundation for moral thinking. He cleverly disguises this premise as something he miraculously (re) discovers each time he looks. By this sort of circular reasoning, he renders the large universe of people who are not religious believers unfit to take any positions on questions of morality. That in itself is a pretty offensive position to hold.
Charles Hsu ’79
I just finished “The Conservative,” which I read with great interest (I tend to avoid the pundits, though as a youth I did get to hear Walter Lippmann [A.B. ’10, Litt.D. ’44] hold forth in a drawing room). I was surprised, however, that you dangled Ross Douthat’s take on abortion and gay marriage before your reader and never went back to his stances (“reliably right-wing on social issues” does not get it, you know). I don’t know what your strategy was—except to plump your subject and make him seem fascinating on Big Issues—but those of us who have fought for rights to control our own bodies and, in the case of gay marriage, for the rights and protections straight people have in legal marriage you have seriously let down. Douthat’s opinions on gay marriage (which I went immediately and read after finishing your piece) show him up as a person NOT true to his grand principles, but a small-minded little twerp whose understanding (and hence his compassion) are seriously lacking. I wonder if he isn’t in a puzzle now to find that his maximal spiritual leader, Pope Francis, has taken a different and more humane and loving road than the shoddy path he has traversed.
To refresh the metaphor: you should have told us about the muck under Mr. Douthat’s shoes.
Carter Wilson ’63
Briggs-Copeland Lecturer 1966-69
Overhauling the Overseers
The decision of the Board of Overseers to limit petition-nominated Overseers to six out of 30 in response to the successful campaign by Harvard Forward to seat three members on the board is one of the most cynical, anti-democratic actions I have ever encountered (“Overseers’ Overhaul,” November-December 2020, page 23). It echoes the disenfranchisement of African Americans by Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and, more to the point, the Trump administration’s efforts to disenfranchise voters and obstruct mail ballots. The board should be ashamed of itself!
Richard L. Abel ’62
Connell Distinguished Professor of law emeritus and Distinguished Research Professor, UCLA
I was lukewarm at best about Harvard Forward and their campaign to elect members of the Board of Overseers. I even agree with many of the points made in the Chávez/Lee letter. However, this rules change was motivated exactly by the very thing Chávez and Lee claim to be trying to prevent: the co-opting of Overseer elections by a political agenda. This is rank hypocrisy, and the secrecy of the process makes it particularly odious. I think many alumni would have supported a change to the process had it been done openly and with broad input. Instead, Harvard has panicked and besmirched itself.
Charles Hsu ’79
In “Welfare’s Payback” (by Marina Bolotnikova, November-December 2020, page 9), I was pleased to learn that empirical work done on welfare programs shows that the payback on spending on children’s programs is “dramatic,” and that Medicaid recipients’ higher earnings have already made up for the cost of its expansion.
Then I read the phrase, “government resources are limited, as they always are,” for these effective welfare programs. I cannot recall seeing those words applied to Pentagon spending. Also, empirical work does not reveal positive paybacks for “the common defense” from the trillions spent in Iraq and Afghanistan or on funding the bottomless Pentagon budget. Let’s turn a huge portion of the Pentagon budget over to creating jobs addressing our “general welfare,” as these produce “dramatic” positive paybacks.
Thank you for highlighting Professor Hendren’s work on welfare’s payback. At a time where the poor seem to be under severe economic strain during the pandemic, it is good to note that the system is not what conservatives have portrayed. The system does work in many cases. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said when asked, “What separates your success from your mother’s?”—“One generation.” She had the opportunity that the prior generation did not.
Unfortunately, with COVID-19 not going away soon, many families will be dependent on public assistance to sustain not only access to health care, but also simple things like shelter and food for the table.
This system, as noted in the article, is much more than altruistic or economic generosity. It is a safety net that not only protects families, but also provides a potential gateway to escape poverty and contribute to the overall economy and the ultimate welfare of the community.
John D. Sullivan, A.L.M. ’01, Ph.D.
Chair and associate professor
Boston University Metropolitan College
Renounce Legacy Preferences
The movement for Black Lives has exposed many insidious traditions, especially in 2020. But a persistent barrier for first-generation Harvard applicants endures: legacy preferences. Despite plenty of attention to Harvard admissions in courts and media, extra credit to applicants based on family ties persists, at 42 percent of private institutions and some public ones. Harvard alumni should seize this moment to reject favoritism based on relatives.
Legacy preference is a tangible privilege we have as Harvard College graduates that perpetuates inequality. Many legacies don’t need boosting, but non-legacy Harvard College applicants are accepted at a much lower rate.
Raising legacy admissions amid violent oppression of Black and Brown communities risks resembling elitist deck-chair shuffling. Structural education biases matter for anti-racism, however. Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins, isolates legacies as a “form of hereditary privilege in American higher education.” Why has Harvard continually chosen to reinforce intergenerational advantages?
Broader rationales than donations or alumni status per se are sometimes invoked. President Larry Bacow has explained that “[w]e actually look to see…who’s been actively involved,” identifying “people who’ve devoted their time and effort.” How alumni contributions are weighed and why linkage to admissions is equitable aren’t adequately explained.
Legacies, dating to “Anglo-Protestant dominance in the 1920s,” have become more diverse. They declined from 80 percent to 60 percent white at Harvard College between 2014 and 2019. I don’t speak for graduates of color, but value Ashton Lattimore ’13’s observation that for alumni of color “the prospect of our children finally being able to lay claim to the legacy advantage after hundreds of years of being shut out feels hard-won and precious.” Yet instead of her son being advantaged in admissions, [she adds,] “I’d rather see him inherit a fairer world.”
I share in that responsibility of rejecting legacy privilege. Ideally it would be abolished, but until then alumni should have to request preferred-application status for relatives explicitly, owning the privilege instead of passively receiving it. This may help convince University leaders that graduates’ support needs no admissions quid pro quo.
Frederick Douglass stressed that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” Harvard needs to hear louder change demands on legacy preference. My twenty-fifth reunion year was manifoldly unprecedented, but there’s opportunity for a positive legacy: Fair Harvard should pledge to admit with greater fairness.
Christopher Rickerd ’95
One has to agree with the authors of the study on Alzheimer’s causes that genetics cannot be the main factor (“Lessons in Dementia’s Decline?” November-December 2020, page 10). What is astonishing to me, as a recently retired neuroscientist, is that among possible environmental causes of Alz-heimer’s, there is no mention of pesticides and other poorly studied chemical agents in the environment. The decline in incidence in Europe and North America reported here, along with the rise in places like Nigeria and China, would seem to correlate at least somewhat with pesticide use patterns in those areas. I would think that with all the data the study authors have from different countries, and, one hopes, different regions within those countries with different levels of exposure to different pollutants, some great correlation studies could be carried out. This information would be critical for development of proper governmental regulation of these agents.
George Reeke, Ph.D. ’69
New York City
Jonathan Shaw responds: The study was a rigorous documentation of the decline, but causes remain an open question. It is certainly possible that pesticides are involved. The possible causes Professor Hofman cited were speculation, as he noted. More research is needed.
Should any of your readers of Nell Porter Brown’s intriguing tour of the Hammond Castle Museum in Gloucester want to learn more about its architectural history (“A Man and His Castle,” Harvard Squared, November-December 2020, page 8G), they can dig up my article “Twentieth-Century Gothic: The Hammond Castle Museum in Gloucester and its Antecedents,” published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections (vol. 117, no. 2, April 1981, 81-104).
James F. O’Gorman, Ph.D. ’66
Professor emeritus, Wellesley College
Editor’s note: The article is not online, but Professor O’Gorman hopes a reprint will be available at the Castle shop in the future.
The Electoral College
Stuart Zeiger’s letter in the November-December issue (page 8) captured the tension between fact and folklore when discussing the merits of the Electoral College. The “College” has rendered “one-man-one-vote” an artifact of some long-lost democracy.
The universal strategy of political parties has become mired in the never-ending pursuit of gerrymandering/redistricting such that the popular vote in any particular district can be rendered a nullity simply by rearranging where the votes will be assigned. By diluting the presence of one party’s voters in targeted districts, a party can capture 100 percent of a state’s electoral votes by simply getting 51 percent of the popular vote. Using the popular vote would eliminate any advantage for redistricting/gerrymandering.
Furthermore, the vast amount of available demographic information coupled with the abilities of political research firms have altered the very nature of political campaigning. States, voters, voting districts, party affiliations, and a myriad of other databases are now key factors in gaining advantages in elections. “Swing states” now dominate the political discourse and news reporting. A handful of states can now be identified by research firms as the keys to victory or loss. Typically, 40 or more states are not even recognized by news coverage during the runup to the national election. Be reminded that a 51 percent popular vote in any of these swing states means you get 100 percent of their electoral votes. The remaining voters are simply rendered irrelevant. Now add the influence of toxic money being poured into efficient ad and social-media buys, often creating impressions that are misleading or untrue.
I agree with Zeiger. We must elect the president the same way we elect every other position. Two of our last four presidents lost the popular vote. The results of those elections have been anything but satisfying.
Gary W. Farneti ’71
Stuart Zeiger’s letter on the National Popular Vote (NPV) compact makes three points, and I disagree on all counts:
1. His argument that New York and California would not run the show because there are plenty of Republican voters in the rural portions of those states is flawed. As long as spending money in heavily populated markets is the most efficient way to reach people, candidates might cater to the massive numbers of urban and suburban voters within the media markets of the large cities in the large states, at the expense of trying to engage with voters in sparsely populated areas of any states not near any large market, who may have very different issues and views regardless of party. This problem can be solved only if and when the reach of the various media themselves becomes irrelevant and all candidates can use the same popular platforms uniformly to reach people across the country free of sectional distribution patterns and private censorship.
2. I, for one, believe that NPV may well be unconstitutional. Having each state award its electoral votes without any reference to the preferences of its own citizens (either by their votes or, in the past, by a legislature elected by its citizens) is a textbook case of an arbitrary and capricious law that might actually violate the seldom-invoked “republican form of government” clause.
3. The Electoral College is a creature of history, but it serves functions that many Americans consider important. I am not aware of whether any state ever found a need to elect a governor this way, and following the voting rights cases and legislation of the 1960s the flexibility to do so free of constitutional challenge has been limited. That some states may adequately balance the needs of various population groups in a state legislature is hardly a reason to think that this is not also important at the federal level.
Robert Kantowitz, J.D. ’79
Those Laid Off
In the November-December issue (7 Ware Street, “A Quartet of Crises,” page 5), you wrote about the 2008-2009 financial crisis: “Yes, the University lost $11 billion to $14 billion in endowment and other assets, and had to incur costly debt, and devote more resources to financial aid to help squeezed families, and stop expanding its faculties, and delay major construction projects, and in other ways defer growth for a decade or so. But otherwise it remained identifiably itself: students studied, professors taught and researched—all the elements of a twenty-first-century university.”
I would remind you that one of the ways the University addressed its financial plight in 2009 (which was arguably the result of imprudent investment decisions and other forms of overreach that left it vulnerable in an economic downturn) was by laying off some 300 staff members, shedding not only their salaries but obligations for their current and future benefits, such as retirement medical coverage—for many of us, an important consideration in choosing to come to work at Harvard and to remain, for several decades in many cases. Hundreds of careers and lives were significantly disrupted, as many long-term staff found themselves looking for work in the midst of a severe recession and ultimately often having to accept positions with significantly lower salaries and benefits.
Harvard may have remained “identifiably itself,” but it’s important to recognize the cost borne by those staff members who were involuntarily separated from the university.
Harvard staff member, 1987-2009
Master Yon Lee
In the late 1980s, Master Yon Lee of Adams House (“A Life in Tai Chi,” November-December 2020, page 28) taught a kung fu class at the Malkin Athletic Center right before my own (very ’80s) aerobics class. As I was setting up the boom box and mixed cassette tapes, decked out in my beloved Reebok high-tops, legwarmers, and (I shudder to write this) neon spandex, the differences between our respective activities (and maturity) could not be more marked. Still, Master Lee—in his uniform of white T-shirt and black cotton pants; no shoes—never failed to stay a while and visit with me.
Sometimes, I’d arrive to find Master Lee vigorously whacking on a sitting student’s back and sides. I’d marvel that those students never seemed to mind, and he would patiently explain the why behind those whacks. I learned more about balance and force from those visits than I did from my Common Core Physics class, along with a few words of Mandarin and some really good jokes. Master Lee’s sense of humor was and no doubt is giddy and rich.
When I developed a stress fracture in my left foot (a result no doubt of all that high-impact flailing around), Master Lee respectfully asked if he might help me, and with only hands and herbs, performed what felt like medical magic.
I have so many wonderful memories of our friendship. Thank you for honoring Master Lee and his legacy at Harvard and reminding me I owe him an email.
Leslie Benedict Turnbull ’89
The series of articles on “what’s wrong with health care” [see “The World’s Costliest Health Care”] showed an easily recognizable bias: all the problems are blamed on giving too much health care to older or dying people. Or too much diagnostic care. Or too much anything for the patient.
Curious: are we paying doctors too much? Are we charging too much to produce doctors and therefore we do not have enough to go around? Is Harvard’s role as an owner of an expensive medical school that produces doctors for Park Avenue and the elite making this magazine reluctant to take that topic on?
I don’t hate doctors or begrudge reasonable compensation, but it is impossible to believe that their salaries and income do not help drive up the cost of health care. That question bears investigation. Disappointed that your magazine did not ask it.
Jacqueline Hicks Grazette ’81, M.B.A. ’85
Upper Marlboro, Md.
In your current issue there is mentioning of the possibility of renaming Lowell House after Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (Brevia, November-December, page 21). This prompted me to write the following:
To begin, in the 1920s she was the first student from Radcliffe College—then part of Harvard University—to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy. In the 1950s she was the first woman to become a full professor in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Subsequently, when she was appointed chair of the astronomy department at Harvard, she was the first woman to head any department at Harvard.
Some personal recollections. I was an undergrad at Harvard in the mid 1960s, receiving my degree mcl in 1966. I concentrated in astronomy. For a couple of years I worked for Payne-Gaposchkin on her massive project to measure the light curves of Cepheid variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds. She was an exacting but very caring employer and mentor. In those pre-computer days, the tool of choice for working on numerical models was a Frieden desk calculator. These were quite large and heavy machines similar to old-fashion cash registers. I recall that often when something would go wrong with her machine she’d pick it up and begin thumping it on her work table in the hope that this would get it to work properly. You could hear the thumping throughout the large room where her bevy of assistants worked. In my senior year I took an advanced, graduate-level course that she taught. She was a great and inspiring teacher. She was also a chain smoker. So as she was standing at the black board she would have between the fingers of one hand a lit cigarette, an unlit one, and a piece of white chalk. Getting deeply engrossed in her lecturing she would often mix the three up—she’d try to write on the board with one of the cigarettes or to inhale the piece of chalk. Either of these actions would result in rather humorous consequences, all of which she took in stride and never broke her chain of thought.
Jay A. Frogel ’66, Ph.D.
Professor of astronomy emeritus
The Ohio State University
Editor’s note: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was profiled in the Vita in the May-June 2020 issue.
Why does every division of Harvard University, except for Harvard College, have its own alumni organization?
There are alumni groups for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and for graduates of the Business, Dental, Divinity, Extension, Design, Education, Kennedy, Law, Medical, and Public Health schools, but not for the 120,600 living Harvard College graduates.
Although the HAA Board does list “Directors for Harvard College,” they were not appointed or elected by fellow College alumni—the HAA Executive Committee put them there! I know of no formal process for nominating a College director and have never received any request for a nomination.
I believe that the HAA has not sustained a satisfactory level of service to College alumni as its other programs, interest groups, and regional clubs have grown substantially. During the pandemic, several individual classes have purchased Zoom accounts for community conversations, virtual lunches, and cocktail hours, book talks and lectures, and other social and intellectual programming. I have seen no effort by the HAA to promote or coordinate these undertakings.
Harvard University should treat its College degree holders the same as all its other graduates by creating an alumni organization focused on Harvard College alumni.
Benjamin N. Levy ’69
I was taken aback that your interviewer, Lydialyle Gibson, failed to challenge art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s characterization of the Turkish Republic of the 1920s and 1930s as “progressive and modern” [see the Harvard Magazine podcast “What Happens When an Artwork Deceives Its Audience?”] The self-named “father of the Turks,” Mustafa Kemal, having carried out a genocide against the Armenian population of Smyrna in 1922, went on to make denial of the Turkish genocide against the Ottoman Armenian population in the period 1915-1923 official state policy. My wife’s maternal grandparents saw their entire families slaughtered on death marches; her paternal grandparents managed to find refuge in the Ottoman capital, Constantinople (its official name before 1930), only to endure having their surnames forcibly Turkified (they were ultimately driven out of Istanbul in the 1950s in yet another wave of pogroms). The régime did not encourage the relative emancipation of women; it encouraged the relative emancipation of “Turkish women,” to the exclusion of others. Of course, as the scholar Stefan Ihrig has shown, at least one European state in the 1930s saw the Turkish Republic as “progressive and modern,” with a nationalities policy to be emulated: Nazi Germany.
In a further irony, Carrie Lambert-Beatty failed to recognize Michael Blum’s memorialization of the fictional Safia Bahar not simply as a piece of anti-establishment art, but as replicating the sort of official “history” that the Turkish Republic continues to propagate. In this grotesque pseudo-history, Indo-European-language-speaking ancient Hittites were “Turks,” as are modern Kurds, and there was never an Armenian state in Armenia. In effect, according to the Turkish Republic’s official narrative, the ancestors of Safia Bahar were virtually the sole inhabitants of Asia Minor. The sizable numbers of excellent professional historians of Turkish nationality already have an entrenched enough corpus of poisonous official lies to confront in teaching their students and carrying out proper historical research (while avoiding attracting the ire of an increasingly intolerant authoritarian régime) without finding them repeated by effective (if unwitting) collaborators abroad. To encounter the lies reproduced, if only in passing, in Harvard Magazine is depressing indeed.
Robert Dulgarian ’85
Lydialyle Gibson responds: The Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk came up during the podcast conversation indirectly, in the context of explaining the artistic concept of “parafiction” (artwork presenting fiction as fact) using an Istanbul-based gallery exhibition from 2005 as an example. We take seriously Mr. Dulgarian’s point about the omission of the Armenian genocide, a subject that would require its own full conversation, even though it lay outside the scope of this brief exchange.
An Amplification and Errata
Lincoln Caplan writes: I’m sorry Jacqueline Lapidus didn’t see the profile of Noah Feldman (“Near and Distant Objectives,” September-October 2020, page 35) before publication so she could have offered her advice: “magnitude” would have been a fine word choice. Still, it’s worth letting readers know that “enormity” in Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged, 2nd ed., 1959) means “immensity,” as I used it, among other meanings. “Enormity” is what the word wizard Bryan Garner calls a “skunked term,” like “decimate,” which once meant “draw lots and kill one out of every ten” and now means “destroy.” A skunked term’s usage causes a stink when the term’s meaning is in transition from one conventional understanding (“enormity” as “immensity”) that some still read it to mean, to a different understanding (“the extreme of something morally wrong”). It’s misleading, though, to say that “enormity” has always meant the latter and always will. It didn’t and, who knows? It may not.
In the November-December Harvard Portrait (page 17), we misspelled Mayra Rivera’s first name. And in Brevia (September-October, page 21), we misspelled Sherri Ann Charleston’s first name. Twice chastened, perhaps we will learn our lesson. Our apologies to both.