Students and Salata Institute Gather to Chart Climate Opportunities

At a semesterly gathering convened by the Salata Institute, undergraduate and graduate students discussed how to collaborate on climate solutions and strengthen Harvard University’s role in addressing the climate challenge.
Oct 16, 2023

Over 60 students from ten Harvard University Schools packed Bell Hall on October 11 to exchange views on climate action. It was an opportunity for students to advise the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability on how to strengthen educational opportunities and facilitate climate-related synergies on campus.

“There is a lot going on across the university on climate and sustainability. But people don’t always know about it: It’s at different schools with different faculty and programs involved. So one of the main jobs we have is to bring people together to meet each other and have the opportunity to work together,” said Salata Institute Director Jim Stock in his opening remarks.

Executive Director George Sarrinikolaou and Senior Advisor Peter Tufano described how the Salata Institute has responded to student feedback since launching last year: new funding for student groups and travel (Student Organization Funding Program, COP Student Observers Funding Program, Travel Grant Pilot Program); paid internships (70 last year and 41 over the summer); opportunities to connect with alumni who are active in climate careers (Careers in Climate Action Speaker Series); the upcoming Climate and Sustainability Career Expo on December 1; a new student hub website; and positions on a new Salata Student Advisory Council. Sarrinikolaou and Tufano also highlighted that 15 students are going to the COP28 meeting in Dubai next month with funding from the Salata Institute and Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

Students also heard from Harvard’s chief sustainability officer, Heather Henriksen, who described campus-wide initiatives to end the use of fossil fuels, with a plan built around the three pillars of climate, equity, and health.

“A lot of this reflects the needs that you expressed to us last semester,” Sarrinikolaou said.

“Virtually everything that the Salata Institute has done since launching 14 months ago has come out of the comments that you made,” said Tufano, as he introduced representatives of four student groups presenting at the event.

  • Lucas Peilert of the Harvard Kennedy School Mobility Policy Group described his group’s mission: “using transportation as a tool for making cities and places more just and equitable.” The Harvard Kennedy School Mobility Policy Group advocates for more sustainable transportation, works with campus leaders and the city of Cambridge, and conducts polling with Institute funding.
  • Navin Durbhakula, from Harvard Undergraduate Plant Days (previously Harvard Plant Futures), discussed ethical and sustainability concerns about the food served on campus. “One of our biggest initiatives is increasing the availability of plant-based options in the dining halls. So we work very closely with students on organizing petitions around that, organizing tabling at the dining halls, working with dining hall staff. We also host a lot of events, such as documentary screenings and outings to different food festivals,” he said.
  • Isabel Gutierrez said the Harvard Extension School Student Environmental Club organizes events to support students looking to make career transitions. “Because our membership is very global, we want to support students that are addressing sustainability in the local community,” she said, adding that the group’s website spotlights “sustainability success stories of our members and our upcoming events.”
  • Aeden Marcus of Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice highlighted the group’s work planting trees in East Boston and collaborating with other environmental and affinity groups on campus. “We believe that you can’t talk about environmental issues and climate issues without also talking about justice issues,” she said.

The gathering was a chance to introduce Lindi von Mutius, the inaugural Director of the Salata Institute Climate Action Accelerator, which seeks to serve as a resource and partner for all climate change stakeholders, building consensus for solutions. Von Mutius, who has held senior leadership positions with prominent environmental groups, said the Accelerator would translate ideas into action by focusing on solutions that meet four criteria: the greatest impact; long-term impact; scalability; and projects that tap into Harvard’s expertise.

Von Mutius said she had heard student calls for addressing environmental justice, a focus of hers since early in her career.  

“What does this look like in the real world? To start, we’re putting together a meeting of all the faculty that work on environmental justice at the university,” she said. “Because guess what? We’re not talking to each other as much as we should be. We’re thinking about how we can work together better and make sure we’re communicating our shared goals and research projects.”

Students are a key part of this endeavor, von Mutius added, as she leads dialogue and outreach at Harvard and beyond: “I love this job because I get to work with a lot of really smart people who are very committed to challenging the norms. And I have always been really inspired by the students I’ve had a chance to work with.”