When more than 300 alumni of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences returned to campus on April 14, 2012, for Alumni Day, that annual rite of spring, the intellectual fare on offer was — as ever — challenging and ambitious. If the seven Harvard faculty members who delivered talks that day thought they might relax in front of the friendly and attentive crowd, they soon learned they wouldn’t be let off the hook quite so easily.
This is an audience that shows its bona fides. With active in-session questioning and enthusiastic post-talk corralling, GSAS alumni encountered faculty members as colleagues, collaboratively engaging in topics ranging from the environment and market design to genetics and social policy. Along the way, they debated some of contemporary society’s thorniest problems — nourished, of course, by lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club.
The keynote address, by Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology Daniel P. Schrag, the director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, was particularly topical, with broad swathes of the country then in the midst of the warmest stretch of early-spring weather on record. “We’ve never seen a weather pattern like this before,” he said bluntly, describing his six-week-early roses. “Things are strange.” (Truth be told, the weather generated much happiness later in the day, allowing an outdoor reception on the patio at the Faculty Club.)
Schrag’s talk, entitled “The Question of Nature: A Geological Perspective on Human-Induced Climate Change,” was a straightforward, sobering, and fascinating examination of the impact of fossil-fuel consumption on the environment. Offering a geological perspective on past climate cycles as a way to begin to predict the changes to come, Schrag said it was the pace of change — the speed at which carbon dioxide levels are rising — that makes future impact ominous but difficult to specify. As those levels continue to rise, and the Earth warms, there will be winners and losers, Schrag said. “What we’re actually doing is a geologically profound experiment on the planet.”
Watch his talk on Harvard’s YouTube channel. And view photos from Alumni Day below.