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A few weeks ago, during Antarctica’s summer, I joined the MIT Alumni Travel Program and a group of 38 MIT alumni and guests for a two-week expedition to the last great wilderness on Earth, Antarctica. I was impressed with the whole program—gliding around enormous tabular icebergs by Zodiac, walking along beaches covered with thousands of penguins, and kayaking among whales and sea birds. You can see a dynamic collection of photos from the trip Antarctica: Journey in Pictures.
Lectures by MIT Professor Susan Solomon, who spoke about the early Antarctic explorers’ experiences, were a particular highlight. After our return, I asked her for an environmental perspective since she is the leading atmospheric chemist who discovered the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole.
Why do you think past environmental problems have something to teach us about climate change?
First and foremost, it’s a source of inspiration. There are a slew of environmental problems where we’ve been remarkably successful at making progress in the past—just to name a few, managing the challenges of ozone depletion, smog, acid rain, and lead in gasoline were each once thought to be impossible but people found ways to protect the environment and ourselves, usually at lower costs than originally feared. It’s important for people to remember that, and for younger people who didn’t live through the controversies over these things, to realize that such problems can be managed, if not solved. Younger people are usually very surprised to realize this, and it’s important to look at where we have been in the past to see where we might be able to get in the future.
Each of these past cases has something different to teach us about ways that things can happen—through factors including consumer engagement, technological advances, great science, smart policies, and combinations of all of these. Once we have thought deeply about the things that were done to advance progress on other environmental issues, I think it helps us understand the climate change challenge better and paths forward. Climate change is the toughest environmental issue people have ever faced in my opinion, but I also believe we will make more and more progress at dealing with it.
What do you hope to accomplish as the founding director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative?
I think the way we make the most progress on environmental issues almost always involves working across disciplinary lines. MIT has so much to offer—we have fantastic researchers spanning engineering, the physical and social sciences, management, and humanities, and I think it’s clear that we could contribute even more to environmental progress if we worked together more effectively.
The key goal of the environmental solutions initiative research is to foster that kind of interaction. We also have some exciting educational goals—we’d like to strengthen learning at MIT around environment and sustainability, and one thing we’re looking at is the development of a minor as well as targeted courses.
How can alumni help?
Alumni are a great source of ideas as well as support. We would love to hear from them.