On Tuesday, October 27, the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy committee in the Massachusetts legislature held its first ever hearing on pricing carbon in the Commonwealth in an economy wide fashion. While the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (ReGGI) places a price (and a cap) on carbon dioxide equivalent emissions produced by the electric power generating sector of Massachusetts and 7 other states, other emissions generating activities in our economy such as driving non-electric cars and burning natural gas and oil for heating do not currently have an associated pricing mechanism that accounts for their contributions to health and climate destroying pollution.

In his testimony, William Barton Rogers Professor of Energy Economics, Dr. Christopher R. Knittel of MIT’s Sloan School of Management explained that carbon pricing is nearly unanimously accepted by economists as the most efficient mechanism for reducing emissions. The committee listened intently as Prof. Knittel explained how putting a price on carbon emissions can lead to the necessary changes in behavior to prevent potentially catastrophic climate changes.

Former ExxonMobil executive Jorge Colmenares, MIT SM ‘92 and MIT Sloan MBA ‘96, gave deeply moving testimony about his search for excellence at MIT and at Exxon. Today, Colmenares works in the renewable energy field because he realizes the critical importance of weaning ourselves from fossil fuel consumption.

“Many of the advances we as a society enjoy today, we owe to the oil & gas Industry. However, over the past 15 years, the oil & gas industry has been conspicuously absent in addressing climate change and taking preventive action,” Colmenares said in his testimony. “Finally, in June of 2015, the six largest oil & gas companies in Europe (Shell, BP, Statoil, Total, Eni and BG) came forward by calling for an international price on carbon. If some of the largest oil & gas companies in the world are calling for pricing carbon, then surely this is the time for all of us to act! Let the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lead the US once again in finding excellence and setting high standards by making carbon pricing a reality!” Colmenares concluded.

House Committee Chair Thomas Golden had to bang his gavel many times in a losing battle to get the audience to stop applauding, as the packed room spontaneously responded to Colmenares’ rousing call to action. It was a powerful moment during the hearing, to have a former fossil fuel industry executive speak out in favor of carbon pricing.

Colmenares was at the hearing because he joined MIT Alumni for Climate Action Leadership (MITACAL), a recently formed group of MIT alumni who are mobilizing alumni and the Institute to take bold climate action. Veteran Massachusetts climate activist, and MITACAL member, Quinton Zondervan, MIT EECS SM ‘95, spearheads the Climate Action Business Association (CABA), an organization for local businesses taking action on climate change. CABA helped organize the panels of business leaders, including Colmenares, that spoke at the hearing, providing solid support for carbon pricing from the local business community in Massachusetts.

Local cleantech investor, David Miller, MIT EECS SM ‘91, and TPP PhD ‘07, received glowing praise from Senate Committee Vice Chair Marc Pacheco, himself a strong proponent of carbon pricing in the Senate. Senator Pacheco commended Dr. Miller for putting his own personal money where his mouth is by investing in renewable energy technologies. Dr. Miller explained that while carbon pricing as proposed would not directly subsidize the cleantech industry, it would nonetheless send a strong signal to investors and entrepreneurs that cleantech was here to stay, and poised for growth. And that would allow Massachusetts to continue to enhance our leadership in this vitally important sector as we continue to address climate change.

Humanist and MITACAL member Nina Lytton, MIT Sloan SM ‘84, sat through more than four hours of testimony before getting a chance to give her own. She told the committee about her undergraduate dissertation work in pricing market externalities, completed in 1978. “I speak in moral support of the MIT student group, Fossil Free MIT, which is in the 6th day of a sit-in outside MIT President Rafael Reif’s office. Fossil Free MIT is asking the MIT Corporation for a more aggressive action plan on climate change. When I look into the eyes of these courageous young people, I see myself 37 years ago, graduating into a world that I was fairly sure would not be kind to my generation’s children. This indeed has come true.  My heart aches in empathy with the anguish of this generation: their reproductive choices are at stake,” said Lytton in her heartfelt testimony.

Lytton pointed out that “carbon pricing is where reason, science and business meet compassion for young adults, for poor and vulnerable people around the world, and for the unborn – in a way that supports freedom of choice by individual citizens.” Her testimony was a fitting conclusion to MIT’s tremendous contribution to this historic event, adding what is unfortunately left out of MIT’s motto: heart.