Originally published in the Cambridge Day on Wednesday, November 10, 2015.
Lack of ambition and refusal to take ethical leadership are glaring.
As MIT alumni engaged in promoting much-needed climate action by the Institute, we are deeply disappointed with the Climate Action Plan released on October 21st. The Plan, a response to a year-long campaign by the administration to solicit ideas and formulate a strategy for tackling climate change at the Institute, addresses the issue almost exclusively as a technical hurdle, providing only vague assurances that MIT will work to eliminate political obstacles to reducing carbon emissions while ignoring the reality that the major obstacle to climate change mitigation is a lack of political will. Such a narrow approach is inadequate to the practical imperatives of climate change, and we believe that MIT should reassess its premises for how academic institutions can influence policy and economics, and the role of moral considerations in its operations and finances.
The vision put forth by the MIT Climate Action Plan imagines a world that would perhaps be very promising, if only it were accompanied by a persuasive theory of change. The plan is based on the premise that “engagement” between academic, government, and industry forces is both the exclusive means and a realistic mechanism for effective climate change mitigation and a renewable energy transition. Justification for this unexplained assertion is given by way of analogy, citing examples of MIT’s effective collaborations with government for weapons research and fossil fuel companies for advances in fossil and renewable energy technologies, and the pipeline of students from MIT to such long-established partners. What is notably lacking is any evidence that such relationships have been or will be capable of changing the fundamental business practices of fossil fuel companies. In addition to lacking a strategy for systemic change, the plan presents no framework for evaluating the impact of MIT’s engagement with fossil fuel companies on their climate policy progress.
In fact, the premise of unconditional engagement with fossil fuel companies appears to be little more than a fig leaf to appease MIT’s fossil fuel baron donors. Divesting the endowment from fossil fuel companies would obviously send a strong negative signal to these companies that their business model is incompatible with a livable future for humans on this planet. Human nature being what it is, such pressure might result in a reduction of funding to MIT from these companies, something the Institute is clearly not willing to risk. The unfortunate reality, however, is that continuing to stay in the good graces of these companies means destroying the future of all the MIT students whose education is enabled by those funds. It’s a form of self-destructive behavior by our Institute that needs to come to a complete end.
In the real world, fossil fuel companies have spent the past few decades taking whatever approaches are most expedient at the time in order to block meaningful regulation of their primary waste products, CO2 and methane. This has taken various forms, from direct lobbying and financial contributions to politicians to support of think tanks which cast doubt on climate science and even individual scientists. One of MIT’s close industry partners, ExxonMobil, is currently facing a subpoena from the state of New York over its failure to disclose the financial risks of carbon emissions regulation to its own shareholders, even though Exxon’s own scientists warned executives of this danger as early as the late 1970s. The Climate Action Plan references such “pernicious” activities, but puts its faith in the recent statements by some fossil fuel companies to commit to policies supporting a goal of no more than 2°C warming. This sounds promising, but its sincerity is puzzling, given that a 2°C limit requires that fully two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned. Are we to expect that the fossil fuel industry will willingly abandon these assets?
One of the most striking disparities between the recommendations of the Climate Change Conversation Committee’s June report and the Climate Action Plan is the rejection of an Ethics Advisory Council or any other means for the entire MIT community to examine and develop a common understanding of the moral and ethical principles we stand for. The report recognized the possibility that, regardless of MIT’s independent actions, some companies may never meet the ethical standards to which our Institution would like to hold its partners. By dismissing this recommendation, the Plan removes all accountability from its sponsors and partners.
While the Plan contains many laudable actions, such as broadening the resources and scope of MIT Energy Initiative research and adding sustainability courses to the curriculum, its fundamental goals are unambitious for an institution of our prestige and capability, and do not sufficiently rise to the challenge of climate change. As demonstrated by Fossil Free MIT, the modest campus emissions reductions proposed by the plan are not a model for the world to follow if we are to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 2°C by 2100. The emissions reduction plan relies on continuing to source most campus energy from the co-gen plant, and merely upgrading aging infrastructure and moving to primarily burn natural gas; it does not propose a large-scale renewable energy infrastructure transition. As an institution with the resources and expertise to do much more, we have a moral obligation to cut our own emissions much more significantly. MIT’s proposed emissions reductions for 2030 are modest in comparison to the 2015 goal proposed by the founding document of the MIT Energy Initiative under President Hockfield. This is the definition of kicking the can down the road.
The MIT community is not sitting idly by waiting for direction from our leaders before we roll up our sleeves. In addition to the climate and energy research lauded by the administration’s plan, a growing network of students, faculty, and alumni are joining forces to enact a broader climate action plan that addresses political, economic, and social issues alongside technical and scientific ones. For instance, we at MIT Alumni for Climate Action Leadership are actively working on increasing alumni engagement in climate action, and in elevating MIT’s institutional leadership on this issue. Right now we are heeding President Reif’s call to participate in this year’s MIT Climate CoLab competition titled “Harnessing the power of MIT alumni”. This competition is an excellent opportunity for fellow alumni and others to participate in forging new intellectual and political bonds and contributing expertise to developing actionable climate solutions.
As MIT alumni, we believe that the world deserves and needs a stronger ally in the struggle for climate justice, and that the MIT community deserves a more effective proposal for how to align our operations and investments with our core value of science in service to humanity. The threat of climate change demands the most passionate, creative, and courageous work from all of us. We hope the administration and every MIT community member will join us in rising to the challenge.