Comment on "Divestment in the MIT Climate Change Conversation"

30 days ago, the MIT Climate Change Conversation culminated in a Report outlining potential actions that MIT could take to address climate change. An open comment period on the Report ends today. I've been fortunate to have many conversations with my peers over the past month on the content of the Report and our own opinions on how MIT can best tackle climate change in the coming years.

Curiously, many of my peers had less-than-favorable opinions about the role of divestment in the Report. This seemed to be mostly in response to a patronizing op-ed tacked on to the post-script of the Report by one of the Climate Change Conversation Committee's members (the graduate student representative) who happens to also be a co-founder of FossilFreeMIT. The post-script offers several unpersuasive arguments why divestment should feature prominently in MIT's climate action portfolio. In fact, it seems that faced with the Committee's rejection of total divestment, FFMIT has pivoted to embrace any divestment as a win. If you find that a bit paradoxical - since their main argument against divestment stems from moral and ethical imperatives which seem to offer little room for compromise - then you're in good company. In fact, the mantra of FFMIT these days seems to be, "let's just do it because it can't hurt us, can it?"

I'd argue that it can. And I argued that in one of my comments on the Report of the Climate Change Conversation Committee, which I've reproduced below:

Divesting from Divestment

I've been dismayed by the space that divestment has occupied in the Climate Change Conversation. It's clear that this Conversation is predicated on the influence that Fossil Free MIT has had, but the charter of the Conversation was not to simply have a "Divestment Discussion". The Climate Change Conversation has been critically dis-served by the focus of the divestment debate on campus, and it's time to spin that debate into a separate entity distinct from the rest of MIT's climate action plan.

I understand that Mr. Supran's editorial comments in the post-script of the report follow a tradition going back to the debate on MIT's campus about the Institute's involvement in military research in relation to the Vietnam War; in that situation, a Report was crafted where there were many dissenting voices from faculty and students, and this was the model upon which the Climate Change Conversation was designed. However, I believe Mr. Supran's arguments entirely and wholly miss the mark about why divestment is controversial. Rather than focus on the myriad arguments that I and my peers have developed against divestment, here I re-iterate and further develop one explicitly (and insufficiently) addressed by Mr. Supran.

Unfortunately, the divestment discussion cannabalized a significant amount of productive discussion during the Climate Change Conversation. I attended two Listening Tour Events, and at both events, over 50% of the time was occupied by the same repetitive calls for divestment. They added little productive discussion to the event. How many innovative ideas have been left on the cutting room floor because divestment has butted in to overshadow the discussion at every opportunity?

But most importantly, divestment has the potential for severe, adverse effects on MIT's research portfolio - especially research on the science and policy of global change. The MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change works closely with fossil fuel companies and the energy industry, and even receives visits from top executives at those companies to learn about global change. However, contrary to Mr. Supran's assertions, the risk from divestment is far more than just losing research funding - it's a risk of losing influential partners who are major players in the economics and policy of climate change. If divestment - cast as a moral indictment of fossil fuel energy in general - succeeds, not only might these partners end their collaborations, but a culture will develop where MIT researchers are discouraged from establishing these collaborations in the first place. Suppose you're a young faculty member seeking tenure and you have the potential to collaborate with a company like Exxon on critical science and policy projects. Would you pursue them if you knew that two members of your tenure review board signed a public letter stating that your potential collaborators of are, "...actively working to obscure the scientific consensus around climate change" when your potential collaboration explicitly serves the opposite purpose?

Such is the problem of morally or ethically charged actions like divestment. Despite the shallow re-assurances of Mr. Supran and others, there are significant ethical dilemmas surrounding divestment. Under no circumstances should MIT pursue divestment until these dilemmas have been properly and thoroughly vetted by at least one independent, unbiased third party - preferably including one from outside of MIT.

But this begs one further question - since divestment still requires a significant, deep reflection, why is its potential being discussed in tandem with the Climate Change Conversation at all? The Report clearly highlights two distinct avenues forward - one "three themed" approach with myriad potential actions, and then divestment on the side. At this point, divestment should be divorced entirely from the Climate Change Conversation. Let's have the "Divestment Discussion" that Fossil Free MIT wanted. Let's include in that discussion the many voices on campus which raise a skeptical eyebrow towards divestment, and not pretend that a majority of the campus supports it. And let's go into the debate open to the possibility that the proper divestment course of action looks nothing like the ones proposed so far.

But let's have that discussion distinct from the Climate Change Conversation, which has produced a viable forward wholly separate from the debate over divestment. This way, those of us who don't care for divestment can still fully invest in the outcome of the Climate Change Conversation, whereas those who are still arguing for it and may not be satisfied with the other solutions in the Report will have a channel to vector their disappointment. But most importantly, this would ensure that MIT's climate actions remain thorough and appropriate for tackling what is truly the greatest challenge ever to face human civilization.