Refocusing the MIT Climate Change Conversation

Divestment debate overshadows direct actions

By: Daniel Rothenberg, Alec Bogdanoff, Arthur Yip, and Paul Kishimoto

note - this essay originally appeared in the 2015 Commencement edition of The Tech

This week, the initial phase of the MIT Climate Change Conversation will conclude with the release of a committee report weighing the pros and cons of actions proposed by the MIT community. A focus of that report will be on divestment of the Institute’s endowment from fossil fuels. Without the early, critical efforts of Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT), the energetic, campus-wide discussion of MIT’s options for climate action would never have begun.

But — as current doctoral students directly engaged in climate change research and alumni of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change — we want to highlight an important part of the conversation overshadowed by the debate on divestment. The principles motivating this debate should also motivate many other actions that have been discussed less intensely. We share the divestment movement’s vision of a lower-carbon world; however, direct actions and plans to address climate change are necessary and better accord with the Institute’s global leadership in research and education.

MIT’s stated mission is to lead through science and innovation. For decades, MIT academic groups have been at the forefront of research in climate, anthropogenic climate change, and the options for mitigating that change. Academics, policymakers, and citizens around the globe expect and need us to continue this work, which — some may be surprised to learn — has often been funded by the very fossil fuel industry from which some wish to divest.

While it is true and unacceptable that several companies fund fear, uncertainty, and doubt about climate change and policy, many others see the writing on the wall. They know that change is coming, and they support MIT research in order to better understand climate change, imminent climate policies, and possible niches in a low-carbon future. And while long-term mitigation of climate change does require minimizing our dependence on fossil fuels, all credible pathways require their continued use in the near term. MIT has long embraced conscientious and productive collaborators outside academia. As a community, we should continue to expand such relationships and to bring all the major players in society’s energy transformation to our table.

Beyond our external partnerships, climate scientists and policy researchers at MIT — proud of their scholarly rigor — have always upheld the responsibility to publish their findings, no matter how unpalatable those results are to sponsors or industry partners, including the fossil fuel industry. This steadfast commitment to quality and independence has earned MIT its reputation as an honest broker of sound, unvarnished, and clear-eyed technical and policy advice. This is why our faculty, alumni, and students are trusted voices in Washington, D.C. as well as capitals and boardrooms around the world. Decision-makers look to us for leadership and solutions to help tackle great challenges head-on, and they trust our counsel in a world filled with political rhetoric and polarization. Divestment is one such politically-fueled and polarizing move; we should focus on actions that better align with MIT’s unique strengths in research and education and our partnerships in these endeavors.

We strongly identify with the moral imperative at the core of the divestment movement: we must act on climate change, now! Yet knowing the problem intimately, our community cannot solely focus on symbolic gestures such as petitions and demonstrations. The radiant energy and enthusiasm focused on divestment must also be channeled towards direct actions on campus through mens et manus, invigorating innovative climate and energy actions.

The Climate Change Conversation’s Idea Bank crowdsources many such actions from the MIT community. Beyond the repetitive calls for divestment, the Idea Bank documents innovative seeds that MIT can, and should, nurture with the involvement of an even broader segment of our community. For instance, one idea calls for MIT to “lead a global problem-solving process on what to do about climate change.” This could leverage existing groups on campus such as the Climate CoLab and the Center for Global Change Science, but with a renewed focus on implementing the solutions they research. Several other ideas call for MIT to pioneer microscale climate action, such as achieving a net zero-carbon or a net energy-exporting campus. Through successes in these ventures, MIT could lead other campuses and municipalities nationwide into following in its footsteps. Both fresh and novel ideas like these and the engagement of the people behind them are the best outcomes of the Conversation.

For more than 150 years, MIT has been a trusted source of knowledge and a guide through revolutions both industrial and technological, helping transform society through groundbreaking research and education. Climate change, the great challenge of our time, is the next chapter in this history. Our community is capable of far more than just symbolic actions; we should lead the next transformation through actions that reflect our core mission: advancing knowledge and educating national and world decision-makers. Regardless of the divestment outcome, let’s re-commit the collective intellect of the MIT community to writing the chapter of society’s history in which we solve climate change.

Daniel Rothenberg is a PhD candidate in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences; Paul Kishimoto is a PhD student in Engineering Systems and a researcher with the Tsinghua-MIT China Energy & Climate Project; Alec Bogdanoff is a PhD candidate in Physical Oceanography in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography and in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences; Arthur Yip is an alumni of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and received an S.M. from the Technology and Policy Program in 2014.