When a leader should follow

MIT needs to divest from fossil fuel producers

At MIT, we pride ourselves on our various environmental and energy initiatives, from campus design to course offerings to groundbreaking research in numerous fields. Our greatest strength as an institution is our position as a world leader in science and technology. In the past, research from MIT has led to advances in green technologies, such as the development of ultracapacitors and novel liquid batteries for energy storage. Our values, as expressed in our research targets, have produced great strides in our society’s transition to more sustainable behaviors.

While our capacity in this arena continues to grow, forces outside the academic and research sphere are increasingly undermining these efforts. The tremendous lobbying power of fossil fuel companies, thanks to their immense wealth, has effectively blocked our political leaders from taking the necessary action to curb the excesses of an industry that is threatening our planet’s health. As students, the threat of climate extremes looms large in our own lives, as the consequences of global warming are already apparent. Look no further than the increasingly intense heat waves that have ravaged parts of the United States for the past few summers.

In light of these circumstances, we must ask ourselves: Is our institution taking the most effective strategies in combating the forces leading us down the path of environmental ruin? The answer is, unfortunately, no. Instead, our leaders are advocating more of yesterday’s business-as-usual policies rather than bold actions and ground-breaking solutions.

MIT has many commendable accomplishments in climate and sustainability issues. Faculty all over MIT campus carry out cutting-edge research on energy efficiency, atmospheric dynamics, the economics of carbon emissions, and countless other aspects of global warming. Since 1991, the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change has trained young scientists to work with policymakers and to communicate science to the public. Under president Susan Hockfield in 2010, MIT joined the Global University Leader’s Forum Sustainable Campus Charter. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and their ilk still profit from billions of dollars of government subsidies to support continued exploration of fossil fuel reserves. International emissions negotiations like the Kyoto Protocol and Copenhagen Accord have achieved almost no progress in slowing the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

In order to bring MIT’s clear commitment to climate and sustainability to bear on our stymied political and economic system, we must take a stand against the industries which render our innovations impotent. Accepting the status quo is not the approach upon which MIT built its world-class reputation. Our student generation cannot afford for it to continue. One important first step towards this objective is to divest our own endowment from fossil fuel companies, thus rescinding our support for their destructive business model.

A brief visit down memory lane shows that this would not be MIT’s first active response to urgent social issues. In 2007, our administrators admirably heeded the call of human rights advocates around the world to divest from companies profiting from the genocide in Darfur. They were likely in part motivated by the slow response of the Institute to the human rights crisis in South Africa under apartheid in the 1980s. After years of campaigning from students, the administration refused to follow the lead of over 150 universities across the U.S. to divest from companies supporting the apartheid regime. However, even in the case of Darfur, which was so clearly a situation “abhorrent to MIT,” we decided to divest long after many other universities committed to the cause. Rather than choosing to lead the world to the obvious choice of renouncing the genocide, we chose to wait cautiously. Harvard was the first university to divest, a full two years before MIT. Campaigns to divest university endowments from fossil fuel companies have taken off across the country in the past year. Student groups at Harvard, Brown, and Stanford, for example, have already made their case before trustee meetings or committees on investment responsibility. Will MIT stand by again while our colleagues and competitors demonstrate their understanding of the gravity of climate change?

Some may argue that as an institution of science and engineering research, it is not our purpose or obligation to stake a claim on issues beyond their technical aspects. However, as an academic institution with a stated mission to “advance knowledge … that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century … [and] bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges,” it is in fact our duty to recognize the broader implications of the work we do and its global political, economic, and social context. For instance, what is the use of designing a highly efficient electric engine, which could significantly reduce carbon emissions from motor vehicles, if corporate lobbyists prevent such technology from ever being economically viable outside the lab? Certainly, research developments inspire further technological advances which can have unanticipated benefits beyond the immediate needs of society. But the political power of the fossil fuel industry poses a major obstacle to the realization of the maximum outcomes of the fruits of MIT research.

MIT needs to put its money where its mouth is and take a stand on the urgent issue of climate change. To do otherwise is to pretend that a few more patents on solar cells and biofuels and a fully optimized campus recycling program will adequately address this problem. While we certainly need to continue such programs, they are not enough on their own. We need to join together with other innovation leaders around the world to prevent the fossil fuel industry from hindering our progress towards a sustainable future.

Britta Voss is a graduate student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences