Opinion guest column

MIT should divest from fossil fuels

Our chance to take the lead against climate change

4,000: The number of people confirmed killed by Typhoon Haiyan, perhaps the most powerful storm ever to make landfall.

$110 billion: The estimated combined damage to the U.S. in 2012 from weather and climate disasters.

1/3: The fraction of coal, oil, and gas currently contained in proven fossil fuel reserves that humanity is allowed to burn if we desire a 50 percentchance of staying below 2°C temperature rise, the globally-agreed-upon “acceptable limit” to human-caused global warming.

I believe that most members of the MIT community understand the climate crisis on some level, and that we agree that something must be done. But what is MIT’s role in addressing this crisis? We already do groundbreaking research in solar cells, batteries, and climate science. Is that enough? What is one of the most powerful steps MIT could take in this race against time to avert an obvious, predictable global catastrophe?

It’s simple. MIT should divest from fossil fuels.

Study after study — from the International Energy Agency to the London School of Economics to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — has made one simple fact clear: the stated business plan of the fossil fuel industry is incompatible with a safe, stable climate. Look closely at that “1/3” above: if we burn all of the proven reserves of fossil fuels, we would likely put oursehlves on a path to more than 5°C of temperature rise. Yet this industry keeps looking for more carbon to burn — and MIT keeps investing in it as part of our endowment.

Every day that we stay invested in fossil fuels, we lend our implicit support to an industry that has a vested interest in delaying the systemic changes our society must make to avert global warming. Any action taken to address climate change — action supported by Americans across the political spectrum — would result in a direct reduction in the profitability of this industry. In the absence of laws restricting such activity, why wouldn’t the fossil fuel industry choose to undermine our democracy and block climate action by buying politicians and spreading doubt about the scientific reality of climate change?

The barriers to climate change mitigation that we now face are political, not technological, and loosening te grip of the fossil fuel industry on our democracy is a prerequisite to effective political action on climate. Divestment strikes at the very root of this issue, removing the social license that the fossil fuel industry depends upon to operate.

Divestment is not a new idea — it is a proven tactic with a well-defined theory of change. In the 1980s, many universities divested from companies profiting from the Apartheid regime in South Africa, putting international pressure on the South African government. In the 1990s, after reports of disinformation by tobacco companies and widespread divestment, most politicians stopped accepting campaign contributions from tobacco companies. In the 2000s, MIT itself divested from the Sudanese government during the Darfur crisis. Now, in 2013, as the magnitude and injustice of climate change become impossible to ignore, our mandate is clear: MIT must divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Divestment is not just about the pride that would come from being part of a globally recognized Institute that lives up to its own stated values — though it would certainly generate that pride. It is not just about protecting our endowment from a “carbon bubble” that would decimate the value of fossil fuel companies if the world decides to make the necessary transition away from fossil fuels — though it would certainly lead to an endowment with more long-term stability. Divestment is not just about protecting our campus from the three feet of water that MIT would be under in 2050 if a Sandy-strength storm were to hit again, thanks to sea level rise — though it would certainly put MIT on a safer path.

Despite these benefits to us and to our Institute, in the end, divestment is about justice. It is about the idea that no one should have to die for us to fund our education. It is about the idea, expressed by Albert Einstein, that those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act. It is about the idea that all generations and all communities, not just our own, should have a voice in deciding whether the next thousand years look like the ones in which human civilization developed, or whether we should rush headlong into a dramatically more unstable future when our top scientists and scientific organizations are saying, “Stop.”

Divestment acts on the belief that if MIT chooses to stand up and lead, the world will follow. Over 1700 MIT students, faculty, staff, and alumni have signed a petition saying they believe MIT should make that choice. Have you?

Patrick Brown is a graduate student in the Department of Physics and is a member of Fossil Free MIT.

james greyson almost 10 years ago

I agree about divestment but don't get it as a strategy. Since we're in a rush to solve the whole problem why so much attention on the iconic pieces? Why not campaign for the whole economy shift needed to price in externalities and design out net-emissions?

Alasti almost 10 years ago

That would be because the major fossil-fuel companies and their allies are spending many millions of dollars per year to ensure that denialist public messaging is widespread, and that any significant political initiative to create necessary change goes nowhere. Colleges and universities, as "thought leaders" and investors of influence, have a moral obligation to counter the powerful vested interests whose determined focus on solely the profits of the present are taking us on a path which will ultimately be ruinous for all.

james greyson almost 10 years ago

I agree about the path but divestment still looks like a step on a path rather a new path. Why do 'thought leaders' not even try to get the message where it matters, in market prices? Then you wouldn't need campaigns on investment, the change would just happen everywhere.

BTW the 1st 20 captchas were illegible