Fossil Free MIT and quixotic thinking on climate change
Recently Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT), an MIT student group, has circulated a petition, now with over 2000 signatures, urging the Institute to cease the investment of its endowment in fossil fuel companies. FFMIT is one chapter of Fossil Free, a multinational organization that advocates this position to facilitate broader divestment among institutions that serve the public good. Their ultimate goal is to influence legislation that would implement measures to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius. While their aspirations are admirable, their strategy is unlikely to work, and their efforts would be better spent advocating clean energy in other ways. Worse, their misguided advocacy could have negative repercussions for MIT and others.
While Fossil Free argues that MIT’s divestment would have meaningful, cascading impacts, their plan is economically limited. Even if others targeted were also to divest — a claim that warrants skepticism — investors with a conscience (e.g. public pension funds and universities) together are too small to create a substantive economic effect. To be fair, the folks at Fossil Free MIT presumably understand this. They argue that divestiture would stigmatize fossil fuel companies and create the “political breathing room” necessary to effect real change. Yet, there is no viable alternative to using oil and gas in the near future, so this campaign cannot free us from global economic dependency, even if universally embraced. FFMIT’s goals, even if achieved, are largely symbolic, whereas the drawbacks are very real.
When FFMIT argues on its website that divestment “will force some of the most powerful and influential people in the country” to think about how to deal with global climate change — the Carbon Question — they ignore that such people (including MIT faculty) are already doing so. Perhaps they are just rhetorically creating a sense of urgency. But the unavoidable point is that existing means cannot immediately solve the problems of worldwide carbon emissions. The MIT Energy Conference this past weekend, for example, presents a snapshot of just how complex the question is. Further still, it’s not clear how divestment communicates urgency to legislators who don’t believe in global climate change in the first place.
Instead, these students’ passion would be better spent joining such efforts and promoting clean energy. MIT is a leader in developing the technologies that are more likely to solve the Carbon Question (and soften the transition to clean energy) than FFMIT’s politically fraught policy agenda. In 2006, the Institute launched the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), which has been enormously successful in organizing MIT’s research talents and funds around a policy and technology goal.
For a university so intertwined with energy policy, biting our thumbs at the oil and gas companies is likely to have repercussions at MIT and interfere with existing Institute efforts to develop clean energy technology. The reason MIT is at the forefront of climate science is because we have such vast resources, many provided by fossil fuel corporations — including multi-million dollar contributions to MITEI from the likes of BP and Shell. MITEI funds 300 principal investigators from 22 departments and 22 labs and centers for energy research, analysis, and education, according to the 2012 MIT Annual Report. Billion-dollar posturing would detract from MIT’s ability to perform such vital functions.
Indeed, divesting the endowment from fossil fuel-related corporations is fairly hypocritical if MIT continues to receive huge sums from these very corporations to fund energy research. And we doubt many would argue that a symbolic gesture of MIT’s supposed detachment from the industry is worth giving up the research these companies fund.
FFMIT presumably advocates MIT’s complete detachment from the fossil fuel industry. But keeping top MIT scientists and engineers involved with such corporations will help reduce the environmental harm caused by fossil fuels, because cutting-edge extraction technologies often do less environmental damage than cruder versions.
And while Fossil Free aims to ostracize all fossil fuel companies, many are also extracting natural gas, the use of which has drastically reduced US carbon emissions in the last 5 years. Indeed, many consider it a medium-term answer to the Carbon Question and part of a realistic transition to a sustainable future. Some reasonably worry that support for natural gas might diminish development of even cleaner energy sources. However, this criticism can hardly be leveled at MIT, where clean energy research continues unabated and even aided by fossil fuel companies.
To be clear, we wholeheartedly accept the science behind climate change, but we believe that Fossil Free is dominated by blind anti-carbon fervor. Instead, the ultimate goal is overall human welfare; we advocate a pragmatic approach that prioritizes human well-being in the short-, medium-, and long-terms. Such an approach includes feasibility, sustainability, and prosperity as guiding principles.
Poor tactics and dramatized rhetoric will only energize the opposition, drive away moderates, and waste the efforts of scientists, engineers, and others who have toiled to solve one of our greatest global challenges. We urge you not to sign FFMIT’s petition.
Ravi Charan and Jackie Han are members of the Class of 2014. John W. Halloran Jr. is a member of the Class of 2015. All three are in the Department of Political Science.