Don’t Divest

Fossil Free MIT and quixotic thinking on climate change

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Kerry A. Emanuel, an MIT professor in the EAPS department, gave a talk on global warming on Wednesday, Feb. 26, in 4-237. The talk was sponsored by Fossil Free MIT, and is part of a series of lectures that will be held throughout the spring semester.
Melissa Renée Schumacher—The Tech

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.

Anonymous about 4 years ago

I also believe that the Fossil Free campaigners are sadly misguided. I believe they should instead focus their efforts on objectives that have more definite outcomes. While some of these may not have the ready-made arguments provided by the Fossil Free organization, or the glamor of sounding important by talking about something that sounds sexy like stocks, they have more certain impact on sustainability and less uncertain repercussions. One that I like is the installation of electricity and water meters in all dorm rooms and labs, so that the users of energy pay directly for it. I guarantee that this will reduce MIT's energy consumption, and it is also more likely to start everyone on campus thinking about how to reduce energy usage than Fossil Free's current proposal.

Anonymous about 4 years ago

The Fossil Free idea is attractive because people can feel like they are doing something without having to make any personal sacrifices. They can feel good about themselves while continuing to enjoy their nice warm offices.

Becky about 4 years ago

I'm not sure why The Tech hasn't reported on this movement as news yet but

someone is. The heart of the matter is explained clearly in an article of

Boston College's newspaper The Heights published today (see link at the

bottom). "If BC disappeared off the face of the planet, it wouldn't emit

anything anymore. But, as a planet, we'd still be hurdling off the climate

cliff." The same is true for MIT or any institution. We have to come up with a way to create broader political

change. Divestment is a way to

start to get system-wide change.

We should not make money from these unsustainable companies and instead

invest that money in companies or endeavors that will work to fix the

problem. We can justify taking money from these companies and doing good

with it, but how can we justify giving them money to do as they wish with

it when it definitely includes harming the environment?


Anonymous about 4 years ago

Hilarious piece. The only thing you left out was to say that "learning to code" would help solve the climate change problem. Time and again I see MIT students heralding technology as a cure-all.

We believe in MIT's technological might, but not in its political might. Because the latter isn't something you can quantify and boast about at commencement speeches.

Besides, think about what you are saying about funding: if MIT divests from fossil fuels, that will hurt research funding coming from BP and Shell. Seriously? I get that Shell and BP have their own interests (which are not aligned with the interests of the environment), but we should not let their interests dictate research and policy matters at MIT. It's like saying MIT should stop research on David Koch's political activities because he gives MIT so much money.

In the end, you did not propose a radical solution. You are just saying: "more of the same". Too bad the disaster is already upon us.

Jordan Mlsna about 4 years ago

There is much to address here, but most of what's incorrect comes more fundamentally from a lack of understanding of the urgency of climate change action (to put it shortly, we must see significant economic and industrial restructuring in the next few years to have a chance at avoiding catastrophe) and a lack of recognition that the limiting factor in getting the type of action that's required is now, and long has been, social and political. I don't think the authors really do "wholeheartedly accept the science" if they think making slight improvements upon still-expanding fossil fuel burning comes even close to maximizing human welfare -- short, medium, and long terms all included.

It is difficult to not to carry on through the night debunking... many MIT students including myself have dedicated much time to wrestling with the logic of divestment, especially at Fossil Free MIT's founding a little more than a year ago. One of our supporters will surely submit a reply to the Tech.

I wish to clarify one specific thing though: Fossil Free MIT is not a "chapter" of Fossil Free. I understand the mistake since the names overlap (we liked that the name revealed something about our aims, and had nice rhyme to it -- we didn't want to be 'Divest MIT', as most other groups have gone, because divestment is only a tactic, not the mission). There is a relationship between the two in that the idea of divestment is spreading like wildfire among those deeply concerned about climate change and the systems that keep us locked into it. Individuals and groups have often turned to Fossil Free to gain an idea of movement potential before setting off on independent campaigns. Fossil Free MIT carefully considers how any of the logic that the broader movement might have in common applies at MIT. It actually makes particularly good sense for MIT to lead on this, reflecting upon how tied moral objections to the fossil fuel industry's business plan are to a regard for science (a piece of the argument is that their misinformation and slander of scientists is unacceptable, for example). From what I know, our group operates quite differently from other university divestment groups.

Bravo, commenter #4. (Who are you? Please people search and email me!)

Jordan Mlsna about 4 years ago

Tuesday at 5:30 in 35-225 is a great place to continue talking about this. Authors: please come and throw your concerns into the discussion!


Fossil Free supporter about 4 years ago

To the authors:

I won't repeat what commenters #5-6 have already expressed so well. But I want to add this: I see that you have personally "toiled to solve one of our greatest global challenges" by slandering other students' efforts to address climate change. How very admirable.

You've also made an awful lot of presumptions on FFMIT's part. How about taking the time to do more research about their arguments, and why world leaders like the World Bank President and UN Climate Chief support fossil fuel divestment, for example?


To Commenter #1:

See #5 on this FAQ infographic on why campus sustainability alone is NOT enough: https://magic.piktochart.com/output/1180384-divestment_common_queries

Anonymous about 4 years ago

Other commenters have addressed much of what I would have said. I just want to add how completely unjust it is for some of the most privileged folks in the world to be unwilling to take a stand against the fossil fuel industry. People are already dying, the destruction we are now causing will be unparalleled. It is long time for MIT to move away from the fossil fuel juggernaut. We already have the technology to transition away from fossil fuels. What we lack is the political will. MIT taking money from BP et al to more efficiently frack gas gets us NOWHERE. Considering these authors are poli sci majors, they possess a pathetic understanding of what is a political problem. Grow up and quit worrying about your future career, you won't have one in the destabilized climate we are creating.

Jordan Mlsna about 4 years ago

Someone did write an opinion response in time to print on Tuesday, by the way. It was turned in at noon on Sunday... but the Tech is being rather picky about printing it.

Relatedly, I find it kind of surprising that there has been no reporting from the Tech. Here we have a dedicated group of students that has grown quickly, an unusual mix of grads and undergrads working hand-in-hand, including mostly science and engineering students who never imagined they'd be teaching themselves organizing skills. They're in ongoing negotiations with administrators and have collected thousands of petition signatures from the community asking MIT to lead in recognizing the stark scientific and moral reality of a dire issue set to dominate the lives of current students' generation...

I could go on, but apparently the Tech finds this uninteresting?