It’s time for the Institute to divest from fossil fuels

MIT’s values make divestment even more important than for its peers

I want to start off by saying I am not a member of Fossil Free MIT and don’t necessarily agree with the way that they have framed the issue of divestment. But as someone who is deeply concerned about future sustainability, and in light of Stanford’s recent announcement that it will divest from coal companies, I humbly submit a different perspective on the issue for MIT’s consideration. And I hope that MIT will realize: it is time to divest.

Divestment is a complex ethical issue, not to be confused with a moral issue. This is an important distinction; I am often frustrated by how divestment is presented as one-dimensional — moral (divest) vs. immoral (don’t divest) — when in reality, divestment involves many competing values within a matrix (I use the term matrix because these values cannot be ranked linearly).

Within this ethical framework, it is understandable that Harvard would decide not to divest. In a statement on divestment, Harvard President Drew Faust states, “Harvard is an academic institution. It exists to serve an academic mission.” Because Harvard prioritizes its academic mission above all else — and Faust argues, divestment could jeopardize the capacity of the endowment to support this mission — abstaining from divestment is a logical decision.

But MIT is not Harvard. When I applied to colleges, what set MIT apart for me was its undying commitment to serving the world. After I had visited almost two dozen colleges, MIT was the only university to emphasize its social responsibility rather than simply focusing on the breadth of its resources and the quality of its research. A drive to solve the world’s greatest problems has guided MIT’s activities even more so than the Institute’s responsibilities as an academic institution.

For instance, MIT was the first university to release a significant percentage of course materials to the public for free during a time when other peer institutions were concerned that such an action could diminish the value of their institutions and their degrees. But MIT recognized that the benefits of open source education dwarfed any such risks that might challenge its existence and proceeded to inspire hundreds of institutions to follow in its path.

With this in mind, divestment is the logical decision for MIT because although it has risks for the endowment that advances “the academic institution,” it would be a huge symbol of social responsibility that could educate the rest of the United States.

Here’s why. Science has enormous cultural authority in the US, which can be seen historically with major environmental political decisions. On top of that, MIT is considered as a scientific authority in the US (and also the world). And if, as the scientific authority, and therefore authority on climate change, MIT does not see any urgency to act or does not think the cost of action is worth it, then the rest of the nation will remain at ease. Similarly, if MIT does divest from fossil fuels, it will be a jarring wake up call to the public and to politicians.

Even taking a smaller step like Stanford to divest specifically from coal (the most carbon intensive fossil fuel) will come at a lesser cost but have the same magnitude of impact. Such an action would provide a much-needed sense of immediacy to climate change action. It will finally provoke a substantive discussion on climate change policy. But if MIT wants to provoke a national dialogue, it needs to act quickly. Stanford’s divestment has opened up a political window within which MIT can act to gain significant momentum; letting this window slide by will be a crucial lost opportunity.

It is true that from a quantitative analysis, MIT divestment alone won’t make much of a difference in carbon emissions, but I implore you evaluate the impact of MIT’s divestment within the large socio-political context. At MIT we often live within a political vacuum and turn to science and technology as the ultimate answer.

But an increasing body of evidence has shown that science and technology cannot stand alone in answering climate change problems because scientists have realized that the life expectancy of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dwarfs human time scales, because economists have shown that clean tech cannot compete effectively in the energy market, and because the nation’s energy demand will only increase over time. Thus it becomes clear that the science and technologies of climate change need comprehensive policy to really make an impact.

It is also true that divestment will risk losing funding for climate change and clean energy research. But strengthening climate change policy should take priority over improving clean energy technology because the former is significantly behind the latter. Improving the technology without creating a space for it to make an impact is not very helpful. Furthermore, if Stanford can do it, MIT can too. Admittedly, this is a simplistic argument, but I firmly believe that if MIT forges ahead, it can establish a new equilibrium around values that are compelled by the needs of a new era and align better with MIT’s core belief in serving society.

So as a member of the MIT community, I urge you to divest.

Karen Hao is a member of the Class of 2015 and is the Chair of the UA Committee on Sustainability, but writes on her own behalf.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

"if MIT does divest from fossil fuels, it will be a jarring wake up call to the public and to politicians"

I think you may be overstating the effect of this. I suspect that it would be a minor news item that the majority of the population wouldn't even be aware of.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

We've all heard the phrase, "Put your money where your mouth is." It's time for MIT to join Stanford and do one better--divest from fossil fuels! Those institutions that do so early will have an impact on public policy, and more importantly, action which can save our species.

If MIT joins Stanford, then others join them, it will become a major news item. Divestment from South Africa in the late 70s began in a similar fashion and we know how that turned out. MIT, with the science to back you up, you have a chance to set an example, to do more than talk and report on climate change, a chance to act on your findings. What are you waiting for? Divest from fossil fuels.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

If MIT divests from fossil fuels and it becomes a big news story (which I doubt), some reporter is going to come along and take pictures of MIT's fossil fuel-burning power station, notice how much energy MIT wastes, and make the Institute and the Fossil Free MIT group look like fools. Until MIT becomes a world model for energy efficiency and sustainability itself, divestiture will be seen as a hollow action that will undermine MIT's reputation.

Pete over 9 years ago

I have always loved the expression about putting your money where your mouth is. I wonder if one took a survey of the MIT community and asked if they would support the divestment, but it would actually personally cost them money, like $300 less in Student aid or grants each year, (about 1 of the average student aid grants) would they still sign on. It is easy to support something when you do not have to actually suffer anything for taking that position.

That for asking MIT to do something they consider noble, that if it happened they would actual end up paying for the consequences to that decision.

I know a lot of Pension funds faced that same sort of issue with tobacco companies in recent years, divest and have lower returns, meaning that their pensioners would be getting smaller checks. Not so clear cut a decision then.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

I think Karen is absolutely right about the parallel with OpenCourseWare, that MIT faced a potential profit cut but persevered because the impact acting in line with values and serving society vastly outweighed the risk.

While MIT could focus on clean tech and campus sustainability, these are pitiful efforts if we and society as a whole still act like burning fossil fuels won't bring about catastrophic climate change. Divestment is a chance to do something substantive.

A wonderful piece, and I agree wholeheartedly; MIT should divest.

Jli12 over 9 years ago

The argument that we should not take action because we are not a perfectly green campus is irrelevant. Just because my only option for getting to work is a gas-guzzling SUV which was handed down to me, does that mean I don't support electric cars and public transportation? I would gladly pay more if I could get to work on cleaner energy in the same amount of time.

As for MIT's potential divestment not being news, Stanford's decision made international headlines and sparked a debate over the value of divestment in the New York Times. Of the members of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 5 of 20 are affiliated with MIT, including Eric Lander. Rafael Reif, and before him Susan Hockfield, is the cochair of the White House's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. You think that the government won't take notice if MIT decides to divest?

With regard to the money that may be lost by divesting, we are going to have to pay up at a much higher cost in the future if we, as a global society, do not act now.

John H over 9 years ago

As a Stanford alum and big admirer of MIT, I deeply concur with the sense of this column. MIT, and particularly MIT, joining with Stanford in making this statement, and yes it is a statement, will exponentially increase the impact. Two of the leading scientific institutions in the world -- one east coast, one west coast -- acting together to raise the alarm on carbon pollution. It will be noticed as MIT carries huge weight around the world. I do hope your community will heed this call and join with the Stanford community in this critical work.

bobby over 9 years ago

I fully agree with the author's sentiment--MIT should certainly divest, and not just from coal, but from all fossil fuel holdings. We should consider divesting from military suppliers as well, but let's handle the existential threat first.

I have a problem with the claim that Harvard shouldn't divest because it is an academic institution. Harvard, just like MIT and others, have a fiduciary responsibility to look after the well-being of their endowment. Investing in fossil fuels is an increasingly risky proposition, especially as governments align policies with staying under the 2C "guardrail." Furthermore, the academic mission of places like harvard and MIT is to advance science. Fossil fuel companies, as has been well-documented, have engaged in a fear, doubt, and uncertainty (FUD) campaign just like Big Tobacco. Why should we invest in companies that have worked so hard (and so successfully in the US) to undermine scientific progress?

I also have a problem with saying it's a complex ethical issue. It is not. Investing in companies whose regular business practices (locating, extracting, refining, and marketing fossil fuels) puts human civilization on a crash course with destruction seems like a inane proposition at best.

RAM over 9 years ago

Is there room on campus or anywhere in the vicinity for a nuclear power station? Does Cambridge get enough year-round sunlight for economical solar power? In any case, I don't believe we're on the eve of destruction. We shouldn't pretend we are.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

Interesting to see that MIT wants to get on board because of Stanford. Several universities throughout the country, US San Diego, University of Bridgeport Connecticut have already made an actual commitment by using a clean energy company ( Fuel Cell Energy) to provide clean power on their campuses.