MIT holds debate on divestment as part of 'climate change conversation'

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On the day of the divestment debate organized by MIT, activists put on a display reading “DIVEST” in the windows of the five floors of Building 18.
Patrick Brown

MIT became the first university to hold an administration-sponsored debate on fossil fuel divestment last Thursday, amid demands from student group Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT) that the Institute reallocate what they call “investments that will lock us in to catastrophic climate change.”

“We present what we believe is a first-of-its-kind occurrence: a serious campus-wide debate on the pros and cons of fossil fuel divestment, sponsored by the university senior administration that is being petitioned,” Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said in her opening remarks.

The debate consisted of arguments from six distinguished figures in climate change and investment, three arguing for divestment and three against it.

MIT professor Brad Hager on the anti-divestment side expressed his concern that divestment would indiscriminately alienate fossil fuel companies, not all of which have an irresponsible attitude toward climate change, and would jeopardize the millions of dollars in research funding that MIT receives in industry donations.

Timothy Smith, director of shareowner engagement at Walden Assets Management, suggested that MIT use its vote as a shareholder to encourage companies to adopt responsible environmental practices instead of divesting.

Stanford professor Frank Wolak called divestment a symbolic action and said that an institute such as MIT can “do much more” by using its position as a research and education center to push for a carbon tax, for example.

Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes countered this argument. “Symbols matter, because they signal our intent, and they invite other people to join in our intent,” she said.

Supporters said that divestment is a moral imperative. MIT professor John Sterman argued that not taking action against climate change would lead to what he described as “nothing short of a holocaust.”

Pitzer College trustee Don Gould said that divestment is an opportunity for MIT to lead in the fight against climate change.

“When the history of our time is written … let it show that MIT had the courage to act when Harvard and other prominent educational institutions chose not to,” he said, causing the audience to cheer despite the debate’s ban on applause.

While MIT has opened up the forum for discussion about divestment, Harvard has been faced with a student-filed lawsuit and multiple protests in response to Harvard President Drew G. Faust’s repeated refusals to consider divesting.

The student group Divest Harvard began a weeklong blockade of Faust’s office in Massachusetts Hall on April 12. This is not the first time the group has occupied the building. The group, accompanied by a filmmaker, refused to leave the building on Feb. 13 until Faust granted them an audience. Some brought diapers in preparation for a long vigil, according to The Harvard Crimson.

A similar story is unfolding at Boston College, where a group of climate change activists not affiliated with BC used the college’s admitted students’ day to advocate for fossil fuel divestment and protest what they say is an administration bent on stifling freedom of expression.

The rally was meant to show solidarity with BC student members of Climate Justice for Boston College, formerly Boston College Fossil Free. The group, which has gathered 1,950 signatures on a petition demanding that BC divest, has been repeatedly denied status as a registered student organization at the college, allegedly because the administration did not want to listen to their demands.

According to group members, they were forced to change their name after the college told them they were using it without permission and could be sued for copyright infringement.

Becky Romatoski, an FFMIT member, asked fellow members to support their BC counterparts.

“At MIT, we have been able to peacefully campaign for divestment from fossil fuels. Meanwhile at BC, their student group has repeatedly been denied student group status for more than two years … and has been subjected to fear and intimidation tactics for trying to educate students, hold vigils, and express themselves,” she wrote in an email to the group.

FFMIT has gathered 3,000 signatures on a petition asking MIT to divest from fossil fuel companies since it became active in 2012.

While Reif has not responded directly to the petition, he stated in response to a “blue tape” demonstration by FFMIT last year that the group had helped open a “serious discussion for our community on the most effective ways that MIT, using its distinctive strengths, can make practical headway against climate change.”

Less than a week after this statement, Reif announced plans to create “a campus-wide conversation on the challenge of climate change.” This led to the creation of the MIT Climate Change Conversation, which, according to its website, aims to “explore and assess the broad range of actions that MIT could take to make a significant positive contribution to confront climate change.”

While not solely addressing divestment, the Climate Change Conversation chose to make it the focus of one of their public events, Thursday’s divestment debate.

“Divestment has been one of the most strongly debated potential actions of academic institutions in recent times,” said Roman Stocker, head of the MIT Climate Change Committee. “We decided: Why don’t we tackle it head-on?”

Diana Chapman Walsh, a member of the MIT Corporation, expressed her support for divestment in a Huffington Post op-ed last Thursday entitled “When students become the teachers.”

Walsh characterized colleges as “petri dishes running experiments in which societies can see what lies ahead,” suggesting that the divestment movement, like so many other college movements, would eventually lead to nationwide action.

Syracuse University chose to listen to student activists’ calls for divestment on March 31, becoming the largest university to vow to divest from all fossil fuel holdings. They promised to reinvest the money in renewable energy companies.

Pitzer College, for which panelist Don Gould is a trustee, has succeeded in completely divesting from fossil fuel companies after promising to do so in April 2014.

The MIT Climate Change Conversation will culminate in a report submitted to Reif, detailing what the committee finds to be the best path forward in MIT’s response to climate change.