Opinion guest column

Refocusing the Climate Change Conversation

Divestment debate overshadows direct actions

This week, the initial phase of the MIT Climate Change Conversation will conclude with the release of a committee report weighing the pros and cons of actions proposed by the MIT community. A focus of that report will be on divestment of the Institute’s endowment from fossil fuels. Without the early, critical efforts of Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT), the energetic, campus-wide discussion of MIT’s options for climate action would never have begun.

But — as current doctoral students directly engaged in climate change research and alumni of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change — we want to highlight an important part of the conversation overshadowed by the debate on divestment. The principles motivating this debate should also motivate many other actions that have been discussed less intensely. We share the divestment movement’s vision of a lower-carbon world; however, direct actions and plans to address climate change are necessary and better accord with the Institute’s global leadership in research and education.

MIT’s stated mission is to lead through science and innovation. For decades, MIT academic groups have been at the forefront of research in climate, anthropogenic climate change, and the options for mitigating that change. Academics, policymakers, and citizens around the globe expect and need us to continue this work, which — some may be surprised to learn — has often been funded by the very fossil fuel industry from which some wish to divest.

While it is true and unacceptable that several companies fund fear, uncertainty, and doubt about climate change and policy, many others see the writing on the wall. They know that change is coming, and they support MIT research in order to better understand climate change, imminent climate policies, and possible niches in a low-carbon future. And while long-term mitigation of climate change does require minimizing our dependence on fossil fuels, all credible pathways require their continued use in the near term. MIT has long embraced conscientious and productive collaborators outside academia. As a community, we should continue to expand such relationships and to bring all the major players in society’s energy transformation to our table.

Beyond our external partnerships, climate scientists and policy researchers at MIT — proud of their scholarly rigor — have always upheld the responsibility to publish their findings, no matter how unpalatable those results are to sponsors or industry partners, including the fossil fuel industry. This steadfast commitment to quality and independence has earned MIT its reputation as an honest broker of sound, unvarnished, and clear-eyed technical and policy advice. This is why our faculty, alumni, and students are trusted voices in Washington, D.C. as well as capitals and boardrooms around the world. Decision-makers look to us for leadership and solutions to help tackle great challenges head-on, and they trust our counsel in a world filled with political rhetoric and polarization. Divestment is one such politically-fueled and polarizing move; we should focus on actions that better align with MIT’s unique strengths in research and education and our partnerships in these endeavors.

We strongly identify with the moral imperative at the core of the divestment movement: we must act on climate change, now! Yet knowing the problem intimately, our community cannot solely focus on symbolic gestures such as petitions and demonstrations. The radiant energy and enthusiasm focused on divestment must also be channeled towards direct actions on campus through mens et manus, invigorating innovative climate and energy actions.

The Climate Change Conversation’s Idea Bank crowdsources many such actions from the MIT community. Beyond the repetitive calls for divestment, the Idea Bank documents innovative seeds that MIT can, and should, nurture with the involvement of an even broader segment of our community. For instance, one idea calls for MIT to “lead a global problem-solving process on what to do about climate change.” This could leverage existing groups on campus such as the Climate CoLab and the Center for Global Change Science, but with a renewed focus on implementing the solutions they research. Several other ideas call for MIT to pioneer microscale climate action, such as achieving a net zero-carbon or a net energy-exporting campus. Through successes in these ventures, MIT could lead other campuses and municipalities nationwide into following in its footsteps. Both fresh and novel ideas like these and the engagement of the people behind them are the best outcomes of the Conversation.

For more than 150 years, MIT has been a trusted source of knowledge and a guide through revolutions both industrial and technological, helping transform society through groundbreaking research and education. Climate change, the great challenge of our time, is the next chapter in this history. Our community is capable of far more than just symbolic actions; we should lead the next transformation through actions that reflect our core mission: advancing knowledge and educating national and world decision-makers. Regardless of the divestment outcome, let’s re-commit the collective intellect of the MIT community to writing the chapter of society’s history in which we solve climate change.

Daniel Rothenberg is a PhD candidate in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences; Paul Kishimoto is a PhD student in Engineering Systems and a researcher with the Tsinghua-MIT China Energy & Climate Project; Alec Bogdanoff is a PhD candidate in Physical Oceanography in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography and in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences; Arthur Yip is an alumni of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and received an S.M. from the Technology and Policy Program in 2014.

Freedom almost 3 years ago

The Tech's opinion section is made up of press releases from the corrupt federal bureaucracy. Worse than Pravda.

Arthur over 2 years ago

Hmm, based on the lack of substantive comments, it's hard to tell whether Tech readers are in silent agreement, confused, don't care, or ???

Freedom over 2 years ago

Arthur, Antarctic sea ice has been steadily thickening since 2006 (reaching the highest levels on record on Sept. 22, 2014). However, making the good faith, informed, honest claim that global warming is greatly exaggerated will get your head chopped off (you'll be kicked out of many student groups, excluded from most leadership positions, and so on), since this claim directly threatens the careers of many of our friends in academia.

To make things worse, The Tech is one of the most partisan, intolerant student groups around. The types (cough) of journalists one might find in student campus papers tend to move their institutions as far to the left as possible, and have a predictable habit of making their publications excessively dreary and boring. I have seen it first hand.

Given these factors, it should not be a surprise that you will find a lack of intelligent comments in response to this verbalistic opinion column.

I will do you, and other readers, a favor and comment on a random sentence in the column: "While it is true and unacceptable that several companies fund fear, uncertainty, and doubt about climate change and policy." This sentence is very biased and misleading, since most money in the US (including the 30 percent of GDP that goes to the federal government) tilts towards funding alarmism re:climate change, in hopes of getting yet more funding and regulation directed at the issue.

Warm regards, Freedom

Arthur over 2 years ago

Dear Freedom,

Thickening Antarctic ice is not my expertise, but one indicator is far from evidence that global warming is "greatly exaggerated." There is certainly both alarmism and denialism in the climate science wars, but the balance of evidence says that climate change is bringing great risks and hazards that call for prudent mitigation and adaptation.

Freedom over 2 years ago

A few hundred years ago, the balance of evidence, according to all the newspapers, all the activists, all the judges, the overwhelming majority of people, and all the national knowledge organizations, was that the sun rotated around the earth. There was consensus.

It was a similar situation: the loudest people back then were untrained civilians; just as today (politicians, economists, sociologists, journalists are all untrained civilians who see themselves as on some moral crusade). Back then there were lots of scientists who knew the truth, but they wisely kept their mouth shut, just like scientists do today (a peer-reviewed survey has shown that a majority of scientists are skeptical of climate change [1]. However over ninety percent of published papers on the subject say climate change comes with great risks and requires action. Guess why.)

For the next paragraph, let's put on our paranoid Machievellian conspiracy theory hat: I'm not saying actual reality here in the next paragraph, I'm just simplifying reality a little bit to make a point:

Doubts about climate change are mentally suppressed because we need more funding. What happens if we don't have a clue how to forecast future climate change? Well, we just try anyway to make a model that gives socially acceptable results because we need more funding. What happens if the Earth's temperatures haven't increased between 2000 and 2015? Well, we just perform some adjustments on the data, and boom, temperature is going up as is socially acceptable, and we can get more funding. What should I write about in Science and NYTimes? Well I'll go ahead and help my friends in the university and the fed and continue that global warming movement.

If you want to talk about evidence, be careful. One way is to be a scientist and see how the consensus predictions have fared in the past. Data from balloons and from satellites both show 0.1C or so increases in temperatures the last 30 years (via U. Alabama Huntsville), however the consensus models predicted a 1.0C increase [2].

What's the conclusion? I have zero idea and I'm no expert in climate change but I'm not going to lie about it, like all the journalists.

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamestaylor/2013/02/13/peer-reviewed-survey-finds-majority-of-scientists-skeptical-of-global-warming-crisis/

[2] Slide 25 here http://www.amea.com/wp-content/uploads/ChristyJR_150416_PtClear.pdf

Arthur over 2 years ago

Freedom: Your arguments and sources are not persuasive at all.

Others: People like Freedom and Willie Soon are not the barriers to climate change action that MIT should focus on. In fact, actions like divestment sustain people like them by giving them too much attention.