MIT will not divest, announces climate change 'action plan' with key role for industry partners

MIT said Wednesday it would not divest from fossil fuels, instead announcing efforts to strengthen collaboration with industry — seeking $300 million in new energy research at MIT over five years — as part of a much-awaited “plan for action on climate change.”

The plan also includes $5 million more from MIT toward environmental research, a new Environment and Sustainability minor degree, and a pledge to slash the carbon footprint of MIT’s campus, among other steps.

Students of Fossil Free MIT were planning just before press time to stage a sit-in outside President L. Rafael Reif’s office Thursday morning in protest of the decision not to divest, The Tech has learned.

Despite increasing pressure from some students, faculty, alumni, and other activists, Reif and four top administrators argued vigorously against divesting the Institute’s $13.5 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies.

“In our judgment, the deliberate public act of divestment would entangle MIT in a movement whose core tactic is large-scale public shaming,” read a joint statement from Reif, the provost, the vice president for research, the chancellor, and the executive vice president and treasurer. “This would retard rather than encourage the open collaboration and ability to hear new ideas that are central to our research relationships, central to our ability to help government and business think creatively together, and central to our ability to convene and inform the thinking of those with opposing views.”

Nonetheless, Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber said in an interview with The Tech: “We treated [the divestment matter] very seriously. We thought very hard about whether we should divest from something, anything, some things.”

Ultimately, Zuber said, given the magnitude of the climate change problem, “we came to the conclusion that MIT couldn’t do it alone” — that “engaging” industry would be key to developing solutions, and that “by disengaging, [divestment] would hinder our ability to convene all of these people at the same table.”

In a press call, both Zuber and Reif said they did not know how much of MIT’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies. The decision not to divest was based on other factors, they said.

Figures cited by the Boston Globe put investments in fossil fuel companies at about 5 percent of MIT’s portfolio.

Among the MIT’s Climate Change Conversation Committee formed last year, a three-quarter majority supported targeted divestment from companies whose operations are “least compatible with mitigating climate change,” including coal and tar sands companies. Stanford announced last year that it would divest from coal-mining companies.

Yet coal companies “ought to be at the table” too, Zuber said, though MIT does not currently partner with coal companies. “We have a better chance of engaging them by not divesting than by divesting.”

Fossil Free MIT, a student group advocating for divestment from fossil fuel companies, was dissatisfied with the decision not to divest. The group’s press release said of the plan: “It’s too little, too late.”

A week before the announcement, FFMIT member Geoffrey Supran told The Tech that “it would be a travesty if MIT were to fail to do all that it could to rise to the climate challenge — including divestment ­— because it was held financially hostage by the fossil fuel industry,” adding that “such a failure would itself evidence the stranglehold that these companies have on climate leadership.”

“At the end of the day, we got completely ignored without any forewarning,” Supran told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “Our sense is that essentially MIT has put money before morals and its students’ futures.”

New sponsored research in environment and energy

The core of MIT’s climate action plan will be coordinated by the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

ESI will support research on the science behind climate change as well as strategies for adapting to its impact. The ESI announced a new director, John E. Fernandez ’85, on Monday.

And through MITEI, MIT said it will seek $8 million — every year for five years — from a “diverse group of companies” to fund each of eight new research centers for low-carbon energy.

The first five centers will be the Solar Center; the Center for Energy Storage; the Center for Materials for Energy and Extreme Environments; the Center for Carbon Capture, Use and Sequestration; and the Nuclear Energy Center.

The plan to bring in more than $300 million for these centers builds on the growth of the MITEI, which has attracted funding commitments totaling $600 million since its founding in 2006, according to MIT.

The joint statement sought to highlight MIT’s “history of engagement” with industry and government. “Fossil fuel companies have consistently been among our most productive research partners,” the statement said.

Currently, MITEI’s top sponsors are oil and gas companies BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, and Shell.

The new centers will also seek support from “firms from the developing world unfamiliar with academic collaboration” — companies that might not otherwise have the resources to contribute to a university research program like MITEI, which has minimum requirements for sponsor membership.

“Their voices are extremely important,” Zuber said. “Any solution has to take into account both the developed world … and the developing world, that wants to develop energy systems to have economic growth and a better standard of living.”

Sustainability on campus

The report includes plans for improving campus sustainability by ending the use of fuel on campus by 2019 and reducing campus greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

A plan for “carbon shadow pricing” will also go into effect on campus to experiment with the effects that accounting for carbon costs would have on Institute decision-making.

“I was really surprised that we had a pretty strong consensus for carbon pricing,” Zuber said. “It’s very complicated to put a price on carbon on our campus operations, so we decided we would practice by trying to carry a price for carbon on the major things, and that would factor into our decision making as far as renovation goes.”

She added: “We were very sensitive to the fact that some people, to do their research, might take more energy. If someone lives in an older dorm, we don’t want to penalize them for living in an older dorm.”

On-campus carbon pricing also emphasizes personal responsibility — which Zuber says was part of Reif’s intention.

“[Reif] is very big on personal responsibility,” she said. “Don’t go tell MIT what they should do — what are you going to do? He’s really asking all of us this question of what are we going to do.”

Ultimately, Reif said, the report makes a call to the whole of the MIT community. “If we can all work together and work with others, we can say with a great deal of pride some decades from now, that we were able to start something that solved the problem. So this is really a call for all of us to work together to implement this plan to solve the problem.”

Kim OBrien '75 over 8 years ago

The operators of those companies should be ashamed. Exxon Valdez, BP Deep Water Horizon, Saudi Aramco with Sharia Law. They continue their reckless operations anywhere they can get away with it. Only protests against their reckless approach to energy production has resulted in the needed new technologies and laws lowering pollution of the air water and land. MIT can't divest because the owners control MIT not the other way around. So even a mild slap on the wrist is ruled out.

Kim OBrien '75 over 8 years ago

Reif is big on personal responsibility. OK so why not ask for personal responsibility from all those CEO's and government officials passing through the Sloan Fellows program? What can a undergrad or grad student do go to bed early and turn out the lights?