A student’s response to the Plan for Action on Climate Change

When I read the Climate Change Action Plan sent out by President Rafael Reif, I was squarely unimpressed, but I wasn’t surprised. In terms of climate change, MIT seems to have a history of grand, empty gestures. This email didn’t stray from tradition.

MIT has promised to put $5 million towards seeding new environmentally-directed research. Wow. That’s about the tuition of 25 undergraduates. How many hundreds of undergraduates will be housed in the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse come 2018?

The eight Low-Carbon Energy Centers, with a “low funding barrier for participation,” seem like a good start, but what good are these technologies if they remain unsubsidized? The efficiency of the best and the worst solar cells in practice is no different if they both go unused. Where are the initiatives to develop and enact economic incentives? I’ve had several MIT professors tell me that “the technology is already there”; what’s needed are financial incentives that can only be put in place with proper government policies. Sure, one could argue that if we find the technology to make green energy economically favorable to fossil fuels we wouldn’t need to seek the support of the political system. This entails waiting an unspecified length of time and hoping for a breakthrough. Why not be realistic and do what we can now?

Now, we could divest. I find President Reif’s explanation for the decision to remain invested, that “divestment and its core tactic of public shaming are incompatible with the strategy of engagement that forms the heart of today’s plan,” flimsy. After all, it is not MIT whose relationship with fossil fuel companies will impact those companies’ actions; fossil fuel companies will adapt to the rulings of politicians. They will not refrain from using their enormous financial influence to prevent green legislation just because MIT asked them to. MIT can develop technology to power the entire country without carbon emissions, and it will go unused if no one buys it. And if it is still more expensive than gas, no one will.

President Reif has stated that “divestment would thwart our ability to collaborate and to convene opposing parties and inspire united action.” So we can look forward to MIT as a corporation moderating discussions between politicians and fossil fuel companies? I don’t think so. MIT alumni might play that role, but the influence of MIT as a corporation is mainly economic. If MIT sincerely aims to “Accelerate progress towards low- and zero-carbon energy technologies,” “Educate a new generation of climate, energy and environmental innovators,” and “Share what we know, and learn from others around the world,” the first thing — and simplest thing — to do would be to put out a strong message. This is exactly divestment. Else, these headlines are nice predicates, crafted to sound exciting but ultimately ringing hollow.

MIT can continue to “deplore the practice of ‘disinformation’” and the role that fossil fuel companies play in preventing green legislation, but really this little pout and ‘shame on you’ looks insincere when MIT supports and accepts money from the same organizations. The discoveries that MIT makes now will not matter if within a few decades the world is too preoccupied with food shortages and overpopulation to even conserve the knowledge of humanity’s past. MIT demands that students deliver more and more every day. That’s why we come here. It is high time that MIT step up and deliver for us, and for the world.

Alana Papula, Class of 2017

Josue over 7 years ago

I fully agree with this letter.

I'm a PhD student working on energy efficiency and renewable energy and I came to MIT because my desire is to have an impact on climate change by creating break through technologies.

However, I have come to realize that any technology I develop will take at least 10 years to enter the market (let alone become a dominant technology), therefore, we need a policy and public statement that will have an impact within the next 2-3 years to prevent "damage to societies and natural systems around the world [that is truly grave]", as mentioned in the MIT Climate action plan.

The only approach that provides any kind of weight in that time frame is divestment, because it will mount political pressure on fossil fuel companies to support a price on carbon and change their business plans to meet (rather than surpass) the 2C limit.

It is extremely disappointing to see MIT take such a weak stance on the issue of this generation. The world is depending on us to do better, much better...

Christine Boles over 7 years ago

Thank you Alana for your intelligent, thoughtful words. I sincerely hope the MIT leadership and President Reif take the time to listen to you and other groups and rethink their plan. It is shameful that the leading scientific institution in the world does not take an exemplary, active leadership role in this most important scientific problem of our generation, that will affect the future of our planet.

Debbie over 7 years ago

Not to mention that exploitation of fossil fuels is heavily subsidized by taxpayers (think drilling on public land, use of publically funded infrastructure, use of the U.S. military to protect overseas access to fossil fuels)