Sit-in for divestment by president’s office hits one-week mark

Rare MIT student protest follows release of Institute’s climate plan

CLARIFICATION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article failed to properly contextualize a quotation. Daniel Mascoop's statement that "the business model of these companies needs to be to eliminate themselves" was in reference to coal and tar sands companies, not fossil fuel companies in general.

Members of student group Fossil Free MIT are staging a sit-in outside of President L. Rafael Reif’s office in protest of what they see as inadequacies in MIT’s climate action plan.

The sit-in has been ongoing since Oct. 22, the day after MIT’s “Plan for Action on Climate Change” was made public, and two to 12 students have been present outside 3-208 around the clock.

On Monday, members of Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT) met to discuss the goals of their sit-in. Prior to the strategy meeting, the group had still been formulating its demands.

The main objectives of FFMIT’s protest include divesting from coal and tar sands companies, establishing an ethics advisory committee, and committing to achieve carbon neutrality on campus by 2040 at the latest.

“We are sitting-in to urge MIT’s administration to raise their ambitions,” the group wrote in a letter published in this issue of The Tech.

Outside Reif’s office, students participating in the sit-in have been working on problem sets, listening to music, and speaking with passers-by. During an interview, a Bertucci’s delivery man showed up with pizza and rolls.

Different participants in the sit-in highlighted different goals for MIT’s climate plan.

Jeremy Poindexter G, a student at the sit-in, hoped that MIT would take on a role of “visible leadership.” Another student wanted to see a “better climate action plan,” arguing that the current one “misses the obstacles to implementation” of existing technologies to mitigate climate change.

“If I have a free moment, I’m here,” Daniel Mascoop ’16, a student participating in the sit-in, said. “If I’m doing work and it’s on a laptop, or if I have an hour break between classes, I’m here.”

Nina Lytton ’84, an alumna from the Sloan School, also participated in the sit-in. Lytton said the shortfalls of the plan were the results of “a failure of understanding between well-meaning people.”

Stressing the importance of collaboration, she said that negotiating a better climate plan should be “like interfaith work,” and that to be successful, you have to “know the people and understand what they value.”

Different assumptions, different outcomes

According to FFMIT’s letter, “the bottleneck to effective climate mitigation is no longer technological capability or policy know-how, but political will.” Divestment makes sense, then, as it would “create political breathing room” for politicians to enact legislation to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Divestment would accomplish this by limiting the influence of fossil fuel companies, which the letter claims, “[spend] hundreds of billions of dollars each year searching for unburnable hydrocarbons, hundreds of millions lobbying against renewable energy legislation, and unknown millions on disinformation tactics that continue even to this day.”

On the other hand, top MIT officials said last week that they see industry engagement as key to tackling climate change.

“Our plan surely agrees that [political will] is essential to progress,” MIT spokesman Nathaniel Nickerson said. However, “it also contends that superb research and the active participation of industry will be required. Climate change, President Reif and Professor Zuber believe, will be best addressed by the combined efforts of research universities, industry, and government.”

Operating on the assumption that industry collaboration will be necessary to tackle climate change, and that divestment is not compatible with industry engagement, MIT’s climate action plan rejected divestment.

The plan also described divestment as a form of “public shaming.”

Mascoop countered that this view is a “simplistic and narrow-minded” take on divestment. Rather, he said, divestment is a matter of “being consistent with our goals, and being public about that.”

Mascoop also said that he doesn’t believe engagement is working.

“The business model of these companies needs to be to eliminate themselves,” Mascoop said, referring to coal and tar sands companies.

FFMIT’s letter cited the example of ExxonMobil, which, in its annual report, urged shareholders to vote against a proposal which would require the Board of Directors to “adopt quantitative goals for reducing total greenhouse gas emissions.”

“ExxonMobil is progressing breakthrough, game-changing technologies” in the long term, the company’s annual report said. These technologies span “alternative energy, carbon capture and sequestration, advanced biofuels, life-cycle analysis, climate science and materials science.”

In the report, the company cites its collaboration with the MIT Energy Initiative as an example of its “strategic research with leading universities around the world.”

FFMIT’s letter points to this report to make the claim that MIT’s partnership with ExxonMobil has not led to the company’s increased engagement with climate issues, and instead has been used “as an excuse for inaction and to distract from its record of deliberate disinformation.”

In contrast, MIT’s climate action plan cites the recent announcement by 10 fossil fuel companies — six of which are members of the MIT Energy Initiative — to commit to meeting the 2-degree C target as evidence that engagement is productive.

But an FFMIT member at the protest said that announcements without action were not enough.

On the issue of campus carbon neutrality, FFMIT’s letter said that a 32 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 would not be commensurate with the goal of meeting a 2 degrees Celsius target.

“It’s clearly doable,” Mascoop said. “We need to get to net-zero emissions in the future.”

Nickerson noted that the 32 percent figure came from the U.S. federal government’s Clean Power Plan and that MIT hopes to reduce emissions even further.

FFMIT’s letter, on the other hand, says their simulations predict a 3.4-degree C rise by 2100, assuming all developed nations only reduce emissions by 32 percent.

Ultimately, the letter concludes, “the Plan reflects an unwarranted belief that through an undefined course of engagement, MIT can convince the fossil fuel industry to leave its future profits underground.”

“We’re here to show our dissatisfaction,” Mascoop said. “This does not represent what the community requested.”

The protestors did not say how long the sit-in would continue.

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