Fossil Free MIT ends sit-in after agreement

An agreement with Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber officially ended Fossil Free MIT’s 116-day sit-in outside President Reif’s office 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The Institute did not agree to divest, but did agree to establish an advisory committee on climate action and to convene a forum to explore the ethical considerations of climate change, Fossil Free and administrators from the office of the Vice President for Research (VPR) wrote in a joint statement.

The administrators also agreed to strengthen MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change, re-identifying the 32% reduction in carbon emissions on campus as a “floor” rather than a “goal.” Under the agreement, MIT’s Office of Sustainability will also annually re-assess the Institute’s progress toward its goals.

The agreement was reached after months of closed-door discussions; students, faculty, and alumni maintained the sit-in since MIT’s Climate Action Plan was published last October. That protest was an attempt to put pressure on the administration to continue talks.

“We got the deal done,” Zuber said later Tuesday in a joint interview with The Tech and FFMIT representatives Ioana Knopf, Daniel Mascoop, and Jeremy Poindexter.

President Reif tasked Zuber and her office with leading negotiations with FFMIT. It was a difficult process, she said, and negotiators went through multiple drafts and missed multiple deadlines before they reached an agreement.

“We have been talking since the Climate Action Plan report came out, regularly… more than weekly,” she added. “We’ve all gotten to know each other really well.”

“From an administrative point of view, we really, really wanted FFMIT to work with us because we share the same goal,” Zuber said.

Both parties emphasized that their shared goal was to “mitigate climate change” and “meet the 2°C limit on global warming,” adopting the goal that came out of last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris; Zuber herself spoke at that conference. This shared goal had been established “since the beginning,” Mascoop added.

FFMIT had consistently identified three objectives during the sit-in, demanding that the Institute divest from coal and tar sands companies, that an Ethics Advisory Committee be established, and that the Institute commit to making the campus carbon neutral as soon as possible before 2040.

The plans outlined in the joint statement incorporated the latter two suggestions.

The first analysis by the Office of Sustainability will be published this summer. Undergraduate and graduate sustainability groups will also be involved.

The original goal, Zuber said, “was published by us in the CAP because that was what the government recommended” and was “not based on any analysis of instituting energy efficiencies on this campus. Of course [the original goal] is not sufficiently ambitious to meet the 2°C goal.” Between half a dozen and a dozen FFMIT members have been actively negotiating the scope of the plan with Zuber for the last few months.

Zuber attributed to the students the “idea of [aspiring to carbon neutrality] as a grand challenge.” Said Poindexter, “We saw value in aspiring to carbon neutrality because of its potential to galvanize the community and its potential to elevate the Institute as a leader in demonstrating [and] implementing real actual solutions.”

“On the administrative side of things, MIT doesn’t want to make a statement of something that we can’t do,” Zuber said. “The Institute wasn’t willing to sign up for [carbon neutrality] as a requirement because the technology doesn’t exist to do that yet. [FFMIT’s] real contribution was to say: No, you don’t have to make that a requirement.”

“That’s the importance of these updates from the Office of Sustainability,” Mascoop explained, “because when [carbon neutrality] does become an achievable goal, then MIT should commit… If it’s now an aspiration, it’s an aspiration that will be reviewed enthusiastically and in detail.”

“MIT will commit,” Zuber agreed.

Zuber explained some of the limits that MIT will face in reaching carbon neutrality, namely the available technology and funds. On the latter issue, she assured that “we are not cutting back on financial aid or anything else that is important to our students.”

A second point of agreement between FFMIT and the VPR office resulted in a “new climate action advisory committee” which will “provide advice to identify, develop, and publish engagement strategies and benchmarks,” as well as a forum, to be convened by Zuber, “to explore ethical dimensions of the climate issue.”

Notably, the VPR office has chosen to maintain “the path of engagement [with fossil fuel corporations] as a way of advancing progress on climate change,” meaning that the first goal of the sit-in, divestment from fossil fuel companies, has not been met.

“MIT did not divest from fossil fuels because engagement with industries will enable progress to be made more quickly,” Zuber asserted. “We agree that we disagree [with FFMIT]. The idea of shareholder responsibility is something we consider important. It’s not just a climate change issue. It’s not part of this discussion because it is broader.”

Asked what precedence suggests that engagement without divestment will be the most effective path, Zuber replied that there’s a “long history of MIT working with industry [and accomplishing] a great deal,” especially in the “growth of the western world economy.” She also cited joint achievements in the biomedical field, such as the human genome project.

Transparency and free sharing of information is key, said Zuber, who emphasized that the MIT community will have input in deciding the benchmarks of engagement, and that the progress and performance of the Climate Action Plan will be published by her office on an annual basis. She hopes to make use of MIT’s extensive resources and turn the “campus into a laboratory,” and that the data that MIT collects will act as an “inspiration and guidance for others.”

Zuber said that MIT’s implementation of the Climate Action Plan could serve as a model for the countries who committed to the 2°C goal at Paris climate change conference. “I bet you that not all those countries know how to get there,” she said, adding that Janos Paztor, the former Assistant Secretary General on Climate Change to the UN, has expressed his interest in sharing the results and recommendations with other countries.

Zuber has already begun to gather faculty members for the forum on the ethical considerations of climate change. Previously, her office held a divestment debate which “members of fossil fuel companies” praised as helping them to understand “what young people are thinking” on the issue. The goal, Zuber says, is to “put MIT out there that it isn’t afraid to ask hard questions in respectful ways.”

Asked how MIT deals with companies who have engaged or are currently engaging in spreading disinformation on climate change, Zuber replied that MIT takes the “transmission of accurate information” very seriously, with each case being dealt with individually: there is no cut and dry procedure. “MIT makes decisions on engaging and disengaging on a regular basis,” Zuber added, “and we do not broadcast them to the world.”

What is being broadcast, Mascoop said, “is the real tackling of ethical issues.”

FFMIT will be involved in the new climate action advisory committee, as will many other members of the MIT community.

“To be clear, Fossil Free still supports divestment,” Mascoop asserted. “FFMIT doesn’t see divestment as incompatible with the engagement plan… there are plenty of other places to be enthusiastic and work towards. That’s why we’re here. It’s enthusiasm over this committee and its transparency.”

The next steps for FFMIT, Mascoop said, are to work together with the VPR office on the four points delineated in the joint statement. He optimistically promoted “moving on beyond the original points of the [Climate Action Plan] and the sit-in.”

For FFMIT members, the sit-in has been both “exhausting and energizing.” The dedication of members and non-members alike “shows that [the MIT community is] really committed” to campaigning for campus sustainability, Knopf said.

Making the decision to end the sit-in and approve the agreement involved an elaborate process in order to reach a consensus among the diverse viewpoints of FFMIT members, Knopf and Poindexter said.

Through emails and general meetings in the preceding days, FFMIT members not involved in negotiations were aware that an end to the sit-in was approaching, and many gathered toward the end of the sit-in to enjoy celebratory cake.

Stephanie Chin ‘18, a member of FFMIT who attended the first meeting with Zuber, confirmed that there was general consensus among members that the agreement was “sufficient progress with the administration to continue to the next stage” of FFMIT’s long-term campaign.

News of the end of the sit-in may come as a surprise to some, especially those who read The Boston Globe’s article on the sit-in. Published the day the sit-in ended, the article declared that “MIT fossil fuel protesters settle in for the long haul.”

Many of the sit-in signs and slogans directly called upon President Reif to meet their demands. President Reif was “integral in the outcome,” Zuber said. “He was very concerned about the well being of the students and also supportive of their desire to express their concerns to push us to more ambitious action.”

Some features of the Climate Action Plan are already being implemented, Zuber said. Two of the eight Low-Carbon Energy Centers are being established, and the Environmental Sustainability Initiative is actively engaging people to improve campus sustainability. And Tom Kiley, a new addition to the Zuber office, has been tasked full-time with implementing the plan.

The Environment and Sustainability degree outlined in the plan will be a minor, according to Zuber, who said that the course was “under development,” with no clear timeline in sight. The degree will involve entirely new courses, she clarified, and will be interdisciplinary, with the EAPS and Civil and Environmental Engineering departments taking lead.

“We hope to not be satisfied with our progress,” Zuber said, in line with the plan to ceaselessly re-evaluate aspirations and plans of action as MIT continues to achieve greater heights of technological capabilities.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of us,” Knopf said.