MIT and the climate challenge
We need more than plans for technical solutions
Editor’s note: This letter also appears in the March/April issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter.
In September 2014, MIT established the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation, with the mandate to “seek broad input from the Institute community on how the U.S. and the world can most effectively address global climate change.” During the ensuing academic year, the committee sponsored a number of educational events and a campus-wide debate on fossil fuel divestment, and surveyed the MIT community on a broad range of climate issues. In June 2015, it submitted an extensive report containing recommendations based on input from the MIT community. In October 2015, the Institute responded to that report by issuing “A Plan for Action on Climate Change” that outlines a number of concrete steps to address climate change.
We praise the Institute’s explicit and forceful assertion in that document of the seriousness of the risks and challenges of climate change. MIT’s acknowledgement was followed two months later by the explicit recognition of the urgency of climate change issued unanimously by world leaders at the United Nations climate change negotiations (UNFCCC COP21 meeting) in Paris in December 2015. As with the Paris agreement, it is imperative that plans be followed by action. Thus we advocate that MIT’s plan for action be rapidly followed by an aggressive implementation plan that establishes clear management responsibilities and organizational frameworks, so that the steps identified in “A Plan for Action on Climate Change” can be realized, and that goals be made continuously more ambitious to align with the seriousness of the problem.
As with the Paris accord, it is paramount that our money and energy be put where our mouth is. In this respect, we found the Institute’s funding commitment of $5 million for the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) to be grossly inadequate for the scale and multidisciplinary scope of the climate challenge. While the Institute’s plan addresses the technical dimension — in the form of eight new low-carbon energy centers that will reaffirm MIT’s leadership in developing technologies to advance carbon-free energy — the economic, policy, and societal dimensions are largely unaddressed. Focusing on engineering a solution belies an integral component: without societal recognition of the risks and challenges of climate change, many low-carbon technologies may never be implemented — they will stand little chance as long as fossil fuels remain the cheapest option and without government-mandated incentives to change.
If the Institute were to allocate significant resources toward bolstering such a multi-faceted approach, it could exercise intellectual leadership toward engendering strong societal support for a transition to new sources of energy. In tandem with a focus on technology, advancing the policy steps, the societal dimension, and the understanding of the science of those problems at the same time, MIT can build on existing entities such as the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “Manus” alone cannot succeed without “mens.” In this regard, endeavoring to administer an internal carbon tax could harness the broad potential for education and participation as the Institute tackles the changes necessary to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Universities are at their best when they undertake unfettered search for truth. Such a pursuit is weakened and tarnished when it is associated with organizations and individuals that support campaigns of deception for financial gain; these are clearly distinguished from mere differences of opinion, which are an essential element in the quest for knowledge. In recommending the establishment of an Ethics Advisory Council, we sought to emphasize that investment ethics — particularly on assets that can negatively impact climate change — should derive from an open process that incorporates the sentiments and values of the larger MIT community. Many of our peers, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford, already have such entities to ensure that critical decisions involving institutional investments are made in ways that respect the university’s greater commitment to scientific truth. We are not suggesting that MIT’s current system ignores the ethics of investing, but rather that decisions around some issues — climate change among them — are too big and too important to leave to a select few to make. We advocate for a reconsideration of the decision not to establish an Ethics Advisory Council. We agree wholeheartedly on the importance of constructively working with industry on solutions to climate change, but also emphasize that there are higher standards to which MIT must be held, particularly in the face of such large-scale societal challenges as climate change.
With its “Plan for Action on Climate Change,” MIT recognized the gravity of the challenge ahead. As the Paris accord is for the world, a plan for action is for MIT an essential early step. Following up now with concrete action, and ramping up commitments as opposed to letting them dwindle, will be a momentous task, and one that we urge the Institute to accomplish.
—Kerry Emanuel, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences;
—Bernadette Johnson, Chief Technology Officer, Lincoln Laboratory;
—Jacqueline Kuo, Undergraduate Student, Department of Mechanical Engineering;
—Christoph Reinhart, Associate Professor in Building Technology, Department of Architecture;
—Anne Slinn, Executive Director, Center for Global Change Science;
—Roman Stocker, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering;
—Geoffrey Supran, PhD candidate, Department of Material Science and Engineering.
The above signatories were members of MIT’S Climate Change Conversation Committee