Opinion guest column

Making a pledge for the climate with our careers

Graduate student shares thoughts on career trajectories

And while successfully harnessing sustainable energy shall not by itself dissolve every problem that threatens the world, I firmly believe that it can continue the tradition of technology forever changing how we live, perhaps allowing us to focus on such projects like ending social injustice or promoting artistic expression.

As I enter my fifth year as a PhD student at MIT and contemplate my post-graduation career trajectory, I chuckle when rereading these old words of mine, originally written five years ago when composing Statements of Purpose for graduate school applications. I chuckle not just because these words reinvigorate and remind me why I remain passionate about studying solar energy. I also chuckle at the innocent and simplistic notion that ending social injustice need not be prioritized right now, as if technology alone were capable of removing most burdens carried by the underprivileged.

Events and experiences over the last five years — on campus, in the nation, and around the world — have taught me that the fight for social justice cannot be merely postponed for tomorrow. As problem-solvers at MIT, we must actively seek creative ways to advance social justice alongside the hard work we do on campus each day. And I have found myself called to act upon one injustice in particular, due to its urgency and demand for collective action: global climate change. Continued fierce and phony “debates” about climate change in our politics have made clear to me that our energy technology is far from the only thing that needs fixing if we want to stabilize our climate.

Still, it is seldom easy to reconcile our professional roles with this need to mend our politics. When is it appropriate for us to speak up on political matters, both within and outside of our work environments? What obligations do we have personally to our local, national, and global communities? These questions, while difficult to answer, certainly deserve to be asked if we are to recognize both our privilege and our unique talents as MIT problem-solvers.

Because we, as MIT-trained individuals, are a powerful force. If all companies founded by MIT alumni were a country, they would form the world’s 10th largest economy, similar to Russia and India in size. In the days after the White House announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord earlier this June, hundreds of businesses, investors, politicians, and academics responded in dissent, asserting, “we are still in.” Declared collectively, these were powerful words.

And yet, we know that actions speak louder than words. So questions remain: how will leaders in these sectors of society channel their words into effective change? How will these leaders cut through complacency in their communities to mobilize their constituents toward climate action?

We, as MIT-trained individuals, are future leaders. Both in our careers and our personal lives, we will “hack the world” using our minds, hands, and hearts to solve the world’s greatest challenges.

In this spirit, I have joined a group of students rallying around a Climate Career Pledge, which aims to empower students and alumni to view their careers as additional means to advocate for climate action. We hope to vocalize public support from within the MIT community for climate action and sustainable practices within industry, as well as to communicate these values to industry partners and potential employers.

We hope this pledge will serve as a rallying point for those passionate about mitigating climate change in their careers, even if such work is not explicitly in their job descriptions. We aim to connect students and alumni around these issues. We hope many in the MIT community will consider signing the pledge, with thoughtfulness and pragmatism in mind. And yes, because this pledge is also founded upon words, its aspirations will fall short if words are all it remains.

Thus, I invite us all not simply to “sign and forget,” but instead to contemplate, “What will it mean if I sign? How can I work toward more effective climate action in my current and future positions within my company or institution? How can my individual actions ripple throughout my community to have a larger impact? In five years, looking back on this pledge, what do I hope to have accomplished?”

Jeremy Poindexter is a graduate student in the department of Materials and Science Engineering.