Committee reviews progress on climate action at MIT

‘Extremely limited number’ of faculty engaged in climate change issues, report says

In October 2015, President L. Rafael Reif announced the Climate Action Plan (CAP), outlining steps for MIT to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, devise ways to adapt to climate change, and engage with outside groups. Reif established a review committee for the CAP in October 2017. This month, the committee released a report on the successes and challenges in implementing the CAP over the past two years.

The CAP intends to “produce a roadmap of the coordinated ... approaches it will take to best protect the world from exceeding the guardrail temperature rise of 2°C.” But this is not a feasible goal, the report said. “We should resist setting unrealistic goals for our work and expecting blockbuster results.”

The report also emphasized the need for MIT to recognize “that it has an extremely limited number of faculty members” who can and are willing to address climate change issues. This gap is partially due to domain-centered perspectives encouraged by departmental hiring and tenure processes.

“MIT’s faculty hiring and tenure decisions strongly affect its capability to address climate change,” the report said. In particular, MIT has lost expertise in areas related to transportation, and it currently lacks expertise in analyzing the economics of low carbon technology, the report continued.

The report noted the similarities between the missions of the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), saying that “significant overlap can be confusing to sponsors.” However, the report commended MITEI’s fundraising successes in finding funding for a study on the future of ground transportation and five of the eight low carbon centers it was assigned to create.

The report also praised some of the programs created by ESI, including the launch of an Environment and Sustainability minor in September 2017. These programs fall under the education component of the CAP, which seeks to improve MIT’s sustainability curriculum.

“ESI is also leading an effort to infuse a range of GIRs with content on climate and environment, starting with 8.01, Physics I,” the report said. For graduate students, ESI is working to expand the Martin Family Society of Fellows for Sustainability and has started a “modest” summer research grant program for SHASS doctoral students.

The report encouraged clarification of the CAP outreach goals with regards to “engagement” and “working with industry and government leaders,” emphasizing the value of being impartial and warning against advocating for particular solutions to climate problems.

Another major component of the CAP is MIT’s plans to make changes both on and off campus to reduce emissions, including through the creation of a photovoltaic plant in North Carolina, which will get MIT halfway to its goal of a 32 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. The CAP mentioned testing end user pricing at MIT to better understand what methods most effectively reduce emissions. However, the report said that this would be “very contentious” and encouraged research and communication about potential effects without actual price changes, instead.

Jennifer Lauv ’18 wrote a statement to The Tech from her perspective as a member of Fossil Free MIT. “The CAP review ... misses critically important actions that MIT should take to address climate change: directly countering disinformation and climate denial,” Lauv wrote. “We strongly disagree with the CAP review’s assertion that it is a ‘mistake’ to try to ‘change the values or views of individuals or organizations with other interests,’ when those values and views — specifically, the willful misrepresentation of facts and denial of scientific consensus — are explicitly opposed to the mission of MIT.”

“Apart from the Summit Farms solar array (which, as revealed in the CAP review, is a revenue-positive endeavor for MIT), it remains unclear what has happened as a result of the CAP that would not have otherwise happened anyway,” Lauv wrote.

The full report is available at Comments on the report can be sent to