Opinion guest column

Lack of ambition for next year’s Climate Symposia

MIT’s climate action is long overdue

Last week, the six topics of MIT’s upcoming climate symposia were unveiled: after an introduction to the challenges of climate science (“Progress in Climate Science”) and policy (“The Climate Policy Problem”), two symposia will focus on the issues of clean energy and the carbon-free economy (“Decarbonizing the Electricity Sector” and “Economy-wide Deep Decarbonization — Beyond Electricity!”), followed by a discussion on MIT’s role (“MIT Initiatives and the Role of Research Universities”) then a conclusion (“Summing Up: Why are we waiting?”).

Although the speakers and specific discussion topics are yet unknown, the least one can say about the selected symposia topics is that they lack originality and boldness. Take any climate symposium organized by governments, universities, or NGOs over the last 15 years, and you will more or less find the same things. Been there, done that. No need to discourse at large on these hackneyed topics.

By and large, we already know what should be done to avoid the worst consequences of rapid global warming. The reasons the world has failed to take action are equally clear. International conferences follow one another, and with them the disappointments and lack of progress; the now annual spectacle put on by helpless and reluctant politicians has become a farce and a mere few minutes spent following the debates at recent COP conferences leaves no one wondering: “Why are we waiting?”

Limiting the climate change debate in 2019, at MIT, one of the world’s top universities, to lukewarm conversations about the failure of climate policies and the need for clean energy is not just a waste of time; it is a disgrace. We have too long taken refuge in lengthy discussions to avoid facing our responsibilities, both as individuals and as members of institutions. Now is not the time for vague discussions anymore, but for action. The recent acceleration of climate change, whether measured by the increase in world temperatures, ice melting or extreme events, forces us to confront reality. Where governments and companies have failed, people must rise to take action and avoid catastrophe.

That is where institutions like MIT must play a role. Large research universities have brought not only scientific progress and innovation to the world; by educating countless generations of students, they have spread critical thinking and inspired communities to change. Today, as mankind faces what is arguably the largest existential threat it has ever experienced, the world has a right to expect of MIT to be bold and to put forward new and radical propositions. And the world should not see MIT going about business as usual, avoiding any radical change in its functioning, and investing but a few crumbs for appearances’s sake.

MIT is in a unique position to be a leader and break new ground. And with its human, financial, and technological resources, the Institute is in a position to ask the questions that none wish to ask. Politicians have to think about electoral gain and what will be most pleasing to voters’ ears. MIT does not. Corporations have to think about shareholders and quarterly budget reports. MIT does not. So why limit itself to repeating what has been said over and over again? Another lengthy discussion on clean energy is not going to accelerate the pace of technological progress or its adoption. Lamenting on the absence of concrete climate policies and the lack of political incentives for action will not get the United States back into the Paris agreement. Clearly, the debate over climate change must evolve. We have been discussing the same material for years to no avail. Now is time for a fresh start, with bold and new ideas on the table.

Inconvenient questions are not hard to find. While there is certainly merit in pushing for cleaner energy sources and the adoption of electric vehicles, it is a fallacy to believe that climate change, and environmental degradation in general, are purely engineering problems. Sadly, technology alone will not save us. The reality is that the problems we are facing today are mainly consequences of our consumption patterns and our overuse of technology. This is arguably one of the most important and most ignored — and willingly so — points in the climate change debate. The cleanest energy is that which is not consumed. No matter how efficient the plane is, flying around the country every other month will remain an environmental calamity. Switching to electric cars is pointless if people still need to drive dozens of kilometres to get to work or to the grocery store — and that doesn’t even include the vast amounts of energy required to source materials for batteries and manufacture them. Putting solar panels on buildings will not offset the fuel burned to make and transport our food, clothes, and other electronic toys over thousands of kilometres. Besides, there is not enough steel on the planet to build enough wind turbines to meet the world’s current electricity demand. And what to say of solar panels, which we have no idea how to recycle? Is this really the miraculous low-carbon economy that promises to relegate global warming to a bad memory?

It is true that the West, and America in particular, has to cope with the heritage of decades of political and economic decisions favoring gas-dependent lifestyles and economies: sprawling suburbs relying on individual ownership of cars, intensive agriculture based on groundwater pumping and fertiliser production fuelled by oil, and large-scale manufacturing and use of plastics. That is the reality we have to work with; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize it. Most of our emissions come from transportation, electricity production, and heat for buildings. Those are the problems we should be tackling head on. How do we get people to move around less? How do we rethink our housing strategies to lower urban energy demand? How do we get individuals and companies to pay the price for their environment-degrading actions? How do we offset for past carbon emissions that are likely enough to put us past the 1.5 degree Celsius mark, which is generally considered as a “manageable” threshold?

These are the inconvenient questions that MIT should put on the table. And the Institute should not limit itself to discussing them; it has to be a real-life, large-scale demonstrator, where innovative policies are tested, where our lifestyles are questioned and transformed. In short, MIT must show the world how to reinvent itself. For if MIT does not do it, who will?

Alexandre Tuel is a graduate student at MIT in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.