MIT’s Climate Inaction Plan
Despite claims of progress, MIT has little to show for its environmental record. Here’s how that could change
Unfortunately, climate change is happening — not in the distant future of model projections — but here and now. This summer, Europe baked under an unprecedented heatwave, Boston experienced its warmest July on record, and several places in Alaska broke the 90°F mark for the first time in recorded history. In Siberia, an area the size of Belgium went up in smoke. Brazil, Bolivia, and Australia are still facing major wildfires, while record-setting Hurricane Dorian wreaked havoc on the Bahamas. Time is running out. So what is MIT doing about this existential crisis?
Sadly, MIT’s environmental record has not been glorious. In the early 2000s, the time was ripe for prominent universities like MIT to engage in environmental action. While MIT’s president at the time insisted on our “institutional responsibility to address the challenges of energy and the environment,” the “environment” part was quickly forgotten to focus exclusively on energy in the newly-created MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) — so as not to risk irritating generous fossil fuel companies. A few years later, the faculty-led MIT Environmental Research Council (ERC) produced a report intended to launch an effort parallel to MITEI, a “Global Environment Initiative” focusing on actual environmental problems excluded from MITEI’s scope. It advocated a wide range of actions to harness the Institute’s resources and engage the student body for bold action. But the report was shelved by the administration, who chose to reduce the diversity of ERC members to only two ERC faculty (neither of whom had any expertise in climate science). They produced a new, more palatable report, which conveniently overlooked much of the problem to focus on only four areas, which were much more engineering-oriented and excluded “climate.”
Meanwhile, with the administration’s reluctance to address the climate problem, FossilFree MIT was formed to pressure the MIT Corporation into divesting from fossil fuel companies. Its continued pressure on the MIT administration finally brought a response in the form of a campus-wide Climate Change Conversation and a corresponding committee. Numerous contributions by the community stressed the need for MIT to take a clear stand. Among the main conclusions was the idea of transforming campus into a large-scale living laboratory — the report recommended MIT should implement carbon efficiency on campus and an internal carbon pricing scheme to assess and reduce emissions. Community members advocated for a climate-focused capital campaign and new investment strategies, including divestment from fossil fuel industries.
A few months later, the administration unveiled its self-acclaimed “Climate Action Plan.” Sadly, commitments were scarce and lukewarm when compared to the bold proposals in the Climate Change Conversation. On top of a clear refusal to divest, even from coal and tar sands, MIT pledged only to reduce its campus emissions 32 percent by 2030. Meanwhile Duke and Cornell were aiming at carbon neutrality by 2035, and Stanford had already successfully reduced its emissions by 68%. With the refusal to create an Ethics Advisory Council, vague promises to “activate our campus as a living lab” and “implement shadow carbon pricing,” and few concrete details, this plan left us wondering where the boldness was. More shockingly, a large part of the report is devoted to lauding MITEI as the example of a successful industry partnership (for the industry, that is) and advocating a close partnership with those same industries that spend fortunes lobbying lawmakers into scrapping environmental regulations. The administration ignored many of the Climate Change Conversation Committee’s propositions, choosing instead to drown the fish by “repackaging largely pre-existing programs” and calling that taking action.
Now, four years later, the outcome is as disappointing as the original plan. Despite claims of progress, not much new has been done, as is quite obvious from the administration’s own recent update and an earlier 2017 report. Credit is taken for pre-existing programs and efforts, like the Center for Global Change Science or even research from EAPS faculty, alongside a few minor decorative fixes like the launch of a web portal that references articles published elsewhere. Education was a major pillar of the plan; while I applaud the launch of an Environment and Sustainability minor, MIT has at the same time cultivated deep ties with one of the most science-denying fossil fuel promoters, David Koch. Regardless of his political views, he essentially spent much of his life promoting falsehoods and undermining science, going against MIT’s most essential values for his own financial benefit. Regarding action on campus, shadow carbon pricing has yet to be implemented and actual campus emissions have only decreased by 4 percent. Hardly anything is said about campus energy efficiency (which, judging from the ridiculous amount of A/C cooling in summer, would probably not amount to much). Meanwhile, MIT’s investment policy is still based on the “primary goal of generating high real rates of return” with no mention of sustainability, and nothing has been said or done on divestment. MIT hasn't even discussed leading any shareholder advocacy campaigns in the climate-change-denying companies it still invests in.
Three new Low Carbon Energy Centers (out of the promised eight) have been instituted since 2015, with their classic list of fossil-fuel-championing sponsors, but to a large extent, these are a result of long-term research and industry trends that would have occurred independently of any Climate Action Plan. Furthermore, as I argued in a previous piece, the upcoming Climate Symposia will only repeat what the world already knows. They ignored many of the student body’s inputs and do not constitute in any way a “broad and intensive effort.”
While there is certainly merit in the administration’s willingness to openly acknowledge the problem, there is a wide gap between what has been said and what has been done. Climate change and environmental degradation are social, economic, and technical problems. They are consequences of unsustainable consumption patterns supported by the large-scale deployment of cheap fossil fuels by the industry and subsidised by governments. The fact that emissions keep increasing globally clearly shows that economic growth has not been decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions. Why? First, because our dependence on fossil fuels has not been seriously tackled, in no small part due to the lobbying of the oil and gas industry. Second, because we have hidden from the problem of over-consumption in the Western world. And third, because our concrete approach to solving the climate problem has been almost exclusively technical, largely ignoring its socioeconomic aspects.
Nothing in the Climate Action Plan comes anywhere near what needs to be done to really address the “seriousness and urgency of the climate threat.” Instead of leading the way, MIT’s weak goals make it lag behind. And to a large extent, it’s still business-as-usual here. If that’s the best that one of the world’s top and richest universities can do, then the plan needs to go back to the drawing board.
MIT has the brainpower and influence to be a climate leader. We need leaders to act, not react, in this climate crisis. Climate change and the environmental crisis must be embraced as a critical, existential issue for the coming century. MIT has been keen to remind us of the level of commitment it took to achieve the Apollo Project; a similar general mobilisation must be declared today to face the climate crisis.
First, it is crucial to recognize climate change as a socio-political, as much as a technological, challenge. Carbon-efficient technologies have existed for a long time, yet emissions have not decreased because those technologies are not adopted. And even if they were, we wouldn’t simply engineer our way out of the problem, as seems to be a dominant view on campus right now. While there is still much progress to be made on the science and engineering side, simply promoting endless innovation is not enough: critical thinking and ethical education must play a major role. The faculty hiring process must take into account the environmental impact of their research. For instance, developments in artificial intelligence have come at an enormous environmental cost; training a medium neural network emits as much as five cars. That will force us to think ahead in our research goals: what future world do we want, and what can we do to get there?
MIT’s strategy of partnering with industry must also be revised. Many of MIT’s current industry partners and board members have been actively undermining environmental progress over the last few decades. Worse, MIT is giving them credit by associating its name with theirs. By accepting gifts from the fossil fuel industry, not engaging in any divestment, and selling its good name for the sake of raising money, does MIT have any leverage against these powerful corporations? Since they hold the purse strings, companies decide what should be done and as a consequence, much of the research increases those companies’ profits without benefiting humanity at large. MIT is following, not leading. Industry partnerships should be subject to strong ethical rules, regardless of the field. Large universities should not evolve into R&D centers for the big corporations that can afford the entry price. Targeted divestment and ambitious leadership by MIT to engage with other universities on this point would send a strong message to the industry that their actions are unacceptable.
In parallel, MIT should engage in a bold environment-targeted capital campaign. Research does come at a cost. The recent Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) has been doing excellent work, but their lack of resources and support is blatant. The $5 million invested over five years in ESI is grossly inadequate and a mere fraction of what MITEI is raising. Money is not lacking. The College of Computing showed how fast things could move when there was enthusiasm on all sides; now, the same must be achieved to tackle the climate crisis. The campaign must be made in MIT’s name and fully supported by the whole Institute rather than left exclusively to individual faculty, departments, or initiatives that do not quite have the prestige and political clout of MIT as a whole. With that money, current and new environmental research could be funded more effectively, and a system of fellowships could be put in place to attract the brightest minds. A lot could be done: MIT could become a world leader in promising and under-researched fields like soil carbon sequestration and removal, instead of helping oil companies extract yet more fossil fuels from the ground.
Naturally, it is vital that this change be manifest in everyday life on campus. Ambitious campus sustainability goals must be formulated and aggressively pursued. A comprehensive assessment of MIT’s greenhouse gas emissions must be made. It is preposterous to claim, as has been done, that campus emissions are limited to heat and electricity production. This neglects a large portion of emissions released beyond its borders: academic air travel, commuter transportation, construction, and the purchase of food, goods, and services. For comparison, travel itself accounted for nearly 40 percent of Stanford’s campus emissions. Building energy use and efficiency should be truly addressed. MIT must also commit to greening its campus energy; investing in solar in North Carolina should not come at the expense of reducing actual campus emissions. MIT recently updated its electricity plant which will keep using natural gas, when renewables are becoming cheaper every day. Like Harvard, MIT could consider geothermal energy, rooftop solar, or purchasing local renewable energy.
Finally, the MIT community must truly be engaged with redefining MIT’s research priorities and imagining a more sustainable campus. Those changes will have profound impacts on everybody’s life here. It is essential to go beyond online forms or forums inevitably followed by obscure committees whose recommendations are often not even followed. Students and faculty should make their voice heard, and the administration must commit to taking their opinion into account — truly.
Up to now, MIT’s response to the climate crisis has been wholly inadequate, due to the leadership’s unwillingness to change Institute priorities and listen to the community, as well as MIT’s continued engagement with and support of companies that actively undermine environmental action. Defining a concrete climate action plan that includes achieving campus carbon neutrality within the next two decades, making climate change a top research and education priority, and developing a sustainable investment strategy, should be our top priority.
The clock is ticking.
Alexandre Tuel is a PhD student in the department of civil and environmental engineering.