Opinion guest column

What was missing at the Climate Policy Symposium

Where was climate disinformation during the discussions last Tuesday?

Oct. 29 marked the second symposium of the MIT Climate Symposia. Named “Challenges of Climate Policy,” the event featured professors and researchers from a variety of different fields revealing their thoughts on the impacts of climate change on national security, equity, global migration, markets, and long lasting societal changes. 

Sure enough, urgency filled the air. There was resounding agreement that climate change is a major threat, and that current policy measures are inadequately addressing the issue. There was a consensus on the need to address the social cost, the adaptation, and the prevention of climate change through political mechanisms. Yet, little was discussed on a major reason behind the ineffectiveness of government action, a factor that should be in any discussions related to climate policy — the climate disinformation campaigns pursued by fossil fuel companies. 

In the last 15 years, $2 billion have been used to fund organizations dedicated to lobbying Congress and to supporting climate deniers’ campaigns. ExxonMobil knew since the 1970s that climate change would lead to global catastrophe, yet it directly engaged in policymaking to hide this fact. The American Petroleum Institute (API), of which Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron are members, defined victory as when “recognition of uncertainties [of climate science] becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’” Other organizations like ALEC and WSPA view the development of climate science and science-based climate change education as a direct threat to their own abilities to succeed. 

In a three hour set of panel discussions on the challenges of climate policy, only two and a half minutes (by Dr. Laura Stokes in the mitigation panel) were used to discuss climate denial propaganda. Big campaigns driven by fossil fuel companies to write misleading articles, engage with media to spread their opinions, and work with government officials negatively influences environmental progress. The past and present effects of climate disinformation should be getting more attention. MIT had (and continues to have) an opportunity to make a focal point out of it, and it is deeply unfortunate that it chose not to engage in such a discussion at this specific and relevant symposium event.

Climate disinformation should be discussed as a major problem, not only because of how wrong it is, but how effective it has become. The drop in climate change believers and governmental action on protecting the environment in the 2000s was heavily influenced by conservative think tanks funded by fossil fuel companies. It would be a logical step to assume that fossil fuel companies and their respective campaigning organizations. More than just lobbying our government, they have worked to influence education and social understanding, even to those as young as kindergarteners. The scientific and research community is aware of climate change because that community is exposed to the real facts. The average person is not. These companies want to create a large population fueled by ignorance to blindly defend them from those that want to hold them accountable.

As a response to the initial divestment movement from a few years ago, the MIT Climate Symposia were meant to answer questions regarding the changing climate. The fact that a series of panels dedicated to discussing climate policy did not engage in a conversation on climate disinformation is disappointing. Policy can only work if our policymakers and their constituents are not hearing continuous lies and propaganda brought forth by fossil fuel companies interested primarily in their own survival.

So even though the MIT Climate Symposium did not mention climate disinformation as much as it should, this is your reminder that it continues to exist. It continues to be a dark stain upon the environmental progress of our nation and the world. It continues to harm the world’s ecosystems, the cities that we live in, and each and every one of our futures. And at the end of the day, MIT should have no part of that. We must engage in conversation surrounding this problem and propose the way that MIT can respond to it.

And the best response for MIT is divestment: our school should divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. Divestment would entail a removal of any MIT investments in fossil fuel companies that continue to advocate for climate denial and policy that does not represent the best interests of the American people. 

MIT is an institution dedicated to education and the spread of knowledge. Quite literally, our university’s mission is “to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.” Over $1 billion of shareholder investment in fossil fuel companies goes towards climate policy lobbying on behalf of these entities. MIT, unfortunately, invests part of its endowment into this horrible, destructive practice — an ironic and hypocritical activity. MIT considers itself to be a global scientific leader, and by investing in companies that engage in disinformation, MIT goes against everything it stands for. 

President Reif, in the first symposium, said we needed something “new” to tackle the problem. The MIT Climate Action Plan has failed to do something “new.” So let’s try something different. The MIT community deserves better from its leaders.

MIT needs to divest from fossil fuels. Sign our petition and join our movement.

Arnav Patel is a member of the MIT Class of 2021 studying mechanical engineering. He is the publications co-director for MIT Divest.