EAPS community gathers at teach-in to discuss Shell donations to Green Building

Speakers describe greenwashing actions taken by fossil fuel companies

MIT Radius and EAPS Student Advisory Council co-hosted a teach-in on climate change denial by fossil fuel companies Nov. 25 in lecture hall 54-100. The teach-in was in response to the donations made by Shell for the Green Building renovations and the proposed naming of 54-100 as Shell Auditorium.

The teach-in lasted from 3:30–5:00 p.m. There were approximately 30 undergraduate and graduate students, EAPS faculty and staff, and other community members in attendance.

Deepa Rao G and Mara Freilich G, students in the EAPS department, moderated the discussion. They began the teach-in with several framing questions, such as “How has Shell in particular engaged in climate denial, greenwashing, and delaying climate action?” and “What are our climate-related values as an institution, MIT, and as a department, EAPS?”

They then introduced four speakers: Ortal Ullman, campaign coordinator in climate and energy of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Geoffrey Supran PhD ’16, research associate in IDSS at MIT and history of science at Harvard, Patrick Brown PhD ’16, a postdoctoral researcher at the MIT Energy Initiative, and Tessa Weiss ’20, co-chair of MIT Divest.

Ullman defined greenwashing as “when a company or organization puts out deceptive information in order to create a public image that seems climate or environmentally-friendly.” She then described behaviors of fossil fuel companies that have contributed to climate inaction, such as generating uncertainty about climate change, shifting responsibility to consumers, and funding trade associations that oppose climate research.

The fossil fuel companies “know that they need your buy-in in order to continue operating as companies, and something like giving money to name an auditorium or building at MIT buys them that credit. They’re trading in the good name of MIT and other institutions to buy social support,” Ullman said.

Supran cited Shell’s donations to MIT and Chevron’s collaboration with Stanford as “the fossil fuel industry’s invisible colonization of academia.”

During the teach-in, audience members were allowed to submit questions and comments to a live forum, which were discussed and answered after the speakers spoke.

Questions submitted to the forum included “To what extent does Shell (and other petroleum companies) invest in scientific research at MIT and EAPS outside of the auditorium/building?” and “The irony is the more anti-dark money we become, the more dependent we become on money. How do we get better at finding clean funding to escape these conundrums?”

Robert van der Hilst, head of the EAPS department, was present for the final 20 minutes of the teach-in and spoke at its conclusion, “I would really love and encourage us all to continue having these same conversations and expand our feedback from them.”

Catherine Wilka G, an EAPS student who helped organize the teach-in, said in an interview with The Tech, “How you do science matters, and how scientists interact with the public and ethical issues is really important.”

Freilich said in an interview with The Tech, “The naming is a really momentous thing, and that’s why I’m glad to see such a broad section of the community is interested in having this discussion. … I hope to see a lot more of these events going forward.”