Opinion guest column

Climate Action Plan: Why you need to care and the importance of student voices

SSC students present proposals to Dr. Zuber; UA Council considers consensus decision; UA and GSC to host student focus groups

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Undergraduate respondents indicate whether MIT has made progress on its climate action plan goals.
Arun Wongprommoon–The Tech

What is the CAP and why you should care? 

If someone asked you about sustainability at MIT, what would you think of? Maybe a class that touched on climate change or how much energy all your lab machines use up. If you had to tell someone who does climate-related research at MIT, would you know where to look to find your answer? Perhaps you’ve pondered whether MIT still works with fossil fuel companies. All of these topics, and more, link to a document hidden on the new MIT Climate Portal — the MIT Climate Action Plan.

In 2015, MIT released its first five-year Plan for Action on Climate Change, or Climate Action Plan (CAP) for short. The 2015 CAP was a result of several previous campus efforts surrounding climate and was most notably MIT’s response to a petition to divest from student-led group Fossil Free MIT. It has now become the go-to for MIT to describe what actions it is taking to combat climate change. The original document outlines a “plan for the MIT community to address the escalating disruption of our global climate” and states that “given MIT’s mission, history and capabilities, MIT has a particular responsibility to lead; and that the moment is now.” The 2015 plan has five different sections, broadly organized as research efforts to increase understanding, low-carbon technology development, education, sharing knowledge, and using the community as a test bed (including greenhouse gas emission reductions).

Five years have passed, which means the time is now for MIT to review its previous plan and set its new goals. As climate disasters from wildfires to ice storms impact the lives of millions, including members of the MIT community, the urgency to take action grows with each year. Every term of five years is more pressing than the last. According to the “climate clock” activists installed during the United Nations General Assembly in September, we have just under seven years to prevent an irreversible climate catastrophe. By the time the next CAP comes out, we’ll have just 18 months to prevent this irreversible climate catastrophe.

In December 2020, the Undergraduate Association Committee on Sustainability (UA Sustain) asked the undergraduate student body: how has MIT done in reaching its previous CAP goals? As seen in the accompanying graph, there are many areas in which MIT can make more progress (using the campus as a test bed, partnering with industry and government to accelerate action on climate, and reducing its energy related carbon emissions). 

A datapoint that wasn’t measured but that is equally as important is this: how much does the MIT community actually know about the Climate Action Plan? Do students understand the potential of the CAP to change the campus they live on and the communities they partake in? 

Take a moment to recognize that as a member of the MIT community, you possess the power to push for ambitious climate goals to influential MIT leaders and scientists. If you haven’t had the chance to, look at the 2015 plan, and be your own judge on whether MIT set ambitious enough goals and whether we met them. 

Finally, think about what you want to see in the next Climate Action Plan, and whether you want to be a part of this year’s plan. Whatever the plan ends up being, it won’t just shape the way the Institute acts and the way campus looks for years to come; it will shape your education, research, and career far beyond MIT. 

Student Proposals

Those of us in the Student Sustainability Coalition (SSC) have been thinking about the 2021 Climate Action Plan for some time now, and working on what we want to see in the plans as members of the sustainability community at MIT. On Monday, February 22, a number of SSC students presented their recommendations across six key themes to the Climate Action Advisory Committee (CAAC), chaired by Vice President for Research Dr. Maria Zuber. CAAC is charged with sourcing and providing recommendations for MIT’s Climate Action Plan, and as such hosted the Student Voice forum/webinar, which was open to the entire MIT community. Following the presentations, Dr. Zuber led a discussion amongst students and CAAC members, beginning to delve into the nuances of the recommendations. Here, we provide an overview of the student proposals across the six themes:

Proposal for Structure and Process

  1. Create the MIT Climate Council, a governing body with diverse community representation that can set and implement ambitious goals for MIT’s role in sustainability and climate action. 

  2. Implement an iterative drafting process for the Climate Action Plan creation, which should include at least monthly publications of drafts and solicitation of community feedback. 

  3. Treat the Climate Action Plan as a living plan, which can be frequently updated and revised. Updates to the plan’s goals should be readily available on the Climate Portal.

Proposal for Public Sector Engagement
MIT individuals and programs have informed climate policy at the city, state, federal, and global levels. However, these fragmented initiatives reveal the missed opportunity for a coordinated and much more powerful effort to link policymakers to MIT researchers. We thus suggest MIT: 

  1. Create a position in the MIT Washington office or in a politically-connected center (such as the Climate Pathways Project) focused on sourcing opportunities for MIT researchers to inform climate policy, liaising with congressional committees and White House offices for instance to do so.

  2. Create an MIT climate policy center or a staff position purely focused on matching these opportunities to MIT researchers and convening these researchers to cross-pollinate. Responsibilities could include planning an annual climate policy conference.

Proposal for Investments
Although joining Climate Action 100+ and establishing the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium are first steps in improving high-emissions industries, MIT must lead by example. MIT’s own research encourages climate financial disclosure, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria, and annual reporting from companies. Thus, we recommend that:

  1. The MIT Corporation develop and practice socially responsible investing principles: Transparency and Public Commitments, Climate and ESG-Oriented Portfolios, and a Framework for Accountability and Community Input. 

  2. MIT takes specific actions aligned with the majority student opinion and divest from the fossil fuel industry. 

Proposal for Private Sector Engagement
In order to do our part in tackling the climate crisis that threatens everyone on this planet, MIT must hold itself to certain principles when engaging with the actors driving that very crisis forward. Even if we use the principles produced by the Committee on Outside Engagements, we see that MIT is falling short by engaging with these actors. We thus recommend that:

  1. MIT apply standards when choosing whether to engage with private sector actors, specifically advising the adoption of MIT Divest’s proposed standards.

  2. The standards MIT adopts be created through a transparent community-engagement process and that the success of the engagement be determined by a third party and be regularly updated to the Climate Portal.

Proposal for Education
Universities have always been producers of knowledge, but more recently their role has become also to inform action for the most urgent sustainability challenges. We urge MIT to:

  1. Incorporate sustainability electives in at least the four most common majors and weave sustainable design into the capstone projects.

  2. Classify classes based on whether they are sustainability focused/related and/or link to the Sustainable Development Goals.

  3. Encourage community members to behave sustainably, for example by offering trainings about on-campus sustainability initiatives and teaching staff green building practices.

Proposal for On-Campus Sustainability
Although MIT’s mission of being “a test bed for change” has successfully motivated students and faculty alike to tackle some on-campus sustainability challenges, we must take bolder action on our very own campus to be a local and national role model for emissions, waste, and water reducing interventions. We believe MIT can realize this new vision by:

  1. Setting ambitious, quantitative goals for reduction in campus gas emissions, waste generation, and water usage

  2. Establishing a diverse, Institute-wide committee to determine, implement, and monitor steps towards these goals

  3. Improve the availability of sustainability-related data and of MIT’s consideration/analysis on improving our footprint. By sharing waste data to water data to cost-benefit analyses, MIT will support the community in solving an incredibly challenging problem together. 

Steps Forward

Overall, SSC would love to keep the conversation going in the coming months as the 2021 Climate Action Plan is written and refined. To do this, we ask that Dr. Zuber and her office publish a version of the student proposals with comments. We hope she will highlight or list the recommendations that can and will be included in the plan, as well as those that are “maybes” and those that are infeasible. For the latter two groups, we hope for context on the obstacles MIT faces in committing to the recommendations to be included. This way, the MIT community, from faculty with deep expertise on the themes of our recommendations to students who can learn from applying their knowledge to this real-world problem, will understand the current challenges and be much better equipped to find creative and feasible solutions for these barriers. By developing the Climate Action Plan through this rigorous and iterative process, as we would with our research, MIT sets itself up for success in solving one of the most pressing global challenges.

A number of steps are being taken by student leaders to advance the conversation and consideration of the student proposals, as well as to educate and consider the broader student body. The UA Council, UA Sustain, the Graduate Student Council Committee on Sustainability (GSC Sustain), and UA Involvement are all working in conjunction to further address student interest in the CAP.

On Tuesday, March 2, the UA Council convened to discuss the CAP student proposals, setting aside the vast majority of their allotted meeting time to discuss the matter. The councilors considered passing a consensus decision on the matter, but agreed to spend more time engaging constituents and fine-tuning the policy platform written for them to vote on. Councilors also held more in-depth discussion on the topics of private sector standards of engagement, carbon neutrality goals, education, and the role of the proposed Climate Council committees. 

The UA Sustain Undergraduate Sustainability Survey in December found that 60% of respondents wanted to help inform the CAP. In response to the significant interest for input from the student body, UA Sustain, in collaboration with GSC Sustain and UA Involvement, is planning on hosting focus groups to hear feedback from students on the CAP and proposals. Focus groups will be held throughout March and will include open discussion; the ongoings of the focus groups will be reported back to relevant administrators including Dr. Zuber and CAAC. 

All MIT students, both undergraduate and graduate, are invited and encouraged to attend the Climate Action Plan focus groups and can register at http://tinyurl.com/mitclimateactionplan2021

The authors of the article are members of the Student Sustainability Coalition: 
Kelly Wu ’22 is co-chair of the UA Committee on Sustainability.
Carolina Gutierrez ’23 is co-chair of the UA Committee on Sustainability.
Megan Xu ’22 is the advisory chair of the UA Committee on Sustainability.
Kiara Wahnschafft ’21 is the UA Chief of Staff and a member of Environmental Solutions Initiative Rapid Response Group.