CAAC special meeting features student presentations across sustainability landscape

Presentations include recommendations specifically for MIT’s 2021 Climate Action Plan

The MIT Climate Advisory Committee (CAAC) held a meeting, a “key event in MIT administration’s decision-making around climate action,” Feb. 22. The meeting featured six student presentations “across the sustainability landscape at MIT” that included recommendations for “what MIT should be doing to tackle the climate crisis” and specifically, “what MIT’s 2021 Climate Action Plan should look like,” MIT UA Chief of Staff Kiara Wahnschafft ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech.

The CAAC is led by Maria Zuber, vice president for research, and includes Jim Gomes, Zuber’s senior advisor; Ron Prinn, MIT’s Center for Global Change Science and the Global Change Joint Program director; Charlene Kabcenell ’79, a member of the MIT Corporation; Bethany Patten, Sloan School of Management senior associate director for the sustainability initiative; Brian Goldberg, Office of Sustainability assistant director; Gail Greenwald, alumnae representative and an early stage investor in clean tech and sustainability; Bob Armstrong, Energy Initiative director; and Deborah Campbell, Lincoln Laboratory’s leader of the climate change initiative.

The student presentations addressed the structure and process behind the Climate Action Plan (CAP), public engagement, investments, private engagement, on-campus sustainability, and education.

The structure and process presentation was led by Laura Chen ’22, Jessica Horowitz ’22, Kelly Wu ’21, Sydney Kim ’24, and Jess Cohen ’22, and introduced three core principles: Accountability, Representation, and Transparency (“ART”). The presentation also proposed the conception of an MIT Climate Council, which would “consist of committees that focus on specific aspects of MIT’s climate action, and will include existing initiatives.” 

Each committee would report to a steering council, “a larger governing body.” Each committee would have representation from administrators, faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduate students, and alumni, with the student positions being filled by elected representatives, with “term lengths, to allow for increased participation, ” Wu said.

Additionally, the CAP should include an implementation plan that should “lay out timeline, actions, and actors who will follow through on these actions, as well as a budget,” Horowitz said. The presentation concluded with a summary of key takeaways, which included, in addition to the creation of the MIT Climate Council, an iterative drafting process for the action plan.

The public sector engagement presentation was led by Disha Trivedi G, Will Atkinson G, and Wahnschafft and was based on more than ten interviews conducted with staff and officials in offices associated with MIT, like the MIT Washington, D.C Office, the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR), and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). 

The interviewees helped “contextualize existing public sector engagement on climate action, gave feedback on recommendations, formed ties” with the student group for future collaboration, Trivedi said. The group documented and shared the “widespread yet fragmented” MIT efforts to inform climate policy, and shared key recommendations for public sector engagement.

The first, coordination, would involve creating “a position in the PKG or VPR’s Office dedicated to regularly convening researchers who are influencing climate policy,” Wahnschafft said. Secondly, “there should be a concerted effort to support and incentivize more researchers” to influence policy. Third, MIT should allocate funding to establishing PKG Climate fellows and climate policy-focused UROPs and RA-ships, Atkinson added. Finally, “MIT should join and lead local cities to accelerate sustainability goals.”

The investments presentation was led by Anushree Chaudhuri ’24, Arnav Patel ’21, Adam Potter ’22, Jasmine Chen ’24, and Daisy Wang ’24. The presentation outlined several priorities, the first of which is transparency and public commitments. The investments group noted that “there is very little information to be found online or accessible to all” regarding MIT’s endowments, next steps for climate policy, or guiding values. 

The second priority is climate and environmental, social, and governance-oriented portfolio goals; the group stated that “MITIMCo needs to make a statement of purpose where it clearly describes goals, important stakeholders, and its interactions with the MIT community.” 

The third priority is creating a framework for accountability and community input. In the group’s report, they propose “a standing committee on investor responsibility,” Chaudhuri said. Such a committee would only address responsible investing issues. Finally, the group called for fossil fuel divestment. Patel stated that “this is an action that many students want.”

In the private sector engagements presentation, led by Yeji Cho ’24, Isabel Munoz ’22, Peter Scott ’23, Cohen, Trivedi, and Wahnschafft, the group pointed to the outside engagements report released earlier this year, stressing the importance of ensuring that MIT adheres to the guidelines outlined in the report. 

In the report, conflict with MIT’s core values, as it pertains to gifts/engagements and institutional partners, is marked as a yellow light. The group stated that “this should be a red light. Working with certain fossil fuel companies flashes this light.” 

The group presented the metrics from MIT Divest’s standards report, stating that they “found these to be most aligned with MIT values and most applicable to MIT.” The group had also considered Barnard College’s engagement standards and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ scorecard for companies.

The metrics presented include zero tolerance for complicity in climate disinformation campaigns, aggressive greenhouse gas emission reductions and targets, no funding of climate denial through political contributions and think tanks, internal policies consistent with pro-climate forward thinking, zero tolerance for lobbying against climate change bills in Congress intended to further the U.S.’s transitions to clean energy, and tangible reparations and a focus on environmental justice.

The student education group included postdoctoral associate Jasmina Burek, Lai Wa Chu ’24, and Naomi Lutz ’22.

Lutz stated that “currently, MIT is ranked just barely above 25% of the 672 registered universities in the AASHE stars rating when it comes to curriculum and sustainability,” at the start of the education presentation. The group outlined several sustainability-related classes and classified them as “focused” or “related” to sustainability. 

Chu proposed that additional funding be allocated for professors to “rewrite curriculums and to create new sustainability-related classes” through a grant program. Finally, the group proposed that postdocs be exposed to climate and sustainability efforts through “mandatory campus sustainability training during postdoctoral orientation.”

The last group, the on-campus sustainability presentation group, included Laura Chen ’22, Andrea Garcia ’23, Sam Humphries G, David Mazumder G, Natalie Northrup ’22, Vrindaa Somjit G, Brandon Wang, Munoz, and Wahnschafft. The group described how MIT’s approach toward campus sustainability should progress. 

The presentation outlined several key points: setting ambitious, quantitative institute goals for greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water; establishing a body to determine, implement, and monitor steps towards institute goals; and publishing data in a transparent, centralized, and accessible manner, pointing out that data on waste amounts and sources, stormwater planning efforts, and energy costs and hourly data should all be made public. The group referred the committee to Harvard and Princeton’s sustainability websites as models for transparency.

The student presentations were followed by an open discussion with Zuber, student presenters, and meeting attendees, as well as a question-and-answer session with online attendees through slido.

The CAAC meets six times a year, and hosts several conversations, meetings, and events in conjunction with other MIT-led initiatives to receive community input. Prior to the Feb 22. meeting, the committee “hosted a zoom forum along with the Facilities Department of the Office of Sustainability on what we can do to reduce MIT’s own carbon footprint,” Zuber said.

In the coming weeks, the CAAC will be “holding forums hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative and the Environmental Solutions initiative about how MIT engages around climate with governments, companies, NGOs, and other academic institutions as well as civil society.”