Opinion guest column

The climate is changing, and so must MIT

As students, we must hold MIT accountable for its climate action — and inaction — to shape the 2021 Climate Action Plan

As an institution, MIT holds a position of great respect and, consequently, influence. Its graduates and professors are respected entrepreneurs, scientists, astronauts, and political leaders. Its name consistently appears at the top of university rankings. In fact, MIT graduates and professors have earned the fifth most Nobel Prizes of all institutions in the world, and in 2021, Times Higher Education ranked MIT fifth in the world. Certainly, in the eyes of the public, MIT is a model institution. 

In terms of climate action, however, MIT is not a model institution. Today, despite the fact that the planet’s carbon budget is set to expire in six years, MIT has yet to commit to divestment or even carbon neutrality. Data on its energy use, water use, and other sustainability-related activities is not publicly accessible, and the majority of information regarding institute investments is completely unavailable.

As MIT’s stature stands on the shoulders of public opinion, it is undeniable that it consciously shapes that opinion by filtering the information it discloses. It is undeniable that this silence and secrecy is a means by which MIT obscures its climate action — or, more aptly, its climate inaction — in the face of a global emergency. Indeed, with public respect comes privilege, and with privilege comes power. Yet in light of the climate crisis, MIT is misusing its power. MIT is managing its privilege irresponsibly.

We students cannot let this continue.

This spring, MIT is set to release its second-ever Climate Action Plan (CAP), which will serve as a template for the next five years. In its 2015 CAP, MIT pledged to “minimize emission of… global warming agents into the atmosphere” and “devise pathways for adaptation to climate change,” yet those goals lacked a timeline, accountability metrics, actors, and cost estimates. Compared to the diligence and rigor with which MIT conducts its research and academics, its plan to address climate change is strikingly vague. 

Meanwhile, MIT has continued to invest in companies that spew the byproducts of fossil fuels into the air. These are fossil fuels that we know heat the planet, flood cities, make people chronically ill, take the lives of children in low-income communities, amplify environmental injustice, uproot villages and ecosystems, and burn homes to the ground. MIT has an enormous responsibility — a responsibility that it is denying, neglecting, and rejecting. 

Now, it is up to us, as students, to fulfill our responsibility: to push MIT to be the leader it must be in the face of this crisis. The 2021 CAP must contain ambitious, appropriate goals that align with current climate science and include clearly defined actionables. Our responsibility is to talk, sing, write, protest, and ultimately encourage MIT to descend from its perch of privileged ignorance, open its eyes to this accelerating, alarming crisis, and act

To coordinate our actions, the Student Sustainability Coalition recently started a climate action campaign called CliMIT. The campaign focuses on four key asks, distilled from a proposal the Student Sustainability Coalition developed to shape the 2021 CAP.

The CliMIT campaign asks that MIT

  1. set ambitious on-campus sustainability goals,
  2. implement standards for engagement with private sector actors,
  3. form avenues for engagement with the public sector, and 
  4. develop and follow a framework for ethical investments.

If MIT adopts these asks as central goals in its 2021 CAP, it would enable the Institute to make significant, appropriate, and much-overdue progress in its climate action. 

To my fellow students: we must push for a CAP of which we can be proud. We are the scientists, engineers, innovators, and pioneers on which MIT prides itself. We are the problem solvers, critical thinkers, leaders, and collaborators, always on the edge of “cutting-edge” technology. Now is our time to channel our collective strengths and talents to create necessary change. 

To members of the MIT administration, Climate Action Advisory Committee, Office of Sustainability, Investment Management Company, and the MIT Corporation: 

If you were to emerge from your climate-controlled offices and open your eyes not only to look, but also to see, perhaps your heart would ache for this world. You would see homes, demolished. Dreams, crushed. Photos floating in flood water, memories going up in flames. This world that so deeply respects you is bleeding, and it baffles me that you act as though you do not know.

Indeed, MIT stands on the shoulders of public opinion, and with it, it will fall. MIT also stands on the banks of the Charles River, and with it, its hallways will flood and its reputation will be covered in water stains. Unless MIT changes. 

Unless we demand change.