Opinion guest column

Now is the time for MIT to divest from the fossil fuel industry

MIT must take responsibility in the crisis of climate change

In November 2021, as the world watched, delegates from United Nations countries met in Glasgow for the COP26 conference on climate change in an attempt to limit the global temperature increase to no more than 1.5ºC above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly urgent, and fossil fuel companies’ role in perpetuating the climate crisis is crystal clear. However, until the behavior of fossil fuel companies changes, meaningful progress towards combating climate change will remain impossible. The agreement to emerge from COP26 explicitly addressed fossil fuels — unfortunately a first for a climate accord. But even at the very event where this pledge was finally made, the fossil fuel industry sent so many representatives that they outnumbered the delegates from any single country. It is no coincidence that over the course of COP26, the language was watered down between drafts, going from calling for an end to all fossil fuel subsidies to only phasing out inefficient ones. 

Action to reduce our dependence on polluting energy sources has been too little, too late, with fossil fuel companies blocking much progress. Organizers in the divestment movement seek to address one facet of this issue by removing investments in the fossil fuel industry. Together as the MIT community, we can make the statement that not only are the harmful actions of fossil fuel companies morally inexcusable, and out of line with the urgently necessary global transition to clean energy, they’re simply a bad investment. As more organizations divest, societal pressure against the bad practices of fossil fuel companies is growing, helping to drive the widespread adoption of sustainable energy sources. 

At the forefront of the divestment movement are colleges and universities, including many peers of MIT. In the Boston area, Harvard pledged to divest from fossil fuels Sept. 9, followed shortly by Boston University Sept. 23. Oct. 8, Dartmouth pledged to divest, making it the fifth of eight Ivy League schools to take this important step. Yet as this list continues to grow, where is MIT — a technological leader of the world, a school committed to science and knowledge, and an institution supposedly committed to combating climate change? 

In truth, MIT’s current level of response to the climate crisis is inadequate and disappointing compared to the scope of the problem. Nothing short of full divestment and a commitment to pursuing green, equitable energy research would be appropriate. Instead, on the financial side, MIT’s Investment Management Company (MITIMCo) has released a lackluster “Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Investment Framework.” MITIMCo prides itself on making investment decisions “based on our knowledge of MIT’s values and the guidance we receive from the Institute’s leadership and governance” but continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry. The Draft Report of the MIT Values Statement Committee offered “Mind, Hand, Heart” as MIT’s motto; surely, investing in an industry known to pollute our planet and lie about its actions, simply to continue profiting off existing infrastructure, is antithetical to those principles. As fossil fuel companies continue to benefit from investors like MIT and enable the disasters that result from climate change, they continue to inflict harm around the globe. 

One counter-argument offered against the prospect of full divestment is that the investments are outside of MITIMCo’s control: they only choose the investment managers, not the ultimate destination of the money. However, this claim does not hold up to scrutiny, since other institutions with similar investment structures as MIT, such as Rutgers, George Washington University, and Cambridge University, have divested. In addition, MIT still has leverage to control which investment managers they hire — and they have a large pool from which to choose. In the past 12 months, MIT received cold emails from 1,800 prospective managers. It is inconceivable that none held values aligned with promoting investment into green energy over fossil fuels. In the 2021 fiscal year, MIT’s endowment experienced an unprecedented 64% increase in its unrestricted funds category, which much of its fossil fuel investment money comes from. There is a choice the Institute must make about where to put those new funds: into destructive fossil-fuel investments, or into industries and activities that support humanity’s future.

Even MIT’s direct response to climate change, in the form of the new Climate Action Plan (CAP), is disappointing and ineffective. Despite the CAP’s strong rhetoric and broad scope of goals, the lack of any aggressive action and measurable accountability is marked. If MIT’s mission really is to “go as far as we can, as fast as we can,” why do we continue to engage with the industry that has led humanity into this predicament and shown no intentions of changing its toxic behavior? Instead of being a technological and political leader to change the tide of climate change, MIT has once again shown that the institution prioritizes the status quo over meaningful change. 

There’s no better time to act than now. As the world races to minimize the catastrophic damage that will be inescapable to future generations if nothing is done, MIT must use every tool at its disposal to aid in the fight against climate change. The majority of MIT’s student body, the Undergraduate Association, and the majority of MIT faculty support divestment. Other community representatives have endorsed divestment, including the Cambridge City Council in a unanimous resolution, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has backed the idea and signed an ordinance to divest city investments. As MIT holds onto its increasingly unprofitable fossil fuel investments, those same companies continue to spew out greenhouse gases, sending us all spiraling towards a worse and worse future.  

MIT is a leading technical institution primarily because of the brilliant faculty members and students who have come here with an appetite for solving the hardest problems, in service to society. Climate change may be a hard problem to solve, but it is nonetheless a problem that our institution can help rectify in an effective and equitable manner. It is time for MIT to put its money where its mouth is and divest from the fossil fuel industry now.