We write from the office doorstep of MIT’s President, where on October 22, we began a sit-in in response to the President’s announcement of MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change (hereafter ‘Plan’). As President Reif acknowledged, the Plan originally “emerged in response to” Fossil Free MIT’s ongoing call, since April 2013, for MIT to divest its now $13.5 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies. Here, we share our take on MIT’s Plan and explain why it has left us no choice but to respectfully plant ourselves, around-the-clock, along MIT’s corridor of power to call for a bolder approach.
We are glad to see our administration’s acknowledgement of “the seriousness and urgency of the climate threat, and on the need for MIT to play a public leadership role.” However, the Plan has three critical shortcomings: (i) it is insufficient, incommensurate with limiting warming to 2°C; (ii) it is unhearing, failing to live up to the ambitions of thousands of MIT members; and (iii) it is unwarranted, reliant on a theory of change that is little more than business-as-usual repackaged.
On campus sustainability, the Plan pledges to “reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions 32 percent by 2030.” In comparison, other universities have achieved or committed to achieving far greater reductions, including Georgetown (71 percent already), Yale (43 percent by 2020), Cornell (100 percent by 2035), and Duke (100 percent by 2024). If all developed countries followed MIT’s emissions reduction plan, a simulation run by Climate Interactive projects that global warming would drastically overshoot the 2°C danger limit, with a most likely temperature rise of 3.4°C by 2100.
On research, the administration touts a goal of raising $300 million over five years to fund new low-carbon energy research within the MIT Energy Initiative. We applaud MITEI’s efforts to “democratize access to our innovation ecosystem” by accepting money from companies that aren’t as rich as the oil and gas companies currently making up MITEI’s membership. But this alone is hardly a revolutionary departure from the $600 million that MITEI raised over the last ten years.
The Plan’s remaining steps (like the creation of an Environment and Sustainability minor and an open data repository of campus energy use), while important and welcome, are likewise insufficient to address the magnitude and urgency of the climate crisis.
By choosing not to divest from fossil fuels — even from coal, tar sands, and climate-change-denying corporations — our administration has dismissed thousands of MIT voices. This decision was made despite President Reif’s own advisory committee (the Climate Change Conversation Committee) having voted 9-to-3 in favor of divestment from coal and tar sands, and having unanimously endorsed the creation of an Ethics Advisory Council to “explicitly combat disinformation and avoid inadvertently supporting disinformation through investments,” with the possibility of “disinformation-based divestment.” And this decision was made despite calls for divestment from more than 3,500 MIT petition signatures, and despite separate open letters from MIT student groups, faculty, alumni, and some of the world’s most prominent climate scientists and advocates.
Yes, divestment may be polarizing, but so is investment. How can our administration conclude that continued investment in the fossil fuel industry meets their criterion of unanimous campus-wide approval, when so many at MIT are against it? And with zero transparency as to the method or rigor by which campus ‘consensus’ was measured, for divestment and for everything else, where has MIT’s scientific method gone?
Our administration asserts that a continuation of the same inside-influence it has apparently exerted over the fossil fuel industry for decades will achieve the technological and political revolutions we need. That through “engagement,” we can convince the world’s fossil fuel companies to leave trillions of dollars of reserves in the ground.
Unfortunately, historical evidence does not support these assertions.
After decades of investor activism on climate change (MIT has notably not even committed to using its leverage as a shareholder), and a century of collaboration between MIT and fossil fuel companies, we still face an industry that spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year searching for unburnable hydrocarbons, hundreds of millions lobbying against renewable energy legislation, and unknown millions on disinformation tactics that continue even to this day.
Rather than changing ExxonMobil’s course, MIT’s partnership has, to the contrary, been used by the company as an excuse for inaction and to distract from its record of deliberate disinformation. For example, ExxonMobil’s board recently recommended that shareholders vote against a resolution proposing that the company “adopt quantitative goals for reducing total greenhouse gas emissions from the Company’s products and operations.” Its reason? Among others, that “The Company also conducts strategic research with leading universities… Examples include the MIT Energy Initiative.”
And just last week, ExxonMobil trumpeted its relationships with MIT in an effort to misdirect attention from revelations that the company has understood the threats of climate change since the late 1970s, yet instead of warning the world, used this knowledge to profit its business decisions while orchestrating campaigns to publicly attack climate science and obstruct political action. Even the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — the philanthropic arm of Exxon’s predecessors — were unable to “beg” Exxon to end its climate denial, opting last year to instead divest from fossil fuels.
Our administration claims it is “not naïve about the pernicious role of some segments of the fossil fuel industry in creating the current policy deadlock,” yet responds “by bringing them closer to us.” This inside-politics approach seems oblivious to the overwhelming evidence that the bottleneck to effective climate mitigation is no longer technological capability or policy know-how, but political will. The will, for example, to put a price on carbon and to shift trillions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies toward renewables.
Divestment offers our administration a strategy, as part of a comprehensive action plan, to help overcome rather than ignore this bottleneck; helping to create political breathing room for enacting a price on carbon and, ultimately, limiting warming to 2°C. In particular, targeted divestment from coal and tar sands is scientifically consistent, financially prudent, politically effective, and morally right. Oxford, Stanford, and the University of California are among $2.6 trillion of assets already divesting from coal. As President Reif’s committee noted, “Coal and tar sands are among the most carbon‑intensive and environmentally hazardous fossil fuels, and their continued large‑scale use is incompatible with economically mitigating climate change.”
In summary, MIT’s Plan is incommensurate with holding warming below 2°C. Our administration is playing catch-up in reducing campus emissions, is failing to align MIT’s investments with its mission and morals, and is seemingly afraid to speak out against companies undermining our own efforts. The Plan reflects an unwarranted belief that through an undefined course of engagement, MIT can convince the fossil fuel industry to leave its future profits underground. For all these reasons, we are sitting-in to urge MIT’s administration to raise their ambitions, starting by:
Committing to divest from coal and tar sands companies.
Addressing climate science disinformation by establishing an Ethics Advisory Committee, whose assessments can lead to disinformation-based divestment.
Committing to achieve campus carbon neutrality by 2040 at the latest, and striving to achieve this target as far ahead of schedule as possible.
We invite you to join us.