Can MIT divest while accepting oil money? An activist weighs in.

The Tech sits down with a Fossil Free MIT student leader

In anticipation of President L. Rafael Reif’s upcoming announcement about MIT’s climate action plan, The Tech spoke with Geoffrey Supran, a graduate student in materials science, about his work on the MIT Climate Change Conversation Committee and student group Fossil Free MIT. We asked about his expectations for the announcement, his thoughts around divestment, his own research, and how he became a climate change activist.

The Tech: What do you hope to see from President Reif’s announcement?

Supran: What I hope to see is what dozens of student groups have been calling for now, which is a bold, multifaceted climate action plan. In particular, we’re calling for three things: divestment from fossil fuels, reinvestment in campus sustainability, and a reinvention of the approach that MIT takes toward climate change. We anticipate that the president will heed the recommendations of his own committee — of which I was a part — and launch, I hope, the most ambitious, comprehensive, and inclusive climate action plan that any university has ever seen… There is quite a scary lack of awareness as to the political realities of climate change. We feel MIT at the moment is sitting on the sidelines, watching the greatest catastrophe in human history play out, and we need it to step up to the plate and be the global leader that it has the potential to be.

The Tech: By political realities do you mean inertia, lack of political action?

Supran: If you look at the scientific literature, you learn that the bottleneck to tackling climate change is no longer technological capacity of policy know-how — it’s political will and social will. Right now, MIT pays grad students like me to develop these technologies, but at the same time it’s investing hundreds of millions of dollars into an industry whose business plan is fundamentally incompatible with the science of climate change and has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The Tech: How can MIT’s involvement complement what’s going on in the political realm?

Supran: This institute wields a megaphone to public and political opinion like no other university in the world. It is the forerunner when it comes to climate science and technology. If we take actions that shout through that megaphone, we can actually shift the sociopolitical landscape and create breathing room for the political leadership and legislation that will be necessary to get meaningful climate actions.

The Tech: How do you see divestment fitting into what MIT can do?

Supran: It’s aligning our money with our mission and our morals. It’s morally right, but it’s also scientifically consistent. It’s financially prudent, and also politically effective. It’s the political effectiveness that makes it so key. I’ve been working on renewables since I was 16, the whole university is trying to get these technologies out into the world, but we’re basically fighting climate change with one hand — through grad students like me — and feeding it with the other hand by investing in an industry whose bottom line depends on protecting business as usual. We’re funding renewables with one hand, and funding an industry that fights renewables with the other hand.

The Tech: What’s your perspective on groups like the MIT Energy Initiative that benefit from funding from oil companies?

Supran: I was an Energy Initiative Fellow my first year — my lab gets almost all its money from the oil industry to do solar research. I believe there’s an equal chance that the fossil fuel industry will need to increase its renewables research investments rather than decrease them if MIT shows how seriously it’s committed to climate action.

There’s demonstrable proof for this — when ExxonMobil has refused to take action against climate change, it specifically cited its affiliation with MIT. If in the future, MIT says we’re more serious about taking climate action, [ExxonMobil] is going to have to point to work that it does in places like MIT.

Personally I think it’s a gamble we have to take. There comes a time when moral considerations and the need to protect our generation and future generations have to come before a potential financial risk.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that the call for divestment is not radical at all in that it’s consistent with the science for climate change mitigation. The divestment movement derives from peer-reviewed science.

The Tech: Do you think MIT should continue to accept research funding from companies like Eni, if the Institute moves forward with divestment?

Supran: Firstly, to be clear, divestment is to do with MIT’s investments, not its research funding. Fossil Free MIT isn’t making any commentary at all on research funding and where it comes from.

Personally, I think doing renewables research using industry funding is totally different to profiting from the fossil fuel industry’s drilling and exploration of hydrocarbons that the world can never safely afford to burn. Clean energy research at places like MIT benefits from the minuscule fraction of fossil fuel money that actually goes toward transforming rather than trashing the planet. So yes, I think that if those companies are willing to part with a tiny bit of their profits — even if only for PR reasons — MIT should take advantage of it and do as much good with it as possible.

But also remember that some unknown fraction of the fossil fuel industry’s research funding at MIT in fact goes into the development of core fossil fuel development and extraction technologies, not to clean energy. I’d point to a quote from the CEO of Eni, Paolo Scaroni, who said, “Cooperation between MIT and Eni can give us phenomenal results.”...

Again, in no way am I or Fossil Free MIT telling anyone at MIT what they can and can’t research, but I know that a lot of people — myself included — find it very troubling that MIT is on the one hand researching how to dig up more fossil fuels, and on the other how to save the climate that those fossil fuels are wrecking.

Also, there’s clear evidence to show that fossil fuel companies don’t invest in MIT because MIT invests in them. They invest in us because it looks good. By the fossil fuel industry’s own admission, divestment is already working to stigmatize their business practices that are incompatible with the science of climate change mitigation. And there are countless examples that when these companies are worried about their image, they point to the research they fund at places like MIT. So as divestment continues to create the political breathing room for climate leadership and a renewables roll-out, I only expect our clean energy research funding from the fossil fuel industry to grow.

Finally, as I mentioned in our committee’s report, there are clear paths to fossil fuel divestment that would allow MIT to work in good faith with fossil fuel companies to solve this crisis together. If a fossil fuel company demonstrates its seriousness to adapt its business plans to mitigate climate change, MIT need not divest from it. But as of yet, no fossil fuel company anywhere in the world has come close.

The Tech: You mentioned you’re a youth delegate to the UN. You’re part of FFMIT, you’ve written for the Guardian and the Huffington Post. How did you get started?

Supran: Divestment. I got into science and technology when I was a kid, when I had what I still have now, which is this deep belief in the power of science to make the world a better place. But there comes a point where you sit in the lab, and you’re trying to do all this work, and you realize it’s being undermined by the very Institute that’s paying you to do the work.

The most tangible proof that [the divestment movement] is working is students like me. As President Reif mentioned in his commencement speech to the Class of 2015, the Climate Change Conversation simply wouldn’t have happened without divestment. My career, my life trajectory, have completely been changed by divestment.

[Divestment] reframes the climate narrative...All the focus has been on guilt tripping people who have no power, which simply means that the industry on the other end keeps pushing fossil fuels through the pipeline, and we have no alternative. Overwhelmingly, Americans prefer clean energy over fossil fuels, but they just have no choice because they’re stuck in a system dominated by big oil politics in DC...

I was literally just sitting in a lab and being introduced to this idea, and suddenly seeing the bigger picture in which my own research fits and MIT’s research fits. Within three years, everything’s changed. My entire career has changed. It’s kind of remarkable. The campaign as a whole has gone from a couple college campuses three years ago to 500 around the world. It’s gone from $13 million divested to $2.6 trillion — it’s a now-significant portion of global GDP. It’s gone from a bunch of tree-hugging hippies talking to each other to a political reframing.

If you follow climate politics, it’s very quickly changing the entire ball game. You saw that Shell went to the arctic to do drilling research. They pulled out, and everyone knows it’s because of kids like you and me who keep pestering them until it becomes politically untenable for them to continue those business practices.

The Tech: Why do you think it took so long to reframe the discussion?

Supran: I think it was partly the role of industry, but not entirely. I think it was a failure on multiple fronts by multiple institutions. I think the reason politicians have always gravitated away from it is probably because of the influence of corporate lobbying.

The Tech: Could you talk about your work on the climate conversation committee?

Supran: The charge was to survey the entire MIT community and figure out the ways to tackle climate change that the community wanted to pursue, and identify other ways that we thought were promising. It began by various forms of surveys to try to get input from the community. But ultimately, it wasn’t like we were restricted to only reflecting the most popular ideas from the community…. Overall, in a sentence, the proposal was for extremely bold and multifaceted action, which is exactly the thing that all of us students are trying to hold the president to right now.

The Tech: Was there debate within the committee on what to include in the report, debate over the merits of different solutions?

Supran: Sure, yeah, all of them. I basically lost a year of my life. Yeah, it was very intensive, very rigorous, and people brought various different perspectives to the table. I couldn’t go through all of them, but I think in the end the report pretty fairly reflected the actions that as a whole we could all get behind. There was a real desire that at the end of the day, everyone on the committee signed off on the report, and they did.

The Tech: What were some of the aspects of the report that generated the most debate?

Supran: I’m not sure if I should answer that question, I’m afraid.

The Tech: Looking forward to the next few weeks, are there more events planned [like Climate Countdown Rally]?

Supran: Well, we’ll have to see….I think there’s a strong confidence in the community that President Reif is going to heed the calls of his own committee and thousands of people in the community and take serious climate action….And I think that if he were to turn a blind eye to this unified call for climate action, I think he could expect to see serious community resistance. What form that will take, we’ll have to find out. You know, I have to be careful about what we’re planning to do over the coming months…. This administration won’t get away with just tokenistic action or just diplomatic platitudes. We’re going to hold them to something higher. As far as I’m concerned, we’re not going anywhere, ever, as long as this crisis keeps growing, which it unfortunately will.

The Tech: Could you also talk a bit about your own research?

Supran: A lot of what [our group] focus[es] on is using nanostructured materials called quantum dots. They’re small, soccer-ball-like clusters of semiconducting atoms with a diameter of about five or ten nanometers, just like a soccer ball but about a hundred million times smaller. They have these amazing optical properties where, as you change their size on the nanoscale, they can absorb different colors of sunlight. You can optimize these materials to make solar cells that absorb broad parts of the solar spectrum using ultrathin, ultracheap layers. The vision is a next generation of solar cells which are large area and low cost.

What I’m actually working on right now is essentially the physics flipside. With the solar cells you take sunlight in and spit electricity out; with the LEDs that I work on now, you put electricity in and get light out. The solar cells work on the supply side, but on the demand side 21 percent of global electricity goes towards lighting. Right now, an incandescent light bulb is 95 percent inefficient. So when you turn it on, 95 percent of the power just comes out as heat. It’s a better heater than it is a light source. The idea is that if we can make low cost, high-efficiency lighting, we can reduce the usage of electricity.

The Tech: Have you found challenges communicating your work and climate science to all the different audiences and groups that you’re trying to mobilize?

Supran: It’s surprising that even in scientific communities there’s a lack of awareness of the astonishing urgency of the climate crisis. I didn’t realize it until about 3 or 4 years ago, when divestment reframed it and focused my attention a bit, and I started reading the literature. I don’t think many people realize that we literally only have as many years you can count on your fingers to completely reinvent the global economy….

I think that it can be hard at a technocratic institution like MIT for us to recognize the broader moral and sociopolitical environment in which the science we work on sits. Sometimes I think people can see a graph but not feel its power, and that’s the challenge we really have. How do you turn numbers and facts and figures into moral courage to take action?...I think that maybe there’s a stereotype or that people perceive us as in some way radical, but really I’m just a physicist and a materials scientist with no previous background in environmentalism, politics… I don’t even like politics, you know? …

But… if I came here to make a difference with my science, then if I know a little more science and I realize both how urgent this problem is and where the real bottlenecks are, I can’t just ignore it and go on working in my lab because it’s more convenient and it’s more comfortable. Well, we can, but it’s basically an abnegation of our responsibility as scientists and a failure of MIT’s mission, which is the betterment of humankind. It’s just trying to inspire that sense of the betterment of humankind, that sense of passion in young people who understandably are really busy and just need to do exams and get through classes and everything.

The Tech: Why don’t you think more students have that perspective or have that drive to see where the bottleneck is to impact?

Supran: I think that they do. I think it’s partly like I was saying, MIT is a busy, hectic place, and people are just trying to keep their heads above water. But I think the sheer fact that we’ve seen the support of thousands of people in the community in various open letters and petitions tells me that there is a strong desire to rally together behind our science and our futures. I think that it’s easy to feel isolated or powerless, and I think most of us did...To some degree I wouldn’t fully agree with the premise that people aren’t becoming more passionate because, like we discussed, this whole climate change discussion at MIT arose because of our campaign in just a couple of years, so clearly it’s doing something. We could always be doing more, but we’re busy too, so… [laughs]

The Tech: What have you learned, or what’s surprised you, going from physics or research to organizing a movement?

Supran: I think it’s how much change you can effect when you put your mind to it…what I’ve come to realize from organizing is essentially the sentiment that Margaret Mead expressed, which is “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

That’s been the amazing thing, that a small group of students who’ve grown over time have been able to move this mountain that is MIT, and now we sit here on the brink of what I think will be historic MIT climate action, you know, just because of a few Google docs and late-night email threads. That’s kind of amazing to me, and it wasn’t something that I was at all connected with before, it’s been a very quantum step for me…

I think the real big insight that I had… was this insight that the bottleneck is the social and political will. I really wasn’t aware of that impediment before. Without drawing too many generalizations, I think that most people working here in their labs believe that if they build the best solar cell, it will get out there in the world and immediately have an impact, but that’s just not the case. The solar cells we needed ten, twenty years ago were invented thirty years ago and they’re just sitting, waiting to be used. That realization really shook me to my core and made me realize that analytically if we want to solve this problem we have to think about the politics as well as the technology, even if that puts us out of our comfort zone just a little bit.

The Tech: Have you seen your own research applied in the outside world?

Supran: Well, in small ways. Some of the technologies we work on get turned into products by spin-off companies from my advisor’s group. This is kind of the “reinvent” part that we’re pushing. MIT is a powerhouse for renewable energy research, and no one is saying that we should back off that. In fact what we’re saying is that we should double down on it and really focus on how to take those technologies into the real world, and that means more thinking about deployment, about real world policy. And I think that that’s something very slowly the Institute is moving towards, and I hope it will be part of the announcement in a few weeks.

The Tech: Do you think you’ll get to a point in your career where you go back to focusing purely on research, or do you think you’ll have a foot in both worlds?

Supran: I don’t think I’ll ever go 100 percent back. I enjoy working at the interface between the two. I think it makes us more powerful, effective organizers when we’re in touch with the science and we understand the technologies we’re talking about. So I enjoy moving between the two. That’s probably what I’m going to be doing next.

This interview, which was conducted partly in person and partly by email, has been edited for brevity and clarity.