Standing firmly by industry ties, MIT climate action plan has everything but divestment

See here for an updated version of this article.

MIT said Wednesday it would not divest from fossil fuels, instead announcing efforts to strengthen collaboration with industry — seeking $300 million in new energy research at MIT over five years — as part of a much-awaited “plan for action on climate change.”

The plan also includes $5 million more from MIT toward environmental research, a new Environment and Sustainability minor degree, and a pledge to slash the carbon footprint of MIT’s campus, among other steps.

But despite increasing pressure from groups like Fossil Free MIT, President L. Rafael Reif and four top administrators argued vigorously against divesting the Institute’s endowment from fossil fuel companies.

“In our judgment, the deliberate public act of divestment would entangle MIT in a movement whose core tactic is large-scale public shaming,” read a joint statement from Reif, the provost, the vice president for research, the chancellor, and the executive vice president and treasurer. “This would retard rather than encourage the open collaboration and ability to hear new ideas that are central to our research relationships, central to our ability to help government and business think creatively together, and central to our ability to convene and inform the thinking of those with opposing views.”

Nonetheless, Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber said in an interview with The Tech: “We treated [the divestment matter] very seriously. We thought very hard about whether we should divest from something, anything, some things.”

Ultimately, Zuber said, given the magnitude of the climate change problem, “we came to the conclusion that MIT couldn’t do it alone” — that “engaging” industry would be key to developing solutions, and that “by disengaging, [divestment] would hinder our ability to convene all of these people at the same table.”

Among the MIT’s Climate Change Conversation Committee formed last year, a three-quarter majority supported targeted divestment from companies whose operations are “least compatible with mitigating climate change,” including coal and tar sands companies. Stanford announced last year that it would divest from coal-mining companies.

Yet coal companies “ought to be at the table” too, Zuber said, though MIT does not currently partner with coal companies. “We have a better chance of engaging them by not divesting than by divesting.”

New sponsored research in environment and energy

The core of the climate action plan will be coordinated by the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

ESI will support research on the science behind climate change as well as strategies for adapting to its impact. The ESI announced a new director, John E. Fernandez ’85, on Monday.

And through MITEI, MIT said it will seek $8 million — every year for five years — from a “diverse group of companies” to fund each of eight new research centers for low-carbon energy.

The first five centers will be the Solar Center; the Center for Energy Storage; the Center for Materials for Energy and Extreme Environments; the Center for Carbon Capture, Use and Sequestration; and the Nuclear Energy Center.

The plan to bring in more than $300 million for these centers builds on the growth of the MITEI, which has attracted funding commitments totaling $600 million since its founding in 2006, according to MIT.

The joint statement sought to highlight MIT’s history of “engagement” with industry. “Fossil fuel companies have consistently been among our most productive research partners,” the statement said.

Currently, MITEI’s top sponsors are oil and gas companies BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, and Shell.

The new centers will also seek support from “firms from the developing world unfamiliar with academic collaboration” — companies that might not otherwise have the resources to contribute to a university research program like MITEI, which has minimum requirements for “membership.”

“Their voices are extremely important,” Zuber said. “Any solution has to take into account both the developed world … and the developing world, that wants to develop energy systems to have economic growth and a better standard of living.”

Sustainability on campus

The report includes plans for improving campus sustainability by ending the use of fuel on campus by 2019 and reducing campus greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

A plan for “carbon shadow pricing” will also go into effect on campus, to experiment with the effects that accounting for carbon costs would have on institute decision-making.

“I was really surprised that we had a pretty strong consensus for carbon pricing,” Zuber said. “It’s very complicated to put a price on carbon on our campus operations, so we decided we would practice by trying to carry a price for carbon on the major things, and that would factor into our decision making as far as renovation goes.”

She added: “We were very sensitive to the fact that some people, to do their research, might take more energy. If someone lives in an older dorm, we don’t want to penalize them for living in an older dorm.”

On-campus carbon pricing also emphasizes personal responsibility — which Zuber says was part of Reif’s intention.

“[Reif] is very big on personal responsibility,” she said. “Don’t go tell MIT what they should do — what are you going to do? He’s really asking all of us this question of what are we going to do.”

Ultimately, Reif said, the report makes a call to the whole of the MIT community. “If we can all work together and work with others, we can say with a great deal of pride some decades from now, that we were able to start something that solved the problem. So this is really a call for all of us to work together to implement this plan to solve the problem.”

Benjamin Franta over 8 years ago

President Reif has betrayed the next generation.

David Lawrence over 8 years ago

The climate change action plan is groundbreaking and sweeping in its scope. I do not consider it to be a betrayal. Commenter 1: if you are referring specifically to the decision against divestment, please consider this: it is certainly not "obvious" that divesting is the right thing to do. It is a very complex issue and the committee has examined both sides of the argument in detail.

Paul Natsuo Kishimoto over 8 years ago

I am puzzled by the editorial choice to put quotes around engaging, engagement, and membership.

For the latter, MITEI very clearly describes its concept of membership:

The word engage has a clear meaning. Do the quotes imply that The Tech considers it unusual or improper for the President co. to use that word? If so, why? Is this not a common or accepted way of describing MIT's connections to industry? What word(s) should be used instead?

Arthur Yip over 8 years ago

Thank you for doing the right thing, MIT leadership.

Choosing not to divest is a powerful symbolic signal in itself.

Let's say an energy company executive is "skeptical" of climate change but was interested in learning more. Do we want to offer them a chance to come to MIT to take a course in climate science, or to understand what climate policy is based on and how it is justified because of and not in spite of scientific uncertainty?

This decision to do everything but divest tells me just how serious MIT takes the climate problem - because it indeed will require further scientific breakthroughs, technological innovations, involving industrial and commerical collaborations and partnerships. Social and political will is not "the only thing left/needed" and is also a function of scientific and technological progress that can help make the "right thing to do" much more plausible and feasible, especially for the lesser economically developed world.