We need fossil fuel divestment
Gaps in the MIT Climate Action Plan
This October marked the one-year anniversary of the release of MIT’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), which seeks to use the university’s expertise in research, education, and outreach to address global warming. It also marked the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the student group Fossil Free MIT’s 116 day sit-in outside the Office of the President in protest of perceived shortcomings of the CAP, which eventually led to an agreement with the administration to strengthen the university’s commitments. While much progress has been made toward orienting MIT as a global leader in sustainability, the administration’s plan is still insufficient. The biggest missed opportunity of the CAP is the failure of the administration to divest MIT’s holdings in fossil fuel companies.
A cornerstone of MIT’s plan is engagement with industry partners to find solutions to the climate crisis, a strategy that the administration considers to be “incompatible” with divestment. Although the administration offers little evidence to support this claim, even if it were assumed to be true, to prioritize research collaboration with industry is to wrongly assess the problem. While developing sustainable energy technologies is surely helpful, the main roadblock to a clean energy transition is not a want of renewable energy innovation, but a lack of political will. While renewable energy technologies are available and cost-competitive with fossil fuels, the United States spends about six times as much in subsidies for fossil fuels than for renewable energy. Political leadership has been tepid to non-existent from a Congress where 34 percent of members deny anthropogenic climate change; the political discourse on the issue has been similarly scarce, as we just finished a presidential debate cycle without any substantive discussion on climate change.
Unfortunately, just as the hammer sees everything as a nail, there is a tendency for the world’s foremost science and technology institute to view problems primarily as requiring a technological solution. Instead, what is needed is a broad-based movement that stigmatizes the practices of the fossil fuel companies and demands an alternative, and divestment would be a powerful statement toward this end. Just like the divestment movements against South African Apartheid and the tobacco companies, fossil fuel divestment could galvanize nationwide political action. While the CAP is dismissive of stigmatization strategies, a study by the University of Oxford concludes that “[t]he outcome of the stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies… and could impact fossil fuel companies… through legislation.” Aside from the ethical implications of benefitting from carbon pollution, as a university committed to creating a “Better World,” MIT has a duty to use its global prominence to make a strong political statement and reject the fossil fuel industry’s destructive practices through divestment.
These practices include, as the CAP admits, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fund disinformation about climate change, which leads to societal skepticism about its anthropogenic roots and to political polarization and intransigence. The Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) — an organization founded by MIT students and faculty in 1969 — recently released a report on eight top fossil fuel companies, noting that “all eight companies maintain membership — and in many cases have leadership positions — in trade associations and other industry groups that spread disinformation about climate science and/or seek to block climate action.” For example, MIT partners BP, Shell, Chevron, and ExxonMobil all hold leadership positions in the American Petroleum Institute, where they “have colluded to intentionally deceive the public” despite knowing “for at least two decades that their products are harmful,” according to UCS. These policies of deception are understandable when one does the math and considers the steps that must be taken to address climate change. A 2015 letter in Nature determined that global fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than the maximum amount of fossil fuel that can be safely burned. Therefore, “a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused,” corresponding to trillions of dollars in stranded assets. This enormous and ominous “carbon bubble” makes the $88 billion dollars per year that the fossil fuel industry spends on exploring for new reserves seem especially reckless.
Aside from engagement with the fossil fuel industry in research and innovation, MIT has also vaguely aspired to leverage this collegial relationship to influence their partners to address climate change through “candid conversations” and by serving as an intermediary between industry and government to affect needed “policy and economic incentives.” The administration seems optimistic that the fossil fuel industry can be reached through an appeal to reason, and that the industry will willingly collaborate to establish policies that will ultimately lead to a significant shift from their current line of business, if not the outright extinction of that line of business.
To demonstrate the goodwill of the fossil fuel industry and willingness to support meaningful solutions to climate change, the administration notes that many top fossil fuel company CEOs “declared that their ‘shared ambition is for a 2°C future,’ and called for an ‘effective climate change agreement’” at last year’s conference that led to the Paris Climate Agreement. However, this appears to have been little more than a good PR gesture: UCS concluded in their report that “none of the eight companies studied has laid out a company-wide pathway or plan to align its business model with the new reality established in Paris.” This includes two MIT collaborators, BP and Shell, that the CAP point to as supporting such an agreement. Other university partners such as Chevron and ExxonMobil have not even expressed support for the climate deal or its temperature goals.
In the year since the passing of the CAP, the globe has seen record-breaking heat, flooding in Louisiana, drought and wildfire in California, and the highest levels of global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in human history. The Arctic sea ice experienced its lowest ice peak in history and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is at an increased risk of melting. Despite some victories, such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the defeat of the Keystone XL Pipeline, this anniversary is not a time for celebration, but rather a time for taking action against climate change. It is imperative that the MIT community rejects the baleful influence and practices of the fossil fuel industry and demands an alternative. Expecting fossil fuel companies to change their behavior through a spirit of comity is unrealistic given the incentives for them to maintain the status quo. Through divestment from fossil fuel companies, MIT can signal to the rest of the world that what is needed is both a change in the way our world is powered and a change in how we view those in the industry who are doing the most harm.
Patrick Moran is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Physics.