Climate justice, student activism discussed at climate change forum

Panelists urged students to "act collectively" to combat climate change

More than 250 members of the MIT community filled Morss Hall Thursday to attend Climate Change: Ethics in Action, a forum on ethical responsibility in the context of climate change. Attendees included undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff.

The event was organized by Fossil Free MIT and sponsored by Radius, a group at MIT that discusses ethics in science and technology, and the Office of the Vice President for Research, Maria T. Zuber.

The forum originated from the terms of the Updates to the Climate Action Plan, an agreement reached between Fossil Free MIT and Zuber’s office last semester. FFMIT had previously called for the establishment of an Ethics Advisory Committee, but agreed to host the forum instead.

Forum panelist Kerry A. Emanuel, a professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, said that “MIT made a big mistake” in refusing to create a climate ethics advisory committee.

In a recorded video introduction, Zuber called climate change a serious threat and invited participants to consider their values.

Dean Melissa Nobles of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences introduced keynote speaker Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, as a “world-renowned scholar of the ethics of climate change.” Jamieson spoke about the ethical conundrum that climate change presents.

To illustrate the problem, he showed an animated video about bicycle theft: if Jack steals Jill’s bicycle, Jack is clearly a criminal, and Jill is a victim. But instead, what if Jack, along with thousands of his friends, uses up all the materials needed for producing bicycles, and then 200 years in the future, Jill can’t have a bicycle? Jill is still a victim in this situation, but is Jack still a malicious criminal?

Jamieson asked participants to consider if they felt like “ruthless killer[s]” for driving cars, flying, heating their homes, or other similar energy-intensive activities.

“Our contribution to climate change,” he said, must be made “visual, proximate, and dramatic.” People’s morality, he asserted, doesn’t naturally lead them to act on issues that they can’t visualize. Thus the goal of the climate justice movement, he explained, is to reframe climate change as a moral issue.

Jamieson noted a precedent for this phenomenon: the British blood sugar campaign of the late 1700s. A subset of the abolition movement, the campaign painted sugar cane as being fertilized by the blood of slaves. Conscious consumers could buy tins of sugar that said “East India Sugar Not Made By Slaves.”

Following the keynote speaker, participants were treated to a vegetarian dinner, with many having brought their own reusable containers and utensils at the encouragement of the organizers.

The event continued after dinner with a panel discussion, moderated by Professor Kieran Setiya, acting chair of the Philosophy Department, and featuring Emanuel, Janelle Knox-Hayes, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Nathan Phillips, a professor in environmental science from Boston University, and Susan S. Silbey, an MIT professor in anthropology.

Several panelists called for more education about both ethics and climate change.

Silbey asserted that universities have “played a too-large role in creating” the climate crisis. Universities, she claimed, teach an individualistic social theory, explaining what happens “in terms of individual minds.” She argued that universities should instead teach theory of collective action.

She also observed that humans “have built up institutions that feed our demand for energy,” and she questioned the cycle that she sees as contributing to this: building more buildings to hire more professors to publish more papers, and so on, all so that MIT can be “number one.”

“The point is,” she said, “it’s a machine in which nobody is in charge, and it keeps reproducing itself. And although nobody is in charge and nobody intends it to happen... the outcomes are not random. They are predictable.”

Silbey expressed her wish that her SHASS colleagues would “stop competing in their [own] marketplace,” and instead come together to create a requirement that prompts students to discuss the question: “what is the good life?” Knox-Hayes agreed, saying that MIT should incorporate thinking about living a meaningful life into the curriculum.

Emanuel voiced his belief that MIT is not doing enough in general to educate its undergraduates about climate change.

In the 2016 MIT senior survey, 24 percent of respondents said “working for social and political change” was not important to them at all. Similarly, 37 percent of respondents said “participating in politics or community affairs” was not important to them.

The panelists also discussed “the elephant in the room:” the Trump presidency. Phillips called the appointment of Steve Bannon “reprehensible.” He asserted that to remain neutral was to be “complicit in what is becoming a fascist administration.”

The panelists agreed that the most effective way for students to combat climate change is to “act collectively.” Both Emanuel and Phillips applauded students such as members of Fossil Free MIT for paying attention and organizing around climate change.

Silbey advised students to learn from the past. “You don’t have to reinvent the world,” she said. She noted that previous movements, such as the women’s movement and Students for a Democratic Society, were “highly intellectual.” She suggested that today’s students follow their lead by studying past movements and reading about social theory to understand what causes movements to succeed or fail.

Knox-Hayes also reminded forum participants that they don’t have to “operate at a scale that’s bigger than” themselves. Waking up after the election, she said, she felt like the future she imagined had disappeared; nevertheless, she added, “that doesn’t change what I’m capable of.”

A link to a recorded webcast of this forum can be found here.