“Our chance to lead against climate change” is the motto of a new student group at MIT, which has joined the growing national movement calling for universities and other organizations to divest from fossil fuels.
The group argues that MIT, as a leading university in energy and technology research, is in a unique position to send a powerful message to other universities, the government, and the world about the future of energy and the environment.
“We’re at MIT; we know the science and we know what needs to be done,” said Patrick Brown, a 5th-year graduate student in Physics and one of the group’s founding members.
Formed in Fall 2012 by a group of about six students, Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT) calls for MIT to purge its endowment of stocks in fossil fuel companies—particularly the biggest coal and oil companies—and by doing so, lessen its “financial and social contribution to climate change,” as the group’s website explains, and become a leader in a movement calling for action to reduce carbon emissions associated with global warming.
Yet the close ties between MIT and energy research add complexity to the issue.
John Parsons, a Senior Lecturer in Finance at Sloan and Executive Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at MIT, said that the movement “has lots of complications at MIT – we’ve played a very lead role in energy policy. But a lot of that is funded by some of the companies I imagine they want us to divest from. That’s a fancy dance you’d be asking the Institute to take.”
And some say the companies have a real interest in renewable energy research. “I’ve talked to lots of people at fossil fuel companies who are very realistic about the problem and who are very interested in finding solutions,” Parsons said.
Brown, who does research on solar cells—technology that turns light into electricity— expressed a feeling of “hypocrisy in MIT’s simultaneously trying to find a solution and funding the problem.” The amount spent by fossil fuel companies on alternative energies is “just a drop in the bucket” compared to the amount spent on searching for more fossil fuels, Brown said.
On the possible financial consequences of divesting, John Parsons surmised that it would neither greatly influence the MIT portfolio nor have an economic impact on the companies. “The real question is the politics of doing it – the indirect effect,” said Parsons.
As the group actively seeks out signatures for its petition—now with over 1,700 signatories—and the divestment debate continues, there has also been news on the science behind the politics. On September 27th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that reaffirmed with more certainty than ever the idea that humans are the main cause of the recent warming of this planet.
Of the over 300 campuses hosting groups advocating divestment, only a handful of small colleges have divested. Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, which has a large and active student group working on the issue, released a statement on October 3rd explaining that Harvard will be keeping its fossil fuel stocks.
At MIT, the process for considering divestment involves the convening of an ad hoc committee, the ACSR (Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility). The committee will only convene “when the committee feels there is sufficient interest [in the community] on the question of divestment,” said Kirk D. Kolenbrander, Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation.
That’s what FFMIT hopes to encourage. The advisory committee has not met since 2007, when it discussed and ultimately adopted divestment from Sudan due to its genocidal violence in Darfur.
But as at other universities considering fossil fuel divestment, the community is divided; “the simple reality is that there are quite a number of people on our campus that don’t think divesting is the best [course of action],” Kolenbrander said, as dependence on fossil fuels at MIT and as a society remains significant.
“We realize it isn’t realistic at this point for MIT to go totally carbon neutral tomorrow,” said Brown. But at the least, Brown said, FFMIT hopes to make fossil fuels “the thing that everyone’s talking about.”