The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced this week a new climate change action plan that rejects calls from activists to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
The best way for the university to tackle climate change, argued MIT senior leaders, is through active engagement of “fossil fuel giants that have mastered the challenges of delivering energy to millions of households.”
MIT over the next five years will dedicate more than $300 million to the creation of eight low-carbon energy research centers, where faculty and students will partner with industry on developing breakthrough technologies.
The university also plans new environmental sustainability degrees and courses, and to use its international convening power to spark collaborations and ideas across societal sectors.
The goal is to “shift the public dialogue from deadlocked argument to a constructive conversation about solving problems,” wrote the MIT leadership team.
“We’re talking about a global moon shot, and engagement is the only way to get there,” university president L. Rafael Reif told reporters.
MIT’s year-long consultation of students, faculty, and alumni and bold focus on societal engagement is a model for other universities and colleges to emulate.
As controversial as it might be, MIT’s decision defines a path for other research universities to follow. Each college or university must act on their responsibility to address the urgent threat of climate change in ways that balance competing constituencies and that leverage their unique institutional capabilities.
Pressure from a new social movement
The debate over fossil fuel divestment began three years ago, sparked by a magazine article that quickly went viral online.
The fossil fuel industry “has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth,” wrote Bill McKibben at Rolling Stone. “It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
Drawing comparisons to the anti-apartheid effort, McKibben urged a mass movement pressuring universities, colleges, churches, and local governments to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies.
McKibben’s article drew millions of readers, serving as the manifesto for activists at more than two hundred campuses worldwide who have lobbied their institutions to divest from fossil fuel industries.
On many campuses, the divestment movement has provided passionate climate advocates a personally relevant focus on their local institutions, and the hope that their actions can make at least a limited symbolic difference.
The campaign has also created important opportunities for student activists to learn about coalition building, negotiation, and compromise, with campus forums and events sparking critical reflection on what climate change means for society and how everyday citizens, especially young people, can become involved.
At MIT, responding to pressure from the student group Fossil Free MIT, the new climate action plan was informed by a year of consultation with students, faculty, alumni, and other stakeholders.
The MIT Climate Conversation Committee organized activities that included an Idea Bank, a community‑wide survey, a series of public events guided by the survey responses, and a campus Listening Tour.
Among the actions recommended by the committee was a leading role for MIT in responding to disinformation about climate change, and a plan to turn the campus – through research, programs and a carbon price – into a living sustainability lab.
By a three quarters majority, the committee recommended that MIT divest from coal and tar sand companies but not from other fossil fuel industry members.
Yet in reaching their recent decision, university leadership broke with the committee’s recommendation, concluding that fossil fuel divestment “and its core tactic of public shaming” were incompatible with solutions-focused societal engagement.
Forcing campus leaders to choose sides
For many divestment activists, the movement is fundamentally about forcing university leaders and boards of trustees “to choose which side of the issue they are on.”
As a consequence, on some campuses like McKibben’s alma mater Harvard University, the divestment campaign has created intense conflict and polarization, pitting students, alumni, faculty, and administrators against each other.
In April 2015, as McKibben joined with other prominent alumni and students at sit-ins and protests on Harvard Yard, the university’s administration forcefully rejected demands for divestment.
Harvard leaders argued that the university’s most effective response to climate change would be to maximize investments in research, teaching, and students.
“Insinuations that Harvard is not committed to confronting climate change because it does not embrace (Bill) McKibben’s preferred tactic are simply and demonstrably wrong,” wrote Harvard president Drew Faust in a letter to the Boston Globe.
In the wake of MIT’s decision, campus activists appear to have embarked on a similar strategy to escalate conflict.
“This announcement is business-as-usual repackaged,” said a student leader of Fossil Free MIT which staged a sit in to protest the university’s decision. “MIT has put money before morals and its students’ futures today.”
Higher education in turbulent times
For universities and colleges, there is no clear right or wrong choice on fossil fuel divestment, despite what activists might insist.
Each institution must weigh and consider its own unique constituencies and the strategies by which it can make the biggest difference on climate change.
For liberal arts colleges that have small endowments, lack research collaborations with industry, and that brand themselves in terms of environmental values, divesting may be the right choice.
In other cases likes Stanford University, the choice to divest from the coal industry reflected in part the university’s strong ties to the renewable energy sector, and the lobbying of billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, a major donor and trustee.
But for other research universities that can make a major impact through research and graduate training on the fossil fuel industry, the symbolic choice to divest may impair other ways that the institution can make a more meaningful difference.
For example, among the research centers planned by MIT is one focusing on developing carbon capture and sequestration. Many experts warn that thousands of coal and natural gas plants worldwide will have to be fitted with the technology in order to limit global emissions to safe levels.
Rapid development and adoption of carbon capture technology will require close collaboration between leading research universities like MIT and the fossil fuel industry.
In this case, MIT’s approach to the fossil fuel divestment question offers several valuable lessons for other research universities as they weigh similar choices.
Lessons from MIT
First, the university’s year-long effort at campus consultation and engagement has likely helped many students, faculty, and alumni better understand and appreciate competing perspectives, and to develop skills and experience in grappling with their tensions and uncertainties.
Universities and colleges are the places where we can most effectively experiment with communication initiatives that challenge how each of us think and talk about the choices we face on climate change.
Through these activities, institutions of higher education can generate the conditions for eventual change in national politics, by rewiring our expectations and norms relative to public debate, and by forging relationships and connections that span ideological differences and worldviews.
Second, MIT’s climate action plan can also serve as a model for how major research universities can accelerate effective societal actions on climate change by collaborating with a diversity of industry members, including fossil fuel giants.
This approach involves using research, expert analysis, and industry partnerships to broaden the menu of effective policy options and low carbon energy technologies that society has to choose from in combating climate change.
Under these conditions, it will be easier to gain support for action from across the political spectrum in the US and from a diversity of countries internationally. Such a strategy also makes powerful industry groups potential allies, rather than morally symbolic enemies.
Matthew Nisbet's research on climate change communication and politics has been funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, and MacArthur Foundation.