Rejecting Campus Consensus, MIT Cozies Up to Fossil Fuels

(Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)MIT has ignored its own campus to appease fossil fuel companies – and that should worry us all. (Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

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After years of talk, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has finally announced its plan to tackle climate change – and it’s more of the same. MIT will seek to continue its energy research, with much of the financial support coming from fossil fuel companies. And most controversially, to stay in the fossil fuel industry’s good graces, MIT will keep investing in fossil fuels – even in fuels that most severely undermine climate change mitigation, like coal and tar sands oil.

How much trust is owed to an institution that prioritizes one particular industry above the interests of its own campus?

This insistence on continued investment in fossil fuels flies in the face of the consensus on campus, built on years of campaigning by students, faculty and alumni, and canonized by MIT’s official Climate Change Conversation Committee, which surveyed campus ideas and, in the end, urged the president to divest from coal, tar sands oil and companies that spread climate disinformation. In other words, to avoid alienating the fossil fuel industry, the institute’s administration made a sham of its own process (and in response, students have been sitting-in in protest for over a month and counting). We must ask: How much trust is owed to an institution that prioritizes one particular industry above the interests of its own campus?

MIT’s embrace of the fossil fuel industry may indeed benefit the institute in the short run. Certainly, the companies are eager to fund energy research at prestigious universities like MIT; indeed, these companies brandish their financial support to gain legitimacy and shield themselves from criticism. Recently, for example, Exxon Mobil invoked its funding of MIT research to defend itself against voluminous evidence that the company intentionally deceived the public about climate change for decades. So MIT, for the right price, gives cover for a company being disgraced in the court of public opinion.

What does the world need from MIT? Among other things, the world needs MIT’s research to move us away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, which would almost certainly involve a rapid transformation – and most likely a rapid devaluation – of the fossil fuel industry as we know it. Fossil fuel companies, of course, have a clear, vested interest in that not happening, and they have acted accordingly for decades. Their narrow franchise, as that of any specialized business, is not to act in the general interest but rather in their special interests. Indeed, a simple accounting of their excess product in reserve – along with the investments they continue to make in order to further entrench their product – demonstrate that they are literally banking on the world failing to counteract climate change aggressively. This outcome favored by the fossil fuel industry does not bode well for the rest of the world or for the next generation.

In fact, if one wanted to create as many conflicts of interest as possible, making the fight against climate change dependent on the one industry with the most to lose by victory would be a good way to do it. It would be like making cancer research dependent on the tobacco industry (which, in fact, has happened and has not served the public well). A more ambitious, public-minded and world-saving plan from MIT would be to expand its energy research while freeing it as much as possible from corporations that have a vested interest in failure.

Students and their supporters at MIT have been sitting in for over a month in protest of MIT's new climate plan, which seeks stronger ties with the fossil fuel industry. (Photo: Fossil Free MIT)Students and their supporters at MIT have been sitting in for over a month in protest of MIT’s new climate plan, which seeks stronger ties with the fossil fuel industry. (Photo: Fossil Free MIT)

This brings us back to the tantalizingly controversial issue of divestment. The issues of fossil fuel industry funding and divestment are directly related, because MIT’s senior management acknowledged that the reason it won’t divest – even from coal or tar sands, even from companies that actively deceive the public about climate change and even though divestment is the official campus consensus – is that MIT’s senior management does not want to “shame” the industry and thereby risk disrupting its relationship with it.

First, note that MIT’s senior management judges it more important to maintain the reputation of the fossil fuel industry than to pay heed to the student-faculty consensus. Second, note that for MIT’s senior management, the issue of divestment boils down to whether or not to “shame” fossil fuel companies, as if fossil fuel companies cannot take care of themselves. Yet the serious issue for a university is its own responsibility to help point the way toward the major political, economic and cultural changes we need. (Sadly, MIT is not alone in choosing public relations for fossil fuel companies over public responsibility. The administration of Harvard, my own university, refuses even to engage in robust debate on divestment with faculty and students on its own campus.)

MIT wants to be seen as a leader in science. Yet research repeatedly shows that development of further fossil fuel reserves, especially coal and tar sands, is inconsistent with mainstream climate change mitigation goals. And according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, achieving such goals requires significant reductions in fossil fuel investments. Yet iconic MIT refuses even to try setting an example. One of the world’s most accomplished institutes of science insists on doing precisely what science indicates should not be done.

To divert attention from institutional responsibilities, MIT’s senior management stresses individual responsibility for climate change. According to Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research:

[President Reif] is very big on personal responsibility … 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.

The idea that it is presumptuous to tell MIT to act is, in essence, victim blaming for the climate change age: As individuals, we should reduce our use of fossil fuels – turn off the lights, buy electric vehicles, carry out research on clean energy, and, yes, move investments away from fossil fuels – but MIT as an institution is free to partner with and profit from the industry all it likes. If, in the end, the industry remains entrenched, and we fall to climate tragedy, it’s our own fault; we should have tried harder.

Perhaps MIT’s weirdest position comes from investing in companies that carry out climate disinformation campaigns. According to MIT’s climate plan:

We are not naïve about the pernicious role of some segments of the fossil fuel industry in creating the current policy deadlock. We deplore the practice of “disinformation,” through which some industry players and related groups have obstructed public understanding of the climate problem.

So while MIT acknowledges its awareness of disinformation campaigns and their harm on the public, it still chooses to partner with and invest in the companies that live and profit by them. But what is the worth of deploring a practice if one also seeks to share in its spoils? For how long can an institution claim to speak with authority while acting in appeasement?

Fighting climate change surely requires conflict. The question for MIT and other institutions is how to conduct that conflict. MIT now sides with power against values. It promises the fossil fuel industry a respected institutional platform. But in doing so, it forfeits the trust of many in this generation and those to follow. The power dynamic between research universities and the fossil fuel industry is now being illuminated – and it should be investigated.