Majority of MIT Climate Change Committee Supports Divestment from Coal and Tar Sands

A new report from MIT could have big implications for the school’s $12 billion endowment.
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Photo by Margaret Burdge

The spring 2015 semester closed out with a flurry of fossil fuel divestment activity. Students at Tufts took over the president’s office for nearly three days. Activists at Harvard pulled off a weeklong string of events that attracted support from the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and film director Darren Aronofsky. Up in Chestnut Hill, several hundred protesters crashed Boston College’s admitted students day. With each rally and bull-horn-backed chant, the administrations’ refusal to engage on the issue seemed to grow only stronger.

But over at MIT, things were a bit quieter, a bit more collaborative. The administration had decided early in 2014 to engage with activists and probe the issue in an academic manner. There were roundtable discussions and an open debate on divestment. Last fall, Maria Zuber, the vice president of research at the university, announced the formation of a climate change committee and tasked it with producing a report to guide the institution’s path forward.

This week, the group released its wide-ranging report. The recommendations could have huge implications for the school’s $12 billion endowment and fire up fossil fuel activists at campuses around the city.

The report notes that three-quarters of the committee favor “targeted divestment from companies whose operations are heavily focused on the exploration for and/or extraction of the fossil fuels that are least compatible with mitigating climate change.” Though it acknowledges that there’s the threat of missing out on research funding from divested companies, the report concludes that the overall financial impact of divestment will be minor, especially if the focus is on the worst offenders—companies trafficking in coal and tar sands.

Open to comment for the next month, the report will be reviewed by a group of senior administrators, which will provide recommendations to MIT President Rafael Reif. This fall, Reif is expected to announce a plan for how the university will address climate change. Some see this as a chance not only to make progress on the actual threat of climate change, but also as a unique opportunity to further distinguish MIT from other leading academic intuitions, particularly Harvard.

“This is a leadership opportunity,” says Jeremy Poindexter, a member of Fossil Free MIT whose PhD research is focused on developing new materials that can harvest solar energy. “MIT is one of the places in the world that best understands the science of climate change and is working very hard on strategies to mitigate it. MIT has the best tools out of any university to disseminate knowledge on the science of climate change and inform policy that would result in decreased carbon emissions…Were MIT not to divest and let another university take that spotlight, it would be a missed opportunity on an issue that at its heart is a science and technology problem.”

In addition to targeted divestment, the report calls on MIT to be more active when it comes to countering junk science that’s funded by companies who reap the benefits of manufacturing controversy around climate change. Poindexter applauds this recommendation and says that many people across the community are furious that companies have funded bogus research in attempt to “slander science” and discredit MIT researchers who have devoted their careers to understanding the forces behind climate change.

According to 350.org, a nonprofit group that helps organize divestment campaigns around the world, MIT’s endowment would be the second largest of any university to divest from fossil fuels. The group adds that Oxford, Georgetown, and Stanford have pulled investments from coal.

Rest assured that campus groups and climate activists around the world will be keeping a close eye on MIT this fall.