MIT opts for fossil fuel ‘engagement’ over divestment

Source: Dylan Brown, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, October 23, 2015

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled its plan to tackle climate change today, but the major research institution’s endowment will not divest from fossil fuels.

University President L. Rafael Reif defended the decision not to remove fossil fuel companies from the university’s investment portfolio by arguing climate change is “a global moonshot” only achievable if universities and governments work with industry.

“I’m most concerned that we might be held back, not by the difficulty of the work, but by division, and so today MIT is taking an emphatic stance,” he said. “We’re choosing to take action through engagement.”

Fossil Free MIT, a student-led group, has pressed their school to follow the lead of other institutions that have at least partially cut off ties with companies responsible for massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, including the University of California system, Georgetown University and Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, said the MIT Energy Initiative’s five-year plan, drafted after a year and a half of dialogue with faculty, staff and students, determined it will take all stakeholders to address climate change.

“That is how we’ll get to the solutions of scale,” she said.

The plan had “thousands” of authors, Zuber said, noting the series of public campus discussions, a “divestment debate” and her committee knocking on laboratory doors to get feedback from researchers, many of whom are responsible for influential climate science.

According to Zuber, MIT Investment Management Company President Seth Alexander outlined what divestment would look like for the endowment but did not give his opinion on the strategy.

A Plan for Action on Climate Change” calls on MIT to target three key issues in addressing climate change: the best policies, mix of fuel sources and technological goals to guide research.

“Research and development should continuously inform timelines and targets,” the plan states. “The success of this strategy depends on the best efforts of all three sectors.”

Zuber said a resounding consensus called for putting a price on carbon — “a golden key” that needs to be used while MIT does “lots of research.”

Neither Zuber nor Reif knew offhand how much of the endowment was invested in fossil fuel companies, including initiative members BP, Eni, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Statoil and Total. Fossil Free MIT activists have said some investors are involved in distributing “junk science” to counter the broader scientific consensus on the reality of climate change.

“This has nothing to do with endowment, those considerations were never part of the discussions here,” Reif said. “It’s how to get this problem solved.”

Reif and Zuber also defended the integrity of MIT’s peer-review research against criticism about the influence of traditional energy companies on a significant amount of research bankrolled by industry.

“We don’t treat our relationship with our industry as contractual,” Zuber said. “We decide jointly on problems that highly motivate each of us.”