This article was originally printed in the January/February 2015 issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter.
I signed the petition for MIT to divest from fossil fuel companies. Few other MIT faculty members have signed — 50 as opposed to the 300 at Stanford — so I was curious to hear my colleagues’ views about divestment. Of the faculty members I spoke with, not one argued that it is important for MIT to invest in the fossil fuel industry, and all agreed that carbon emissions are a serious risk to the planet. A few worried about the hypocrisy of signing a fossil fuel divestment petition when they are personally responsible for disproportionately large carbon emissions, largely from flying, sometimes to greenhouse gas conferences. But the predominant reason I heard for not signing was a cool cost-benefit analysis.
The calculus goes like this: “Regardless of my actions, the Corporation will not allow MIT to divest and, even if MIT did, it would have a negligible effect on the industry and carbon emissions. But, of course, there is risk in taking a position that may be at odds with the administration.” This analysis was usually followed by a knowing aside like: “Look, the financial mechanics of a step towards divestment are not hard; we’ve done it before. If we were really smart we would have sold before oil prices plummeted! But, let’s be realistic — we often hear that another oil company has bought a relationship with MIT; David Koch funds the groups that push disinformation about climate science and he is a lifetime member of the MIT Corporation. I’d be spitting in the wind.”
I certainly have no idea how the divestment decision will ultimately be made and I am optimistic that worries about personal repercussions are paranoid. But I must admit that my colleagues’ analysis is good as far as it goes. Their dispassionate analysis fairly balances their assessment of an infinitesimal benefit against a small risk.
So why did I sign the petition? I signed because the analysis above misses a key aspect of MIT’s mission, an important way that MIT faculty could benefit the world. MIT derives tremendous value from its reputation for integrity and scientific excellence and, as a result of that reputation, MIT has the credibility to educate a broad spectrum of the populace on issues that involve science and engineering. According to MIT’s Mission Statement: “The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.” We know the science of climate change, but many Americans are confused, if not badly misled.
What better way to educate the public, let alone our own students, about the effects of carbon emissions than to follow through on the clear implications of our own research on our own investments?
Divesting from companies who remove coal and oil from underground is consistent with our knowledge of climate change — fossil fuel companies must leave most of their reserves, their assets, underground if we are to avoid serious alteration of the climate. If a majority of the faculty sign the petition it would convey the scientific consensus about climate change. The divestment petition is an opportunity for the faculty to display leadership, to act according to MIT’s mission. This remains true even if you believe that the MIT administration is locked into a relationship with the fossil fuel industry that prevents divestment; even if oil companies fund a graduate student of yours, as is now the case for me; even if you are responsible for releasing tons of CO2 into the atmosphere when you fly to Asia, as I do, and will continue to do.
Charles F. Harvey is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.