Local and global voices call for MIT to divest

On September 30, 2015, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mit_divest_webHigh profile climate leaders and Mayor Curtatone join forces with Fossil Free MIT to call for a climate action plan at the institute

By Eben Eliot Bolte Bein

This Friday, across the street from the annual meeting of the MIT board of trustees, Fossil Free MIT and several other student organizations are hosting a community-wide Rally for Climate Action. “After 2 years of negotiations, the time for talk is over and the time for MIT climate action is now,” says graduate student and Fossil Free MIT co-founder Geoffrey Supran.

“The timing is really astonishing,” notes Supran, rattling off the highlights from the last week: the pope calls Congress to climate action, the UN announces that worldwide divestment plans now target $2.6 trillion, Clinton opposes the Keystone XL Pipeline, China announces a cap-and-trade plan, and Shell withdraws from the Arctic. To Supran, MITs local movement is “an important cog in the giant wheel that we’re finally able to see turning.”

Indeed, these students and faculty are already endorsed by a coalition of high profile global and local climate leaders. In an open letter on September 16, 33 of these leaders called MIT President Reif to heed the proposals made on campus in order to combat the broader political stagnation on climate change. Figureheads like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, Harvard professors Jim Hansen and Naomi Oreskes have added their voices along with MIT faculty like Junot Diaz and Noam Chomsky and actor Mark Ruffalo. Even local government officials like City Councilors Leland Cheung and Marc McGovern of Cambridge and Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville are cosignatories.

“We have to call each other out on this one,” explained Mayor Curtatone. “Public and private institutions have to play a critical role because we’re forced to by the lack of leadership at the state or national level.” Curtatone announced his plan to make Somerville carbon neutral by 2050 after he was confronted last year by a related group, Fossil Free Somerville. “My activists locally have forced me to take a hard look in the mirror,” he admitted. “I’ve been forced to ask myself what should I be doing? What is my role as a mayor? What is our role as a city?” He signed the letter because, “this is a challenge that we all own. We have to roll up our sleeves and own the work.”

Some, however, are more skeptical about when and how MIT will champion climate issues. MIT Professor of Environmental Planning Lawrence Susskind said, for example, that “this letter is not a mind-changing tool.” As Founder and Chief Knowledge Officer of the Consensus Building Institute, Susskind has overseen his fair share of policy building. “Does [the letter] change the balance of power? No,” said Susskind. However, “people inside … will use the letter to justify their belief.” In his view, those resulting conversations over long periods of time within MIT are the critical, mind-changing ones.

Supran has traced these conversations from their inception in November 2013, through the formulation of MIT Climate Change Conversation Committee during the last academic year. He recalls that, last June, President Reif announced that he would respond officially to the committee’s report early in the fall semester. MIT students and faculty are thus capitalizing on the growing excitement and putting the pressure on.

As Supran states, “This Friday will be the moment when MIT climate action goes from impossible to inevitable.”


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