Why MIT Faculty Should NOT Sign the Petition
to Divest from Fossil Fuels
Dear Faculty Friends,
Until MIT itself divests from using fossil fuels, it would be hypocritical for us to sign a petition to divest from fossil fuel companies. Indeed, given that many fossil fuel companies have invested in MITei to help us find ways to address our world’s energy problems (supply and environmental issues), divestiture would be an act of ballistic podiatry followed by a round of Abbe Roulette. If we really want to “punish” fossil fuel companies, replace the “FFincome” from investment in fossil fuel companies with endowment funds and spend the “FFincome” on solar panels for all MIT roofs, energy saving windows…. First put our own money where our mouth is, then we will be free to preach to others. J.
There will of course be accusations that we are being “bought off” by fossil fuel company members of MITei. On the contrary, I believe MITei fossil fuel company members are genuinely also interested in renewables and low carbon energy sources. Personally, as a recipient of funds from MITei, my research into renewables has been able to flourish before it became fashionable to work in renewables. Indeed, MITei funded my wild renewable ideas at a time when DoE and NSF would not. The result? Things like “Symbiotic offshore energy harvesting and storage systems,” Journal Sustainable Energy Technologies and Assessments, 1-7 and “Concentrated Solar Power on Demand,” Solar Energy 85 (2011) 1519-1529 (e-mail me and I will be happy to send you a copy).
Read the CSPonD paper where in the end we show how the U.S. government could easily attain 50 GW of 24/7 solar power, which could power L.A., on a small part of its large military bases at China Lake and White Sands. I agree it’s easy to join a loud protesting mob: REAL leadership would be for MIT to even more strongly engage the “problems” and work with all involved to achieve long-term sustainable goals.
Alexander H. Slocum
MacVicar Faculty Fellow
Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering
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Professor Harvey Responds
Editor’s Note: Prof. Slocum’s letter (above) is in reply to the article, “Why MIT Faculty Should Sign the Petition to Divest from Fossil Fuels,” by Charles F. Harvey (MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXVII No. 3, January/February 2015.) Following is Prof. Harvey’s response to Prof. Slocum’s reply.
I heartily agree that MIT should reduce its carbon dioxide emissions and am excited for the endeavor. I would like to see us do it “big,” to go beyond what many other institutions are doing. The bar is already high. Apple and Google are offsetting their power consumption with large-scale solar projects. Other academic institutions have built innovative zero-emissions buildings. Alex Slocum’s research stands out as an example of how the ingenuity concentrated at MIT can be focused to develop new ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption. I am pleased that oil companies are funding his research because I can think of no better use for their money. We should continue to welcome this funding. Let’s hope MIT will make game-changing discoveries soon. Imagine if solar power and energy storage were improved to the point where together they outcompeted fossil fuels for most uses. When that day comes, we will all agree what to do with our fossil-fuel investments – sell them as fast as we can before they are worthless!
The serious and immediate concern about MIT’s investment in the companies that extract coal, oil, and gas is the message it conveys to the world. What does it mean if we work during the day to reduce MIT’s emissions, while our investments work at night to extract fossil fuels? Equity ownership of the fossil fuel industry is a bet on the future success of coal, oil, and gas – a bet with MIT’s endowment against the success of competing non-fossil sources of energy, the renewables that Alex Slocum is working to develop. Proposing that technology will reduce fossil fuel consumption, while simultaneously betting that the coal, oil, and gas industry will prosper, may seem strategic, or may seem cynical, but it certainly is not a style of real leadership that conveys a clear message about the threat of anthropogenic climate change to human welfare.
Yes, fossil fuel companies are funding alternative energy research at MIT in addition to funding MIT’s research on oil and gas extraction. However, fossil fuel companies are almost exclusively in the business of extracting, refining, and distributing fossil fuels. They have not diversified into renewable energy and have a history, with an obvious motivation, of funding disinformation about climate change science – an activity that could hardly be more antithetical to MIT’s mission. A careful shift of MIT’s investment would have little effect on MIT’s expected return on the endowment and would not punish the fossil fuel industry because MIT owns too small a portion of their stock to move the market. The reason to divest is to send a message beyond MIT that the coal, oil, and gas industries must leave most of their reserves, the assets that support their valuations, in the ground if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. With MIT’s stature as one of the world’s top scientific institutions, we have an opportunity to act responsibly and influence the world to follow a safer path.
The fact that we are working on one good thing (reducing MIT’s emissions) does not preclude us from doing another good thing (divesting from fossil fuel companies). We can do better; we can do both. At MIT, we know that the scientific evidence is clear about the dangers of climate change. Let’s make our actions equally clear and consistent.
Charles F. Harvey
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering