An Update on Climate Action
Last December, I had the privilege of traveling to the Paris climate talks and being a witness to history: Nearly 200 countries, representing as grand a consensus as the world likely has ever seen, reached an agreement to limit the increase in global average temperature to 2°C over pre-industrial levels – and even more ambitiously, to “pursue efforts” to limit this increase to 1.5°C. Accomplishing this 2°C goal, seen as essential to preventing the most serious impacts of climate change, will require rapid and significant reductions in global carbon emissions on the way to building a zero-carbon energy system.
If I needed reminding of the urgency of the climate threat, I got it a month after Paris, on a trip to visit a Lincoln Laboratory field site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Low-lying atoll island nations are particularly vulnerable to the rising sea levels produced by climate change; it was at the behest of small island nations that negotiators added the aspirational goal of 1.5°C to the Paris agreement.
In Kwajalein, I met with members of a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research team that has been studying climate impacts on Pacific atolls. The team’s research shows that annual flooding will affect low-lying atoll islands sooner than previous models had predicted. Among other things, these annual floods will wash over wells – during my trip, the USGS showed me wells that it was monitoring for seawater infiltration – salinizing scarce water resources and rendering the islands uninhabitable not in a matter of centuries, but of decades. With this existential threat looming, it’s no wonder that island nations have pressed for more aggressive action from the world community.
For me, these two trips starkly represent the Paris paradox: On the one hand, we have an historic agreement that should fill us with hope that the world is finally serious about tackling climate change. On the other hand, we know that the Paris commitments are insufficient – countries’ individual emissions reduction goals, if successfully implemented, will get us less than halfway to the 2°C goal – so the world community has a lot of hard work ahead of it.
With so much at stake, the MIT community has made clear its determination to do its part to help the world address climate change. In October, MIT’s senior officers published the Institute’s Plan for Action on Climate Change. I’d like to take this opportunity to update all of you on our progress in implementing the plan.
First, I am in the process of establishing a Climate Action Advisory Committee, comprising faculty, postdocs, students, staff, alumni, and Corporation members, to provide advice on the ongoing implementation and assessment of the plan, including the strategy of engagement with industries, governments, and other institutions at the heart of the plan. Through the Committee, I will ensure that all constituencies at MIT are represented in our climate action efforts.
You may have read about the Committee in the text of the agreement that I reached in March with the members of Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT). This agreement will help to enhance the Plan for Action in other ways as well. Importantly, it calls for establishing benchmarks that will enable us to assess the effectiveness of our engagement efforts.
We are interested in working with industries to adopt business strategies that are compatible with a 2°C future and to support a 2°C public policy framework. Student members of FFMIT have rightly pressed for the development of metrics to show that we’re having an impact.
We will have to think carefully about these benchmarks: We cannot, for example, simply take credit for actions by industry that would have happened with or without our involvement. Providing advice on valid ways to develop benchmarks will be an early priority for the Climate Action Advisory Committee. Benchmarks will surely include the quantity and quality of our external interactions. We are both reaching out to and responding to inquiries from academia, industry, government, and the public regarding how we might team up to mitigate climate risk.
Our biggest impact will come from doing what we do best: teaching and research. I am pleased to report considerable progress on these fronts as well. Professor John Fernandez, who became Director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) last fall, and ESI Executive Director Amanda Graham have done an extensive campus listening tour and have been working with faculty from all five Schools to define ESI’s research priorities; they expect to share details of their strategy at an ESI event on Earth Day, April 22.
Work is actively underway to develop an environment and sustainability minor. The minor is being designed to have a flexible interdisciplinary architecture in which students will be able to build both breadth and depth to complement their major academic focus.
The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), the hub of MIT’s clean energy research efforts, has identified faculty co-directors for four of its eight Low Carbon Energy Centers (LCECs). Exelon, an energy provider operating in 48 states, recently became a MITEI member in order to support the work of the LCECs. Exelon brings knowledge of the energy generation, transmission and distribution businesses that will help MIT researchers who are taking on major challenges like grid-scale storage.
Through research, convening, and partnerships, MIT will work to advance public policies that accelerate the transformation of our energy system. Professor Chris Knittel, Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, and colleagues at the University of Chicago published a sobering study in February that concluded that, absent “aggressive policy choices,” the U.S. and world economies are “unlikely to stop relying on fossil fuels as the primary source of energy” on any timescale relevant to the climate threat.
To remedy this, as the study highlights, we must put a price on carbon emissions that is large enough to effect a massive shift to low-carbon technologies, and we must significantly increase funding for clean energy R&D. Carbon pricing and R&D funding will be foci of our policy-related efforts. The message is clear: While technology innovation will be necessary to solve the climate problem, relying on technology alone reflects, to paraphrase Professor Knittel and his colleagues, the triumph of hope over strategy.
We are also working to make sure that MIT can lead by example. For the campus, the Plan for Action on Climate Change articulated a goal of reducing carbon emissions by at least 32% by 2030 compared with a 2014 baseline. This goal was based on the target contained in the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, not on an analysis of the MIT campus. As a result, students and others challenged MIT to aim higher, and the senior officers agree that we must. We have clarified the 32% reduction to be a floor, not a ceiling.
To know if we are on track to meet and exceed our campus emissions goal, we need good data. Under the leadership of Julie Newman, the Office of Sustainability recently issued the Institute’s first comprehensive greenhouse gas inventory. Working with the Department of Facilities and members of the faculty, the Office of Sustainability will continue to expand and improve this essential tool.
The Office of Sustainability has also been working hard to solicit input from across the MIT community on promising strategies to decarbonize the campus; most recently, the Office and the Climate CoLab launched a contest to crowdsource ideas. I ask all of you to encourage your students and staff to participate: given the significant challenge of sustainably powering a campus that turns 100 years old this year, we’ll need as many good ideas as our community can muster.
Finally, as I wrote in my last contribution for these pages, how we respond to climate change will depend upon our view of the risks it poses. While science informs that view, it is ultimately a question of values. With this in mind, my office will sponsor a forum on the ethical dimensions of the climate issue. I thank the members of Fossil Free MIT for proposing this forum.
We have made good progress since October, but we’re just getting started. I will continue to share updates with you as I have them, and I invite you to reach out to me with your thoughts, ideas, and questions.