MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVIII No. 5
May / June 2016
A Letter to the Class of 2016;
Diversity; Campus Planning; Thanks
Interview with New MIT Medical Director
Dr. Cecilia Stuopis
Innovations in the Educational
Opportunities for MIT Students
MIT's Environmental Solutions Initiative Seeks Diverse Perspectives for the Near
and Long Term
What I Learned as a Department Head
from the 2016 Senior Survey
Printable Version

MIT's Environmental Solutions Initiative Seeks
Diverse Perspectives for the Near and Long Term

John E. Fernández

In March 2014, President Reif announced the launch of the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) with Prof. Susan Solomon as its founding Director. In little more than a year and a half Prof. Solomon set in motion the first round of research seed grants and the structure for an Environment and Sustainability minor. On October 19, 2015, Provost Marty Schmidt and Vice President for Research Maria Zuber jointly announced my appointment to succeed Prof. Solomon as Director of the ESI. I am charged with the expansion of the ESI as a central element of MIT’s engagement in the environment.

Within a few days of my appointment, Executive Director Dr. Amanda Graham and I embarked on a wide ranging listening and learning tour and I read through 400+ pages of white papers, proposals, memos, and other material produced during the long discourse to launch an Institute-wide environmental initiative at MIT. Both the listening and learning tour and the archive review confirmed my early intuition about the essential attributes of an environmental initiative at MIT. These attributes are embodied in its name.

Environmental encompasses understanding of atmosphere, ocean, ice, and biosphere as well as land use and human settlements, material and energy resources, and social, political, and economic systems and structures. Our scope captures the human-nature interface, the interplay between society and natural geophysical dynamics, biogeochemical cycles, and ecological systems. This understanding will provide guidance for improving the possibility of creating a sustainable future for us and other species.

Environmental understanding is one part of the ESI’s whole, solutions the other. Science and engineering are fundamental contributors to solutions, yet I have been struck by the sustained call by faculty and students alike for deeply multidisciplinary perspectives.

I could not agree more with Kerry Emanuel and his co-authors in a March/April 2016 Faculty Newsletter article that we should support a multifaceted approach of technology in tandem with “. . . policy steps, the societal dimension . . . .” Our agenda, described below, takes this approach.

For example, the ESI is committed to finding ways to support and enlist the enormous expertise in philosophy, cultural studies, literature, music, linguistics, anthropology, and other fields in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Disciplined thought in the humanities offers critical pathways toward agency and action in the environment just as it does in the sciences and engineering, though in a very different way.

MIT’s aspiration to lead toward a healthier human-environment future faces sobering challenges. Yet we are fortunate to be living through what I believe to be an historic cultural, political, and institutional inflection point.

With the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change of November 12, 2014, the recent agreement in Paris at COP21, the announcement of the Mission Innovation Initiative, the vast increase in the deployment of renewable energy, and the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we are witnessing an international commitment to addressing the complex development and environmental challenges that define our reality and our new future.

In addition, I believe that we, as an institution, are also at an inflection point that defines a new future for MIT. The Institute has committed to ESI, as it has to MITEI and more recently to the Office of Sustainability, J-WAFS, and the Climate Action Plan. The Chair of the Corporation, Bob Millard, told me that he believes MIT has a special role in helping to “. . . steward the Earth.” The upcoming launch of MIT’s Campaign for a Better World features Environment prominently. Just as importantly, our community has converged on the need for actions even while we may not all agree on the best pathway forward.

My own efforts, in partnership with Dr. Graham, are focused on acting as the steward of the ESI and we have begun with the development of an agenda that includes three elements: research, education, and convening.


As an initiative bridging across the entire Institute, ESI envisions a research agenda that is inclusive of MIT’s enormous and diverse expertise and capacity. The three domain areas below map out disciplinary and intellectual territories that are crucial if we are to understand how our species interacts with the environment, ameliorating and adapting to climate change as well as many other environmental challenges.

  • Climate science and earth systems
  • Cities and infrastructure
  • Sustainable society and economy

Science is the basis for understanding the environment and climate science and earth systems are at the center. Today, there is an unfortunate sense in some quarters nationally and internationally that we know enough to act effectively to mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change. In fact, there is still significant fundamental work to accomplish. Effective engineering solutions and policy recommendations – there is great need for both – demand basic science to inform us about, for example, the mechanics of ice shelf calving, the role of aerosols and clouds in the atmosphere, and the rates at which the ocean takes up heat and carbon. Models of climate consequences are only as good as the underlying science, and we would be wise to invest heavily in supporting the unique capacity in science of the climate and earth systems here at MIT.

However, studies of past and present-day climate and earth and planetary systems generally, should not be relegated solely to inquiry in the service of practical solutions. A motivation behind every kind of scientific pursuit is the search for truth, pure and simple, and discovery itself is a triumph of the human spirit. The recent grand scientific detection of gravitational waves resulted from inquiry about nature independent of the need for practical justification.

The same holds for Earth and planetary sciences, paleoclimatology, the search for life on habitable planets, and exploration of other worlds. And yes, as we learn more, science will increasingly contribute to our ability to act effectively to address our critical needs. MIT has a special role in these endeavors, embracing engineering ingenuity alongside the desire for holistic knowledge of how to manage our engagement in the world borne out of understanding and a moral code.

A major human-nature interface is that between human settlements and natural systems. Cities and the water, power, transportation, building, and food systems that support them are particularly vulnerable to changing climate, rising seas, and the increasing frequency of severe storms. Architectural, urban and planning perspectives on the future of a resilient and adaptive built environment are critical. And of course, any kind of action must consider the changing business conditions, pressures on investment decisions, and emerging corporate and industrial commitments to a decarbonized world. The central role of economic and political science expertise in these research domains cannot be overstated.

Finally, any hope for a sustainable society and economy includes the fundamental need to investigate the cultural and historic contexts within which we seek change. Our natural capital forms the physical basis of our society and culture; our social capital provides leverage to change the trajectory of our environmental impacts. Decarbonization and dematerialization are important pathways toward a sustainable society but need to be considered within the historic breadth of our relation to nature and our emerging notions of a just and equitable society.

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Our aspirations in education align with Barton Rogers’ belief that education should be, “. . . both broad and useful, enabling students to participate in ‘the humane culture of the community’ and to discover and apply knowledge for the benefit of society.” (Mission of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology;, accessed April 15, 2016.) This belief is coupled to a commitment to explore the multidimensional and complex relations between human and natural systems.

Chief among our current educational activities is the development of an undergraduate Environment and Sustainability minor structured into four pillars; Earth Systems and Environmental Science, Environmental History and Culture, Environmental Governance, and Engineering for Sustainability. These four are linked through integrative knowledge building intended to bring together diverse disciplines in addressing the multifaceted complexity of real-world environmental challenges. Profs. Susan Solomon, Amy Glasmeier, and Executive Director Amanda Graham are leading this effort. Our current target date to have this minor available is the fall of 2017.

In addition, the ESI and a group of GIR instructors were just awarded a 2016 Alumni Class Funds grant to develop problem sets, lecture material, and other course content that can be incorporated into a number of existing GIRs. I was happy to read Alex Slocum’s letter in the recent March/April Faculty Newsletter suggesting more or less the same idea. The development of problem sets and other material will begin soon and the first batch of ESI-sponsored material will be introduced this coming fall term.

These projects and more will serve to build a community of environmentally interested, informed, and passionate students, faculty, staff, and others. Convening this community is the third major priority of the ESI.


During IAP 2016 the ESI and the Climate CoLab co-sponsored the Hackathon for Climate. Students, alumni, and staff, alongside faculty representing all five Schools, attended the one-day event and engaged in creating and quickly developing inventions for contributing to progress in the environment.

Priyanka Chatterjee
Graduate student Priyanka Chatterjee responds to a project proposal during the Hackathon for Climate over IAP 2016.
(click on image to enlarge)










This past Earth Day, the ESI held a community gathering that included presentations on each of our nine inaugural Research Seed Grants, an overview of our activities in research and education, an update on the Plan for Action on Climate Change from Tom Kiley, Senior Advisor to the Vice President for Research, and a well-attended poster session of our partners across the Institute.

This coming year we are planning several regular and special events; including an ESI lecture series, student lunch talks, a large-scale Earth Day celebration and symposium, an expanded IAP Hackathon, and an Environmental War Games event. More on these in the coming weeks and months.

The full agenda can be found on the ESI Website.

Finally, imagine a near future at MIT; we exceed our current carbon emissions reduction goals and add several net zero energy buildings to our campus; research breakthroughs proliferate in low carbon technologies and, just as importantly, in carbon capture and storage; student groups regularly brief Congress and routinely participate in international climate conferences; and MIT becomes an important partner in supporting industries and nations in achieving national carbon reduction commitments around the world. This is not only a wonderful picture of the future but also a necessary one – and one we can create.

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