To advance climate action, MIT seeks partnerships beyond industry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT is uniquely positioned to lead the way on the technological advances and policy options needed to address climate change. At the second MIT Climate Engagement Forum of the semester, students, faculty, alumni, and staff described the many ways they are engaging an array of organizations to bring real solutions to the climate crisis. Several participants in the discussion offered suggestions from their own personal and professional experiences on how the Institute can make tackling the climate crisis part of its core mission. “The problems are too big and too interconnected for any institution, even this one, to solve alone,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, in opening remarks.

As MIT prepares to release its second Plan for Action on Climate Change this spring, the Office of the Vice President for Research is taking stock of the Institute’s climate progress to date. The forum, hosted by the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), brought together a diverse group: seniors Kiara Wahnshafft and Megan Guenther, graduate students Pervez Agwan and Caroline White-Nockleby, alumni Lucy Milde and Gail Greenwald, MIT Corporation member Diana Chapman-Walsh, Senior Associate Dean Kate Trimble, and faculty members Megan Black, Desiree Plata, Timothy Gutowski, and John E. Fernandez.

Supporting students to ensure an “all of MIT” approach

MIT is known for providing students with hands-on training through experiential learning opportunities and internships. Industry leaders are increasingly recognizing the value of having technically skilled employees who can also navigate the messiness of real-world problem-solving, said John Fernández, director of ESI.

“There are a growing number of companies who see that one of the obstacles to a sustainable future for them is they don’t have the workforce to get there,” Fernández said. “I think this is an extraordinary opportunity for us.”

Similarly, Kate Trimble, director of the Office of Experiential Learning, told forum attendees that sustainability should be the “crown jewel” of an MIT education. “I imagine a world where sustainability really permeates everything that we do, and sustainability is something that students have to go out of their way to avoid, as opposed to specially seeking it out,” Trimble said. To do that, MIT needs to provide more opportunities for students to develop “change-making skills,” she said, and reflect on what they’re learning out in the field during internships.

Timothy Gutowski, an MIT professor of engineering, described the hands-on class he co-teaches called “Solving for carbon neutrality at MIT.” Diving deep into MIT’s own emissions has given him a new perspective on the obstacles to carbon neutrality, both on campus and in the wider world. “Quite frankly, they often turn out to be people – human behavior, how we get along, how we cooperate, how we solve problems.”

Pervez Agwan, an MBA candidate and president of the MIT Energy Club, said that he has found a community of like-minded students working on energy problems. But the Institute should do a better job of instilling in all students that MIT stands for sustainability and climate action. “It’s not because they don’t have an interest,” he said. “They just don’t know what’s happening, and it’s not part of our culture.”

Engaging outside of MIT

One of the pillars of MIT’s 2015 Plan for Action on Climate Change is to better educate government and industry leaders on climate change. Senior Kiara Wahnschafft remarked that she worked on Massachusetts’ recent climate bill as part of an internship she did with the Environmental Solution Initiative’s Rapid Response Group. The Institute should scale up those partnerships so that policymakers know to turn to MIT for scientifically-sound climate research. “In my ideal world, MIT is the climate policymaking hub,” she said.

A key component of that will be continually evaluating what successful engagement with partners looks like, said Gail Greenwald ’75, a board member of Launchpad Venture Group. Similar to how MIT tracks its emissions reductions project, the Institute needs to ensure its partnerships advance decarbonization off-campus. “We don’t have time to rest on our laurels or to be participating in greenwashing,” she said.

At the same time, meeting attendees stressed that MIT should not shy away from working with companies that have less-than-sterling reputations on climate change. “It doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach,” said Wahnschafft. “We can have a great relationship with a company and do research or some other kind of partnership, and still say we disagree with their current tax bill in Washington.”

Lucy Milde ’20 called on MIT to weave ethical considerations into its work around climate mitigation and adaptation. “I think the MIT education is kind of lacking in the area of making sure that we’re empowering marginalized communities,” and ensuring that graduates carry those considerations forward into their careers, she said.

To do that, the Institute should incorporate community engagement and climate justice into its next plan, stressed Caroline White-Nockleby, a graduate student in MIT’s Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. MIT is “well-positioned” to facilitate energy transition conversations between residents, employers, and local and state officials, she added.

White-Nockleby noted that places facing climate impacts are often dealing with other economic or environmental challenges. For example, in a western Pennsylvania county where she and other Environmental Solutions Initiative interns researched the economic impacts of coal’s decline, residents are primarily concerned about job losses and tax cuts. “There’s a lot of ways to engage communities around climate change by engaging in the values that matter to those communities,” White-Nockleby said.

Facing uncertainty head-on

The forum closed with a panel on how to deal with uncertainty – the topic of a new effort called the “Council on the Uncertain Human Future” at MIT and other universities. Diana Chapman Walsh, a member of the council’s leadership team, said that anxiety and dread can hinder meaningful conversations around climate change. “So our intention for the council was and is to hold a space for a very different conversation than usual,” she explained, “where participants look deeply and personally into the reality of situation as best we can understand it” with others ready to commit to an “honest reckoning” with the climate emergency.

Desiree Plata, an associate professor of in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said her initial skepticism about joining the council went away when she saw other participants become more optimistic over the course of weekly meetings. “People need mechanisms for healing in this time, especially, and that healing can impart motivation,” she said.

Megan Black, an associate professor of history at MIT, pointed to the massive infrastructure building and conservation work done in the United States in response to the Great Depression as an inspiration for how to deal with present-day uncertainties. “In moments of crisis, people have come together even though it was highly uncertain how it would turn out, and tried to forge a meaningful response,” she said.

Senior Megan Guenther, echoing that, said that although, “there is a lot of uncertainty regarding what is going on with the climate, there are a ton of opportunities available – really, endless opportunities – for how we can address this issue.”

In closing remarks, Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester highlighted the “whole-of-MIT” approach as integral to its expanding commitment to the climate challenge. “This institution, more than most, has the capacity and therefore the responsibility to contribute” to addressing the climate emergency, he said. “And it seems to me that the question that we should always be asking ourselves is, how can we make our institution stronger and better able to contribute, where we can have the greatest impact?”

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