MIT Divest is grateful for Dr. Zuber’s response to the information request especially given the upheaval on campus this spring when COVID-19 forced students, faculty, staff, researchers, and administrators off campus. Dr. Zuber and her team have been busy in developing the guidelines and scenarios to bring research back on campus, and MIT Divest is appreciative of the work being done towards this goal.
MIT Divest has spent the last few weeks going over Dr. Zuber’s response to the inquiry, and wanted to share thoughts regarding the answers that Dr. Zuber provided. Although we are pleased that some partnerships with fossil fuel companies have driven sustainability-oriented research, we are extremely disappointed to see that MIT’s partnerships have not created important change regarding climate policy and disinformation. It is clear that MIT has not done well in holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their anti-climate lobbying, greenwashing, climate disinformation campaigns, and other climate policy mechanisms. At the end of the day, MIT Divest believes that divestment holds these companies accountable and ensures that MIT, as a leader in science and technology, does not stand complicit with the behaviors of fossil fuel companies. MIT Divest’s response is as follows:
MIT Divest asked for more information regarding the definition and goals of engagement as outlined in the 2015 Climate Action Plan.
As an institute of higher education, we must critically and thoroughly review the major tenets of the 2015 Climate Action Plan in order to pursue effective methods for contributing to climate solutions. It is absolutely necessary to look towards future solutions, but it is also important to understand the successes and missteps of our previous attempts.
Regarding MIT’s engagement in policy and government, we recognize that MIT is not equipped to engage in political lobbying at a large scale. As Dr. Zuber indicates, our strengths as a university favor research and scientific pursuits above political advocacy. However, this does not excuse us from using these competencies selectively. The MIT Washington Office effectively lobbies for research and university funding, as these issues are more directly related to MIT’s activity. However, climate change is an issue that is pressing, existential, and time-sensitive. This is agreed on by an overwhelming majority of the scientific community, including many of MIT’s greatest climate scientists. Our political activity must reflect the urgency of climate change, and reject the politicization of the issue. We must advocate based on the science, as the clock continues to tick. The last thing we would want is for MIT’s voice to be reduced to partisan noise, as Dr. Zuber stated. MIT Divest argues that this practice of remaining largely detached from political discussion affords MIT the ability to amplify our voice on the issues that are of extreme importance. Our relative infrequency of political commentary suggests that the issues that we do politically engage with require swift and decisive action. Climate change should be one of these issues.
In looking at MIT’s engagement with both government and industry partners, we have observed benefits in the form of grants, partnerships, and contracts among other things. We agree with Dr. Zuber that these are positive, forward-oriented methods of helping solve the climate problem, and have resulted in good research developments. However, we must also recognize the efforts that exist to push against progress and eventual implementation of this progress. MIT has stated its stance on lobbying and disinformation campaigns used to exploit political levers against climate policy. As an institute, we say that we stand against these actions, but it is not clear that our actions reflect this stance. Our engagement strategy must devote appropriate effort to eliminating these campaigns, and holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their actions. Otherwise, we ignore unfortunate political realities that exist in part due to lobbying and disinformation from the fossil fuel industry. Research solutions to climate change cannot be implemented at large scale if not supported adequately by government policy. We must directly address the politics at play in order to make the most of these efforts.
In the bigger picture, we understand the engagement strategy to be a way for MIT to leverage its position in the world to maximize the capacity of knowledge it can put out. MIT Divest agrees, and thinks MIT has great potential to lead in the development and dissemination of these solutions for the world to follow. MIT Divest also believes that one of the most effective forms of leadership is by example. The goal of a 32% reduction in campus greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 set in the 2015 Climate Action Plan falls short of the decisive leadership we expect of MIT. While it is important to research solutions that can be implemented worldwide, it is also important to show the world that we are taking the matter seriously as well. It is important to show that we are doing our part to directly reduce our contribution to climate change. This means aggressively reducing our carbon footprint, denouncing acts that run counter to fact-based science, and using our position to take public action against the entities involved in these campaigns.
While it is a considerable physical challenge to reduce our carbon emissions while escalating research efforts, we must continue to pride ourselves on solving tough problems creatively for the right reasons. We must be more aggressive in our understanding and action to minimize MIT’s direct impact on perpetuating the climate issue. Our engagement strategy, as Dr. Zuber indiciates, focuses on partnering with groups to find and implement climate solutions. It is valuable to continue in these efforts with the government and other entities. It is imperative that we also lead the world by working on what we can do on campus to help, and by stating and acting on the belief that it is unacceptable to distort scientific fact on climate change. No, we cannot solve climate problems on our own, but we also cannot continue to stunt global progress by allowing organizations set on dragging their feet on climate to remain unchecked.
In this section of the document request, MIT Divest asked for information on MIT’s efforts to engage with the fossil fuel industry and the results of those efforts.
While MIT does not track these meetings, Dr. Zuber asserts that MIT has told fossil fuel companies that it disapproves of anti-climate lobbying and disinformation practices and will not allow companies to use their relationships with us for greenwashing. Although MIT Divest recognizes the importance of personal meetings and their impact, the lack of transparency around these meetings makes it impossible to claim that MIT systematically holds these companies accountable. This is especially troubling given how engagement was highlighted as an alternative to divestment in the 2015-20 climate action plan. Claiming to have held these meetings and letting our disapproval be known to fossil fuel companies is not enough without the proper oversight to hold both MIT and fossil fuel companies accountable. Without any metrics on either efforts for engagement or the outcomes of engagement, we are told to trust that fossil fuel companies act in good faith in meetings with MIT, but decades of disinformation and lobbying show this cannot be assumed. It is important that our community has the information to hold MIT to a high standard and this cannot happen if there is no standard. MIT has shown itself to be complacent in companies using us to protect themselves and deceive the public. All in all, without metrics or standards to hold both MIT and fossil fuel companies to, there is no proof that these meetings effect any concrete change.
The same issue arises when we look into greenwashing as well. It is not adequate to say that MIT will not allow companies to greenwash their reputation through their relationships with us. It is also not true. Just this past year, MIT announced the renaming of a prominent lecture hall in its Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) building to Shell Auditorium. MIT only backed down after the EAPS department and many students expressed their outrage over the name change and hosted a teach-in on greenwashing and climate denial in response. Because of community organizing, the name is now undetermined and will be decided by a naming contest. The fact that it took so much resistance to change Shell Auditorium’s name shows that the MIT administration does not think seriously about who it chooses to represent and the potential consequences of those associations. MIT simply refusing to “allow” greenwashing could seem like an empty gesture that allows the Institute to avoid responsibility for its relationships with these companies. In fact, Exxon explicitly used MIT’s name to cover itself in October 2015, just days after the release of the 2015 Climate Action Plan. Following reports that Exxon spread doubt about climate change, Exxon’s VP of government and public affairs said, “The facts are that we identified the potential risks of climate change and have taken the issue very seriously. We embarked on decades of research in collaboration with many parties, including the Department of Energy, leading academic institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and others to advance climate science.” In a report on Exxon’s greenwashing, Dr. Zuber admits that by MIT’s plan of engaging with fossil fuel companies, we are putting our “reputation on the line.” MIT has, to the best of MIT Divest’s knowledge, never publicly condemned Exxon Mobil’s greenwashing or disinformation. MIT Divest contends that if one party does not make their stance public, the other party gets to determine the nature of that relationship. Divestment would instead bring MIT’s reputation in line with our values.
Dr. Zuber informs us that the best way that MIT can engage with these companies and make change in the world is through funding and research. MIT Divest believes that while research is certainly important, MIT needs to shift to a broader view on climate action. We cannot wait for technology to save us in the future if we do not create the necessary social and political conditions for it right now. Without policy and social shifts, research cannot be successfully implemented. For as long as anti-climate lobbying and disinformation campaigns run by many fossil fuel companies continue, these shifts will not come. The University of Dayton Ohio divested in 2014 and found that their annual sponsored research money still increased afterwards, suggesting that divestment did not negatively impact research funding. Surveys that MIT Divest sent out to the UMass and University of California systems imply that there has been no loss of funds for research from fossil fuel companies after divestment. Additionally, Brown, Oxford, Georgetown and many other research universities have divested from the fossil fuel industry recently, citing financial risk and nonalignment with university values.
As concrete results of their informal meetings, Dr. Zuber points to the company Eni focusing more on decarbonization and some fossil fuel companies leaving the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which pushes for anti-climate legislation. While true, these results are not enough. Any change can be considered “aggressive” compared to most fossil fuel companies’ past policies. Even Eni, the supermajor oil company that invested in MIT-based fusion and decarbonization, invested around 80% of its capital expenditures in exploration and production in 2019. Decarbonization, circular economy, and renewables represented only 5% of that overall budget. Eni’s commitment to decarbonization is especially questionable considering they were fined 5 million euros for lying that their diesel was environmentally friendly in an egregious act of greenwashing. This was in January 2020, despite Eni being considered one of the most forward thinkers in the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, Dr. Zuber suggests that companies leaving ALEC and Eni investing more in decarbonization could potentially be attributed to MIT, but she never explains how MIT influenced these companies. This precisely demonstrates the unacceptable lack of accountability and transparency under our current model of engagement.
Besides meeting with fossil fuel companies, MIT Divest also asked about shareholder engagement and resolutions as a channel to bring about positive change and accountability. Dr. Zuber informed us that MIT has not done anything with regards to shareholder resolutions, meaning that as an investor, MIT has not engaged with its investments whatsoever. A growing list of validators like the UC System, and the weak financial performance of the fossil sector indicate divestment may even be a preferable financial decision (see the upcoming MIT Divest’s Financial Case for Divestment). Fossil companies are running into long-term growth constraints, low oil prices, and may be faced with tough regulatory conditions for many years to come.
If we are not conducting shareholder engagement, and fossil fuel investments fail to perform well, divestment seems to be the preferable option. It is unacceptable to MIT Divest that in the last climate action plan, MIT decided on the path of engagement but has failed to curb disinformation and anti-climate lobbying. It is not enough to express vague disapproval in public and behind closed doors.
As indicated by the original document request, MIT Divest was looking for more specifics regarding the amount MIT was invested in fossil fuel companies.
Dr. Zuber acknowledging that most of these investments lie in commingled funds does not add anything to overall knowledge regarding the amount of money investment in these companies. MIT Divest understands that for privacy or confidentiality reasons, this number may not be explicit, but providing a general benchmark would allow clearer assessment about how divestment would affect the endowment. Our initial financial research has suggested that divestment does not in fact affect our endowment significantly, but this is based on assumptions rather than known facts about the endowment. We would welcome more specificity associated with those numbers.
The numbers described by Dr. Zuber regarding the amount of money going into research and education at MIT were incredibly useful in demonstrating that from a research standpoint, engagement has been working in providing numerous opportunities for students, faculty, and other research staff to engage in sustainability related projects, classes, and events. MIT Divest does not seek to inhibit research funding received from fossil fuel companies assuming that this research goes towards sustainability efforts and is not being used to greenwash these companies. In many ways, the infrastructure provided by these companies allows for strong technological partnerships with institutions like MIT. However, the question as to whether or not any research was being conducted towards fossil fuel extraction was not fully answered. MIT Divest has reason to believe that some of the research being done at MIT is going directly towards innovating fossil fuel extraction. Although we are not actively campaigning for removing this type of research, the organization does frown upon any research going towards the very practices the institution recognizes as an existential threat.
MIT Divest believes that divestment at MIT will have serious effects on the power of fossil fuel companies due to the growing divestment movement and MIT’s influence in the science and technology world. Divestment at MIT must be complemented with other forms of climate action, including stopping fossil fuel extraction research, creating a more sustainable campus, and increasing MIT’s role in creating policy and stopping anti-climate lobbying and disinformation. Certainly, Dr. Zuber’s response showed how research has been positively impacted by engagement, but as long as fossil fuel companies continue to greenwash themselves, sponsor disinformation campaigns, and use their political strength to prevent significant change, MIT’s research and educational opportunities are futile. MIT’s failure to hold fossil fuel companies accountable by choosing engagement over divestment five years ago means that the school needs to reevaluate its partnerships and its complicity in the fossil fuel industry’s behavior. It is time to divest.