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After 116 days, MIT fossil fuel divestment sit-in ends in student-administration deal for climate action

Posted on 8 March 2016 by Guest Author

This is a guest post by Geoffrey Supran, PhD candidate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The longest ever sit-in for fossil fuel divestment concluded last week with the announcement of an agreement between the student activists of Fossil Free MIT and MIT’s Vice President for Research Maria Zuber.  Jeremy Poindexter, an MIT graduate student and member of Fossil Free MIT said:

This agreement isn’t everything I was hoping to see—it’s missing fossil fuel divestment, and MIT still has more work to do to align itself with a 2°C future.  But it’s progress, and it shows that principled, direct action can get real results. Sometimes taking a stand means sitting down.

sit in

MIT scientists-cum-activists sat-in for 116 days outside administration's offices for climate action. 

sit in support

Climate activists at Paris climate talks, including Bill McKibben, sent messages of solidarity on day 50 of MIT #ScientistsSitIn.

In a joint statement from the students and administration, the Institute committed to three actions: an aspiration “to campus carbon neutrality as soon as possible”; to convening a forum on the ethics of climate change, including “ethical responsibilities confronting” shareholders; and to establishing a committee to advise and consult on the MIT Climate Action Plan, including providing input on an MIT engagement strategy for working with industry “to develop and implement 2°C business strategies and to support a 2°C public policy framework.”  Josué Lopez, a Fossil Free MIT member and PhD student commented:

Targeted fossil fuel divestment is a crucial missing step, but we’re working with what we’ve got.  MIT wants to engage the fossil fuel industry, but engagement without accountability is a recipe for inaction. This agreement lays the groundwork for steering our partners to behavior and business plans consistent with 2°C. I’m glad that we’re part of this process, and if these companies don’t step up to the plate, we’ll be right here urging MIT to hold them accountable.

The agreement followed numerous closed-door meetings between Fossil Free MIT and MIT’s senior administration during the last four months of protest. The#ScientistsSitIn, as it came to be known, began on October 22, 2015, less than 24 hours after MIT responded to calls for divestment of the Institute’s $13.5 billion endowment by opting instead to “bring them closer.” Endorsed by 93 MIT faculty,the sit-inurged MIT to divest from coal and tar sands companies, to establish an ethics advisory council to address investments in climate-denying corporations, and to commit to campus carbon neutrality by 2040 at the latest. The Institute’s climate change advisory committee supported divestment from coal and tar sands by a three-quarter majority and unanimously suggested the ethics council. Calls for MIT climate action, including divestment, include 3,500 petition signatures from MIT community members and separate open letters from 29 MIT student groups,124 faculty,alumni, and 33 prominent climate scientists and advocates; among them James Hansen, Stephen Heintz (President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund), Mark Ruffalo, and Noam Chomsky.

Last week's announcement marks progress on all three issues, but according to graduate student and Fossil Free MIT member, Benjamin Scandella, “So much more needs to happen. This agreement is about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. MIT is assuming that engagement with the fossil fuel industry is the best way to tackle climate change, and while I hope that plan succeeds, I’m skeptical that it represents the best approach given the urgency of the problem, the forces shaping the fossil fuel industry, and the behavior of many fossil fuel companies. But at least this agreement encourages MIT to go about the engagement experiment like scientists, by clarifying the expectations ahead of time and measuring the results. I’d prefer that it was more specific, but it’s a start. As Dr. King once said, ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.’ This is our future, and we’re not giving up.”  MIT undergraduate Daniel Mascoop said:

I’m particularly excited about the forum on climate change ethics.  At a technical university like MIT, ethical issues often get short shrift. But some of the biggest barriers to progress on climate change, such as disinformation campaigns funded by industry, cannot be addressed by science alone, but by a deep conversation about ethics and values. It’s time for us to have that conversation here, and I’m looking forward to seeing what actionable insights come out of this dialogue.

While sitting-in, Fossil Free MIT was awarded the MIT Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award. The group has also been recognized by MIT’s president for putting “climate change to the top of MIT’s institutional agenda,” precipitating MIT’s climate action plan last October.  Professor John Sterman (MIT Sloan School of Management) observed:

The agreement with MIT reminds us that social movements work. Great science and technology are essential, but progress also requires political action.  Thanks largely to the divestment movement and sit-in, MIT’s climate consciousness has grown and the campus carbon footprint will fall.

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. I only took one ethics course in college, but it seems to me that punishing the fossil fuel industry with divestment, while we are still using fossil fuels, is hypocritical. It could also be counterproductive in terms of stopping global warming as it leads people to think they've done their bit for the environment if they've divested, when, in the long run, they haven't done anything significant at all.

    If divestment resulted in all of the tar sands in Canada shutting down, it would reduce global emissions by 0.15% (and people would just import oil across the ocean from somewhere else). However, if, for example, everyone were to stop travelling for the sake of pleasure, the reduction in global CO2 emissions would be significant indeed. I wonder if there any statistics on that.

    Targeting the industry that supplies the gasoline and jet fuel we use is a perfect example of the psychology of blaming. It is a popular approach to the global warming problem because it relieves us of the very uncomfortable feeling that we should be making changes in our personal choices, and rather makes us feel like members of the league of environmental heroes who will bring down the villain and save the planet.

    Essentially, we as consumers are driving AGW. We would be further ahead to stop demonizing our suppliers and encourage people, institutions, manufacturers and industry to take responsibility for their own carbon footprint.

    Here's a question for the ethics committee. If it is immoral to invest in companies that extract fossil fuels, is it also immoral to invest in companies that use fossil fuels?

    I think investing in renewable energy companies is a positive move for institutions and individuals.

    I agree with engaging with the fossil fuel industry as investors with an attitude of inquiry and inspiration, as long as we are not so myopic that we can't see the logistics the company has to deal with.

    Ironically, we may need a healthy fossil fuel industry in order to transition to renewables. We need to be careful we don't antagonize and cripple the giant whose resources and expertise we could really use in our quest.

    Fossil fuel industry executives and workers are people too, who care about the earth that will be inherited by their children and grandchildren. Many have dedicated their entire careers to working within the industry to minimize impact on the envionment while supplying people with the energy they need to survive and thrive through all these years. Eveyone knows we need to move to a low carbon economy. But right now, some of us would freeze to death before we had a chance to starve to death without a supply of fossil fuels.

    If we damage western fossil fuel companies with divestment, we'll just end up importing more oil from places like Saudi Arabia, and they are using the profits to bomb schools and hospitals.

    On the other hand, the royalties from Canadian tar sands oil funds schools and hospitals, social programs for the poor, etc. And as technology and efficiency improves, CO2 emissions are going down.

    The ethics of this issue are not as black as tar and as white as a wind turbine.

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  2. Sharon you have already made the point before that the oil industry in Canada provides a livelihood for many people. That is true but by no means an excuse to hold these livelihoods hostage in any way. The reason why fossil fuels industries and their lobbies are often cast as villains is because of their proven track record of funding denial and manufacturing doubt in order to delay or entirely prevent the transition you mention, which is possible only as a public undertaking, driven by public policy.

    The overall behavior in the fossil fuel world is of the sort that has already proven so many times to lead to catastrophic failure. The same mode of operation chosen by tobacco. The attitude of utilities spreading cancer-causing chemicals in the water. The denial and irresponsible handling that caused a more recent water quality crisis in Flint. The same mind set that led VW to cheat. The attitude that consists of acknowledgeing that something is wrong but going on with it, developing all sorts of methods to cover, protect, hide, avoid. It is faulty risk/benefit analysis and always fail. It is bad business and will more surely result in the loss of the livelihoods about which you are concerned than any concerted effort to transition. 

    We are now at a time where the transition is quite feasible. Western countries are richer than ever before. The 2008 crisis was possibly the worst thing to hit the World economy since WWII. Yet, there were no endless lines of folks hoping to catch a bowl of soup, pop-up shanty towns, stores with empty aisles. None of that. This gigantic financial fiasco could be absorbed with what amounted to minimal damage.

    The fossil fuel industries have amounts of money that regular folks like you and me can barely comprehend. The very rich of the Western World could easily spare a 100 billion toward a transition effort, as a purely private effort. They really have that much money  and more. There are more technologies available than ever before to make the transition. The truth is that, one way or another, the industrial scale use of fossil fuels will be eradicated. It is up to us how controlled that process is.

    The fossil fuel industry risk/benefit analysis is completely off. They could lead this effort, thereby exercising significant control on it and ensuring their long term prosperity as the major energy player of the future, if their focus was not entirely on maximizing profit now and securing the best potential profits on the 5 years horizon.

    You do have a point, and a shining one at that, on the consumer side. We must reduce our fossil fuel use. However, considering how little sense seems to be coming out of people in large groups, policy efforts are necessary. Public policies, and private initiative like the one from MIT are all part of the big picture showing us in the attempt to wean ourselves off the stuff in a controlled, minimally damaging way. It is unfortunate that the fossil fuel industry is being such a hindrance.

    Somehow, a group think started among the FF industry with the fear that, acknowledgeing climate change and modifying their business practice and eventually their vocation, was synonymous with ruin. It does not have to be that way at all. A bunch of old guys with sclerosed thinking are paralyzed by fear of change, even though they are in the most privileged position to tackle that change. I'm not impressed, regardless how many jobs they provide.

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  3. Painting all fossil fuel companies, executives and workers with one big broad black brush is prejudice. I hope you can recognize that in what you have written. Have you actually spoken to any of them, and gotten to know them as people? Can you produce data on which specific companies have funded denial? Are they all guilty if one is guilty? If so, you have a strange sense of justice.

    Condemning all fossil fuel companies, regardless of their track record, while we are still using fossil fuels for our own benefit is hypocrisy, no matter how you look at it.

    Actions based on prejudice and hypocrisy will have negative consequences in the long run. That is the way of ethics.

    I've not heard an answer to the ethics question, "If it is immoral to invest in companies that extract fossil fuels, is it also immoral to invest in companies that use fossil fuels?"

    The question has been asked, "If the U.S. purchases vast amounts of steel from China, and the production of the steel results in vast amounts of CO2 emissions, who is responsible for these emissions in China - the U.S.? or China? Or is it the automotive industry that uses the steel? Or is it the people who buy the vehicles?

    In light of global warming, do you recognize that it's wrong to travel for the sake of pleasure? Do you continue to do that?

    The blaming game will just take us in circles and turn people against each other at a time when we most need to be working together, collaborating, sharing and developing ideas and implementing positive changes.

    You say, "The very rich of the Western World could easily spare a 100 billion toward a transition effort, as a purely private effort." That's great! As I said, we should be encouraging that. That's a positive action that will have definite positive results.

    You say "We must reduce fossil fuel use. However, considering how little sense seems to be coming out of people in large groups..." I agree. And encouraging consumers to condemn the supplier makes very little sense. That's my point. The MIT initiative inadvertently promotes the very attitude amongst consumers that you are condemning broadly in the fossil fuel industry. "I don't need to change MY behaviour!"

    I didn't say anything about lost jobs in my comment above. I'm not sure why you brought it up. As difficult as it is to lose one's livelihood, it's not relevant to the issue of hypocrisy I'm trying to bring to light.

    It surprises me that divestment from fossil fuel companies is being justified from the perspective of ethics, when, at this point in time, it contradicts the basics of ethics. 

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  4. It's like condemning ranchers for all the methane their cattle produce, while you take another bite of your hamburger.

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  5. A positive and productive alternative to the hypocrisy of divesting from fossil fuels would be for students to rally MIT to invest a minimum % of their funds in renewable energy companies. This, combined with the planned reduction in the campus carbon footprint, would be an ethical move indeed that would actually have a positive impact on the environment and on those who are looking up to them for inspiration.

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  6. Divestment does not 'punish' fossil fuel companies. Divestment amounts to the statement: I am not comfortable deriving income from this source. It is a demonstration to broader society that one is willing to sacrifice some measure of profits for one's beliefs. It generates conversation about the nature of a given industry and whether or not we should accept the way it currently operates.

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  7. Divestment is not an ethical issue.


    Divestment is also called Investment: economics calls this idea, "Opportunity cost!"


    If Divestment has ethical connotations then surely so too does Investment?


    Why do we have kids? 

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  8. @ 5, Sharon: you are looking to give investment advice and so divestment advice: doesn't this advice have ethical connotations?

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  9. Sharon, you seem to have a significant personnal and emotional involvment in this. I'm sorry if I elicited unpleasant emotions, but the substance of my post remains. I certainly would not paint all people in any group with the same brush. I am an immigrant and I have experienced prejudice.

    It is a small goup of people who have decided to go the way of the denial but they drive the boat in which the others ride. It is not the same as saying anyone involved in the industry is bad. I seems that what you understood from my words and I am surprised that you would jump to such a conclusion, which amounts to a strawman. Read my post again; I do not suggest anyting like that.

    You claim to not have mentioned jobs, technically that's right. I used the word livelihood in my post. Yours said this: "On the other hand, the royalties from Canadian tar sands oil funds schools and hospitals, social programs for the poor, etc." I work in a hospital, forgive me for the short cut. Furthermore, in previous contributions, you discussed that same subject and was keen on pointing everyone's attention on the many people depending on Canada's oil industry for jobs, so it's not like you've never mentioned it.

    You also ask: "Can you produce data on which specific companies have funded denial?"

    Use the site's search engine with the word "Exxon." You will find recent posts with an extensive discussion on the matter. One can also look at who are the donors to organizations that spread misinformation.

    If that can make you feel any better, I have always said that coal is by far the biggest problem and the one to tackle in priority. Not only because it is actually easier to replace than liquid hydrocarbons used in transportation but because it is also the largest source.

    I will add that it is disingenuous to hold against the entire population that they do not make efforts to use less. After all, many of them fall hook, line and sinker for the disinformation that's around. But mainly, and as we have discussed before, true change will come as a matter of public policy. Some stakeholders are going at great length to hinder te development of such policies. You can argue that they should not be condemned but I disagree.

    The last time I took an airplane was last year to go visit my father who had been in/out of the hospital for 2 months. He was 77 years old and I wasn't sure what was going to happen to him. Call it pleasure if you wish.

    The most important of my points remains: going the dishonest way always ends up being bad business. VolksWagen has recently shown that much. No I would never argue that anybody working for VW is a bad person, that would be pretty stupid, and worse, inaccurate. But if you do care about oil companies providing good jobs and contributing for a long time to come, I would advise you to advocate against them going the dishonest route. In the long run, it will bring more harm that any disvestment operation, PR campaign against them and what not. Look at the lead industry, tobacco, financial industry, VW; some things have a way to come back at you.

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  10. #6 - Tristan, I appreciate the way you worded your response. "...willing to sacrifice some measure of profits for one's beliefs." That makes sense to me, and I admire that. I appreciate that you're open to conversation about "the nature of a given industry and whether or not we should accept the way it currently operates."

    My contribution to the conversation, from my perspective and experience in northern Alberta, is that not all companies and people within the industry are the same, any more than all scientists are the same. (More on that in my response to Philippe below.) At the risk of monopolizing the conversation on this part of the page, I'd like to relay some stories from the north that might not be on the news.

    As I see it, the current environmentalist trend is to demonize the fossil fuel industry as the culprits of global warming - greedy villains who don't care about the environment. People don’t like having their beliefs challenged, especially when their cause has become a meme and, in some cases, developed black-and-white religious fervour. Some of the reporting by the media has been biased toward feeding this fervour. Even celebrities (who may not know what a chinook is) are getting on the band wagon.

    A more balanced diet of information on the way the industry operates would include, for example, photos of reclaimed areas, not just mined areas, in the Canadian tar sands. A very critical tourist was shown a beautiful area near Fort McMurray and was asked, “What would you think if this area were to be mined?” He replied that it would be a terrible tragedy. The tourist was then told, “It already has been mined.”

    Personally, I don’t remember ever seeing a photo of tar sands reclaimed land shown in the news. Apparently this tourist hadn’t either.

    If you would like to get some first-hand information on the tar sands and the way the industry currently operates in regard to the environment and First Nations people, Ross Whitelaw is a very knowledgeable man of integrity who used to work in environment and safety. He's open to questions, and if he doesn't know the answer, he could probably put you in touch with someone who does.

    This is the kind of conversation that needs to take place - going to the source for information and exchange of ideas and questions. I've been working with Ross and others as members of the Anglican Church addressing the divestment issue.

    Ross recently took a tour of Smoky Lake Tree Nursery, which currently grows all of the reclamation stock for the five major oil sands operators: Syncrude, Suncor, Imperial Oil, Shell Albian and CNRL. They also grow seedlings for conventional oil and gas reclamation. Here is an excerpt from his report, which outlines the lengths to which they go to restore the land with the biodiversity of 61 native species.

    Tristan, I like the honesty of your comment, "I am not comfortable deriving income from this source." I understand that, considering the connection between fossil fuels and global warming.

    Another view to consider is that, at this point in time, no matter what companies we invest in, the burning of fossil fuels is likely involved. Burning fossil fuels creates far more CO2 emissions than extracting them (e.g., "Final combustion of the oil – mostly emerging from vehicle tailpipes – accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of lifecycle emissions"). And if consumers weren't using them, the companies wouldn't be extracting them. If we’re driving our cars to work or if our work involves operating vehicles or machinery, or selling products that were produced in a factory, we’re still "deriving income from this source."

    I recently read a story of a First Nations man in Fort McMurray who lost his job in the oil industry due to low oil prices, so he sought help to set up a small tourist company, which is admirable. However, if you look at this from a global warming perspective, in order for this man's new business to succeed, people have to burn fossil fuels to get there and burn more fossil fuels once they arrive in order to see the sights.

    Would it benefit the environment for MIT or other institution to divest from the oil company this man worked for and invest instead in this man’s tourist industry, which would be burning the fuel produced by his former employer?

    In light of this, I accept that I am "deriving income from this source" (directly - with investment in reputable fossil fuel companies, or indirectly) because that's the current reality, and I will invest what I can in renewable energy as well, to help speed the transition along.

    Managing the transition to renewables is complicated. Alberta is phasing out it's older coal plants first. And renewables are on the increase. The goal is to be at 0 dependence on coal by 2030 - a very ambitious and expensive goal. In the meantime, for the fossil fuels I still have to use, I'd be much more comfortable getting them from the Canadian tar sands or from a well-managed coal plant (especially if it has CCS) than from Saudi Arabia or other countries where we have no control over the environmental or ethical implications or how the royalties are used.

    I know it is not my mandate to change people's minds. I am simply grateful for this website and the opportunity to participate in the conversation.

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  11. #9 - Hello Philippe,
    I'm sure you would not be prejudiced toward any individuals. What I'm suggesting is that we need to offer the same justice to companies, that we grant to individual people, and refrain from basing our decisions on stereotypes.

    You say, "The overall behavior in the fossil fuel world is of the sort that has already proven so many times to lead to catastrophic failure. The same mode of operation chosen by tobacco. The attitude of utilities spreading cancer-causing chemicals in the water. The denial and irresponsible handling that caused a more recent water quality crisis in Flint. The same mind set that led VW to cheat. The attitude that consists of acknowledging that something is wrong but going on with it, developing all sorts of methods to cover, protect, hide, avoid."

    This isn't much different from saying, "The overall behaviour of (this ethnic group) is bad; therefore, (this person) is bad. They're all the same."

    I totally agree with the most important of your points. You're right about the dishonesty of Exxon and the damage this causes. I am not suggesting we continue to invest in companies that have been proven to be guilty of willful wrongdoing (but then we need to apply this standard to every company we invest in, not just fossil fuel companies).

    What we must recognize is that Exxon is not Syncrude nor Shell nor any of the other oil companies. They may all be in the same "ocean" or industry, but they are each responsible for their own boat.

    It is also unjust to project the behaviour and attitude of VolksWagon onto companies that have not in fact displayed such dishonesty and deceit.

    Contrary to your accusation that "the overall behavior in the fossil fuel world" is to acknowledge that something is wrong but go on with it, there are companies that respond responsibly. In fact, some aim to exceed environmental laws and champion excellent work (e.g., see the above referenced report regarding reclamation of tar sands land).

    I agree that coal is a big problem, but even in regard to coal, the Boundary Dam CCS project in Saskatchewan demonstrates a significant positive response from government and industry to the truth about global warming. The CCS project at the Scotford Complex in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta is another responsible response to the truth. And information will be shared online about the project's design, processes and lessons learned to help make CCS technologies more accessible and drive down costs of future projects.

    Managers, engineers and others who have poured their heart and soul and ingenuity into projects like this, who work for the sake of the environment within the industry, are shaking their heads at the demonization and divestment craze, especially when they see miles of vehicles lined up on multiple-lane highways in Montreal, and other cities where the criticism originates.The burning of fossil fuel in Montreal

    The extraction and production of fossil fuel is not, in itself, wrong while we're still driving our cars, tractors are still working farmland, diesel trucks are still bringing food to us, and various forms of energy are keeping us warm in the winter, etc. And I too travel to visit family, which requires a seven-hour drive south. I use the fuel carefully and gratefully. I’ve had to stop speeding to increase fuel efficiency, and for me that’s a big sacrifice. Northern highways are so beautiful and open. :)

    Considering all of the above, this is what I believe: We need to recognize that we are in transition and work together to reduce consumption and move toward renewable energy and a low carbon economy without resorting to scapegoating.

    Indiscriminate divestment from fossil fuel companies is, in my opinion, a form of scapegoating that distracts us from the changes we need to make as consumers.

    I agree we need public policies, but they must not be based on half truths, hypocrisy or prejudice. Dishonesty or tunnel vision on anyone’s part will be equally damaging.

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Reduced image size that was breaking page formatting. Please keep your image width down to 500px.

  12. I appreciate your response, Sharon.

    Corporations of all stripes tend to take as much 'responsibility' as they are required to by law. I don't think Oil/Coal/Gas companies are meaningfully different to the other members of the Fortune 500* - The ramifications of the actions different industries take may be different however. It is these ramifications which are stimulating the divestment movements.

    The intention of divestment of any sort, is to generate greater corporate responsibility via societal pressure on either the legislators or the industry itself. In the instance of FF energy generation, one response trumps all others - the adoption of an appropriately implemented carbon tax, such that the deadweight loss incurred from fossil fuel use is offset.


    *rent-seekers who do whatever they can to pay less tax, reduce regulation and otherwise gain competitive advantage over their competitors while delivering the majority of their profits to people who already have significant wealth. 

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  13. #12 - Tristan
    It seems to me most of us take as much "responsibility" as we are required by law. But some individuals and companies do indeed go above and beyond.

    I agree with the carbon tax because it is being paid by industry and by consumers, which is fair. We do need to pay what it truly costs.

    I do admire the passion and perseverance of the MIT students. They certainly have brought attention to the global warming problem and the need to take action. And they have sparked some very important conversation.

    I would challenge them to think outside the blaming box and focus energy on innovation that would facilitate the transition to renewables. They are probably already doing that, but wouldn’t it be cool if one of those rich people Philippe mentioned could respond to their enthusiasm by funding research at MIT so they could come up with better storage and management of energy developed by renewables, or contribute some other technical innovation to this quest for a healthier planet. 

    Someone here commented on a Facebook post about Alberta's carbon tax, saying that there should be X-prizes for defined tech advances in renewable energy.

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  14. A few things:

    I'd suggest than individuals are far more likely to go beyond their legal responsibilities than corporations are. I don't have any shareholders, and I don't have to account for my time to anyone. The opportunity costs of 'benevolent' behaviour are different.

    We are not waiting on technology. We can already achieve a huge chunk of the transition with existing, proven, cost-competitive industry. However, those industries are presently disadvantaged by a combination of massive FF subsidies and the lack of carbon pricing.

    Which statements from the MIT activists suggest that they are not "thinking outside the blaming box"?

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  15. Well its longest week for the activities of Fosil free MIT the Vice President and towards all along the research team involvement. Well we have a great opportunity for the entire blogger website because we have a easy website builder for you that is a systematically done by expert developers.

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