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

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.

Posted by Guest Author on Tuesday, 8 March, 2016

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