MIT Climate Countdown: A Call to Action on October 2

This is an invitation, an invitation to come to MIT. An invitation to stand up for science against the greatest threat civilization has ever known. An invitation to do more about climate change together than any of us can achieve alone. So circle October 2 on your calendar, and then I'll explain.

Ploy Achakulwisut

I started doing renewable energy research when I was in high school; I've always believed in the power of science to make the world a better place. But three years ago, halfway through my PhD here at MIT, I started to wonder if I was making any difference at all.

While working in the lab each day, trying to build better solar cells and brighter LEDs, I slowly came to a startling realization: when it comes to climate change, the singular crisis of our time, MIT as an institution has no plan. No strategy for how our energy technologies will ever make it out of the lab and into a world where fossil fuels are propped up by trillions of dollars in subsidies every year. No vision for how to implement the carbon pricing mechanisms our economists propose, with a Congress that doesn't even believe global warming is caused by humans. And, unlike every other major university, no goal whatsoever for reducing our own campus carbon footprint. Worse still, I learned that while MIT is fighting climate change with one hand, it is actually feeding it with the other - investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the fossil fuel industry. Don't get me wrong: the pioneering innovation around campus is both vital and astounding. It's what I live for. But solving big problems means thinking about the big picture. It's uncomfortable to say, but MIT simply isn't.

It turned out that I wasn't alone in my realizations. From freshman to faculty, physicists to policy wonks, nano-engineers to urban planners (your typical MIT bunch) -- each of us was asking ourselves, "What are we doing? What is MIT doing?"

But we were also coming to realize MIT's limitless potential. As individuals, most of us are powerless to tackle the lack of societal and political will that underpin climate inaction. But through our Institute, we have a megaphone to public and political opinion and an immense capacity to effect change. MIT could be our most powerful tool, if only we could unlock it.

We had no choice. As scientists and engineers, advocacy and politics definitely don't come easily to us, but as Albert Einstein once put it, "Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act." So our improbable group of nerds-turned-activists did just that, calling on MIT's President Reif to make climate action the generational mission of our Institute. We researched and outreached. Postered and tabled. Listened and negotiated. Trialed and errored. And in May 2014, President Reif responded, launching the MIT Climate Change Conversation: a year-long campus-wide discussion about the actions the Institute could take against climate change. The mountain was beginning to move.

And in the process, we met you. Not just students, staff, and faculty, but countless alumni and local community members anxious to help institutions like MIT realize their potential to confront this crisis. Yes, each of us has different ideas about the best technologies and policies. And yes, we're each passionate about working on different things. But we're all in this together. We're all looking west: at the armies of firefighters risking their lives in a war against endless wildfire. We're all looking east: at the unfathomable millions of Syrian refugees -- the victims of a conflict compounded by years without rain. And we're all looking to the future, wary that unlike politicians, physics does not negotiate. Wary that the climate clock is ticking. Wary that, as President Reif's own Climate Change Conversation committee (on which I sat) concluded, "Perils ahead dwarf risks to the Institute in navigating this politically charged issue, such that even exceptional measures should not be eschewed."

Cambridge City Council went as far as to pass an official resolution cheering on MIT climate leadership. And today, 33 of the world's most prominent climate scientists and advocates -- including former NASA climate chief James Hansen, actor Mark Ruffalo, MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Stephen Heintz -- penned an open letter urging "the world's foremost citadel of science" to drop fossil fuel company stocks from its $12.4 billion endowment "as part of a comprehensive climate action plan."

That brings us to this fall. Finally, after years of negotiations, President Reif is committed to deciding this semester how (or if) our Institute will take action. The whole of MIT's history is hung on a timeline of "moments of decision" like this. Yet the climate question is far from a done deal.

Change can be hard and slow for any institution. And with the likes of climate science disinformation bankroller David Koch on MIT's Board, and with our university more dependent on corporate funding than almost any other in the country, anything is possible. Or not. Will MIT take tokenistic steps (a new climate class here, a few solar cells there)? Or will MIT take leadership commensurate with the urgency, magnitude, and nature of this problem? We don't know, and we're not going to sit around to be told our fate. As we begin the Climate Countdown to MIT's next great moment of decision, we want President Reif to know that we've got his back. That all of us -- students, staff, faculty, alumni, interested citizens -- are united behind bold, multi-faceted climate action. We won't accept anything less because our science and our futures are on the line.

So here's the plan. Starting September 27, MIT Climate Countdown will begin. A week-long series of events showcasing how each of us is taking climate action -- a chance to collaborate, organize, and mobilize. Then, come noon on October 2, the day of the MIT Corporation's Annual Board Meeting, we'll put business-as-usual on hold. We'll postpone our meetings, leave the library, and step out of lab. And as MIT's leaders convene, we will (with your help) gather on campus in our hundreds to urge them to find the moral courage to do what science demands and what President Reif's own committee has advised. For two hours on October 2, we won't be doing science -- we'll be standing up for it. See you there.

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