MIT Students: We're Sitting-In at President Reif's Door Until He Divests From Fossil Fuels
Today at 6.30 a.m., a dozen students began a sit-in at the doorstep of their president’s office in opposition to MIT’s announced decision yesterday to “not divest [its $13.5 billion endowment] from the fossil fuel industry,” including climate denying corporations, and instead “bring them closer.” It is the first time in a quarter century that MIT has seen such unrest.
MIT’s divestment campaigners are particularly furious that their president has chosen not to sell stocks from coal and tar sands companies, an action backed 9-to-3 by the president’s own advisory committee in June.
“Divestment from coal and tar sands is a no-brainer, and would have unified rather than ostracized MIT’s community” commented Geoffrey Supran, an MIT PhD student sitting-in, and a member of President Reif’s climate advisory committee and of the student group advocating divestment, Fossil Free MIT. “With $2.6 trillion of precedent—including at Stanford, Oxford, and UC—divestment from coal and tar sands is financially prudent, scientifically consistent, morally right, and politically effective.”
President Reif’s decision to also not address climate science disinformation is another reason why many are protesting. Just this week, congressmen such as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have called for a federal investigation of ExxonMobil’s decades of climate lies. Meanwhile, MIT’s plan “deplores” climate science disinformation, yet proposes nothing to deal with it, entirely ignoring the unanimous recommendation of the president’s committee for an Ethics Advisory Council to “explicitly combat disinformation and avoid inadvertently supporting disinformation through investments.” In fact, the plan argues that MIT ought to strengthen its relationship of “great respect”, “candor and collaboration” with fossil fuel companies (even including coal companies), described as “the same” as that between MIT’s administrators and its students.
“We’re sitting-in because MIT has put money before morals and its students’ futures, choosing to side with Big Oil and the Kochs instead of the thousands of students, staff, faculty, and alumni—not to mention our president’s own committee—calling for divestment,” added Supran.
President Reif’s decision comes during a $5.5 billion capital campaign—the largest in the Institute’s history. MIT receives more industry funding than almost any other university in the country, its research sponsors including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Eni, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Statoil, Total, and the American Petroleum Institute and its 600-plus members. Climate disinformation bankroller David Koch has given MIT $185 million and is a Life Member of MIT’s Board of Trustees. Last November, MIT signed a five-year $25 million deal with ExxonMobil, which has in recent days cited its affiliation with MIT in an effort to greenwash its history of denialist campaigns.
We're sitting-in @MIT President's door until he divests from fossil fuels. Here's why: https://t.co/capPzi8ZwJ #DivestMIT #ScientistsSitIn— Geoffrey Supran (@Geoffrey Supran)1445519988.0
Jeremy Poindexter, an MIT PhD student working on solar cells explained why he is among those camped outside President Reif’s office:
“We won’t stand idly by while divestment gets tossed aside despite support from thousands of MIT community members. It’s ironic that in a climate action plan inspired entirely by divestment, our administration claims that engagement with the fossil fuel industry is a better action. In reality, divestment has a proven theory of change toward limiting warming to 2 degrees C. What’s President Reif’s? What have MIT’s decades of inside-access to fossil fuel interests gotten us? The answer is an industry that has lied about climate science, pours hundreds of millions of dollars every year into lobbying against renewables, and spends hundreds of billions of dollars pursuing a business model scientifically incompatible with holding back catastrophic climate change. And yet MIT has decided to continue investing more than half-a-billion dollars in this industry undermining our own work.”
On the action plan’s other proposals, Supran commented, “This plan is business-as-usual repackaged. It’s a campus emissions target consistent with an unacceptable 3.5 degrees of global warming. It’s MIT’s ordinary fundraising for energy research, wrapped up in a “$300 million” soundbite. It’s too little, too late.”
MIT’s divestment decision, part of its Plan for Action on Climate Change, flies in the face of more than 3,500 petition signatures from MIT community members, the recommendations of the MIT president’s own committee to divest from coal, tar sands, and climate denying corporations, a resolution from Cambridge City Council, and separate open letters from MIT student groups, faculty, alumni, and 33 prominent climate scientists and advocates, among them James Hansen, the President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Noam Chomsky and Mark Ruffalo.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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