Partnership with Exxon Puts MIT’s Climate Action Vow to the Test

MIT calls for an end to climate obstruction, says ‘engaging’ and ‘advocating frankly’ with its industry partners is the best route to climate action.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a stand against campaigns led by fossil fuel companies to obstruct public understanding of climate science in its recently published climate action plan. (Credit: Mahesh via Flickr)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week denounced campaigns led by fossil fuel companies to obstruct public understanding of climate science and vowed to "advocate frankly" with industry allies for climate solutions as part of a new climate action plan. But oil giant, long-time collaborator and university funder ExxonMobil, which is charged with sowing doubt on climate change in a recent InsideClimate News investigation, puts MIT's commitment to the test.

MIT made its vow in "A Plan for Action on Climate Change," an 18-page report released Oct. 21. In it, the university said it will engage and collaborate with fossil fuel companies to combat climate change rather than divest its stock holdings in these companies.

As part of its decision to not divest, MIT took a seemingly hard line on the issue of climate denial when it said: "We are not naïve about the pernicious role of some segments of the fossil fuel industry in creating the current policy deadlock. We deplore the practice of 'disinformation,' through which some industry players and related groups have obstructed public understanding of the problem of climate change."

MIT went on to say it has already had "candid conversations" with industry allies and will continue "to advocate frankly" with them to work toward solutions.

While MIT vice president of research Maria Zuber told InsideClimate News that MIT "means business" and that "climate change is an institutional priority," some members of the MIT community remain unconvinced.

The student group Fossil Free MIT said the engagement plan amounted to "little more than business-as-usual repackaged," in a recent op-ed in the student newspaper, The Tech, on Thursday. Members of the group have led a sit-in outside of MIT President L. Rafael Reif's office for the past nine days in protest of the divestment decision and are asking for clarification on the engagement process. Approximately 3,500 students signed a petition last year asking the administration to divest; 90 faculty members also signed an open letter supporting divestment.

"I think it is inconsistent with our mission for MIT to invest in the enterprises that are helping to create the climate problem and also many of them are funding the disinformation campaigns that led to denial and confusion and prevent the adoption of policies we need for the climate problem," John Sterman, a professor the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of MIT's System Dynamics Group, told InsideClimate News. "We need to stand with science. We need to stand with integrity."

Sterman added that he is not against working with energy companies, but only after companies prove they are not opposing policies needed to respond to climate change and are sincere about building a low-carbon economy.

In the climate action report's executive summary, MIT offered one example of how the fossil fuel industry may already be at a "tipping point," referring to a coalition of 10 oil and gas companies, including six members of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), that recently supported the international goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Conspicuously absent from that list of energy companies, however, is ExxonMobil, a founding member of MITEI.

ICN's recent investigation revealed that the company's scientists conducted rigorous climate research between the late-1970s and mid-1980s, warned executives that global warming posed a threat to Exxon's core business. But beginning in the late 1980s, Exxon led a campaign to highlight the uncertainty of climate science. An independent investigation by the Los Angeles Times came to a similar conclusion.

MIT offered few details when asked if it believed Exxon had engaged in disinformation campaigns, how it has and how it plans to communicate with Exxon on this topic, and what it thought of the fact that Exxon had not supported the 2 degree warming goal.

"I'm not going to talk directly about Exxon," MIT's Maria Zuber told InsideClimate News. "As a rule we don't make pronouncements about details of our individual industry relationships."

But Zuber did offer some clarification on MIT's motivation for voicing such a strong opinion on disinformation campaigns and defended the engagement decision. In the leadup to the report, members of the Fossil Free group had "really raised the sense of urgency" of the climate issue on campus, she said. It was clear to the administration that business as usual "was not going to be adequate."

"It was important to say [to the rest of MIT] that what we really want to do is change the game. And by changing the game, that means engaging sectors in this solution space who maybe haven't been fully participating or participating in the way that we chose. So we made the conscious decision that we were better off trying to sit all these people around the table and to find common ground and to convey to them our urgency on this matter than to push them away and hope that that leads to action," she said.

But how will MIT know if its approach is working? Zuber told InsideClimate News that the administration is setting up benchmarks for tracking the potential success of engagement.

Walking a Fine Line

Two days after MIT released its climate action plan, Exxon rebuked the charges laid out in the recent InsideClimate News and Los Angeles Times investigations concerning its role in sowing doubt about climate change. As evidence of Exxon's continued commitment to climate change, the company pointed to its relationship with MIT. 

"The facts are that we identified the potential risks of climate change and have taken the issue very seriously," said Ken Cohen, vice president of public and government affairs at Exxon. "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."

"There are a lot of people at MIT who are pretty disgruntled" about that, said Geoffrey Supran, an MIT graduate student and member of MIT Fossil Free. He said Exxon is using MIT "as a paintbrush to greenwash its climate lies."

"Instead of MIT using its name through actions like divestment to call out this disinformation, MIT is actually lending its name as a social license, even if it's unintentional," he said.

Zuber, however, said all of MIT's partners have meaningfully contributed to the university's research and mission.

"When we look at any of these companies with whom we are engaging, what I care about is what they are doing right now and what they are going to do tomorrow and the next day to move this forward and to me, this out to be the benchmark of which we ought to judge the usefulness of these collaborations," she said.

Zuber later acknowledged that MIT is putting its "reputation on the line" by working with the companies.

MIT's action plan includes a commitment to reduce the university's carbon footprint by at least 32 percent by 2030 as compared to 2014 levels, as well as provide more options to study climate change and sustainability in the classroom and through research.

In addition to declining to divest, the MIT administration rejected a proposal to form an Ethics Advisory Council. According to the MIT Climate Change Conservation Committee report, such a group would have examined issues such as disinformation campaigns through ethical lenses that are "antithetical to the Institute's central mission of education."

The day after MIT released its climate action plan rejecting divestment, MIT students launched a sit-in outside President L. Rafael Reif's office. (Credit: Fossil Free MIT)

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