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Message from the Chair

Time to Up Our Game

Susan S. Silbey

This is my final column as Chair of the Faculty. It is uncharacteristically short in hopes of communicating an unambiguous and urgent message: we can no longer engage in business as usual at MIT. Time is running out. MIT, the United States, and the world face an existential threat unprecedented in human history.

It may already be too late to reverse the catastrophes that wait as the warming climate continues to raise sea levels, acidify the oceans, worsen droughts, wildfires, storms and floods, and accelerate extinction rates, with a UN scientific panel reporting this month that 1 million species are threatened by extinction caused by human activity. All this has happened when we have so far raised mean global surface temperatures "only" about 1°C (1.8°F) above preindustrial levels. To have any decent chance of limiting warming to the 2015 Paris Accord goal of "well below 2°C" (3.6°F), global emissions must peak immediately and fall by about 80% by 2030, then continue to drop to zero well before the end of the century – that is, within the normal life span of today's undergraduates. Importantly, 2°C of warming is not safe, merely less catastrophic than where we are headed without a major course correction. Even full implementation of the Paris agreement would yield warming well above 3°C by 2100, depending on how sensitive the climate is to the greenhouse gases we continue to spew into the atmosphere at increasing rates. Worse, it appears that no nation is on track to meet its Paris commitment. The threat is real, we know the cause – ourselves – and the consequences of continued inaction are irreversible on any human time scale.

If we truly want to make a better world, why have we not embraced this existential threat as the single most important challenge for MIT? Why is climate change not the first and largest item on our agenda?

When I think about climate change, I often wonder what kind of people do not put this as the highest priority – locally as well as nationally and globally. Maybe some people do not believe the science. But this is MIT; we are not science deniers. We know that the science is valid and sound. Perhaps, some people just live for the moment, seeking hedonic pleasures above all else. There are such people, but are they our organizational or political leaders? Maybe a culture valuing celebrity of all kinds has lost the ability to distinguish the pursuit of self-indulgence from self-interest rightly understood. Even so, do they really not care about their children and grandchildren? Are they willing to relegate their, and others', children to a world of massive, disruptive migrations – far exceeding what recent wars, droughts, and violent states are currently producing, and the subsequent anarchy or authoritarianism likely to emerge if liberal democracy does not recover from the present digitally driven threats?

Perhaps climate change is not our highest priority because we at MIT are culturally, after all, techno optimists. We like to believe that somehow we will engineer our way out of this. Could that be why MIT, specifically, has not embraced climate change as the most important priority? Do we think that MIT entrepreneurs will produce the planet-saving innovations? I have actually heard such claims. Perhaps it will be small, mass-produced nuclear reactors, or biologically inspired solar panels and batteries, or perhaps fusion. We were told recently that nuclear fusion energy is making such progress, as exemplified by the high temperature, superconducting magnets that MIT and CFS entrepreneurs are developing, that we can now expect carbon-free, fusion energy within several decades.

But here's the problem. Climate change is a social as much as a technological problem. Even if we accept the unlikely scenario that fusion is on the near horizon, the political, economic, and social obstacles will not produce functioning power plants before the temperatures rise above those catastrophic two degrees Celsius.

Long delays between any technological breakthrough and the processes of siting, building, and also overcoming NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) resistance will impede deployment in time to avert the disasters. Nor is climate change something that will be adequately addressed by individual, micro-level actions. Of course recycling, driving electric cars, reducing water usage are important. We should all strive to cut our personal ecological footprints. But the climate threat cannot be solved without collective action sufficient to bring about the legal, institutional, and political changes needed to make responsible choices probable and drive the rapid transformation of our energy system needed to keep the fossil carbon in the ground.

Americans consume much more energy per capita than any other populace, we also lose almost twice as much energy in transmission as we actually generate. Also, the technologies we need to dramatically reduce energy consumption in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings exist today, on the shelf: insulation, high-performance windows, high-efficiency HVAC systems, heat-recovery ventilation, passive design, and so on. They are the fastest, cheapest, safest ways to cut emissions, improve occupant health and comfort, and often generate positive economic returns. But they are not being deployed fast enough. The barriers are not technological so much as social, organizational, and political. We have variations in cultural habits and preferences, geographic conditions, economic and legal constraints including regulatory capture by vested interests that shape the path dependencies to which we have become habituated and which we will not easily abandon.

How do we get past the initial boundary condition: ignoring the existential threat of climate change? Has MIT been promoting innovation and entrepreneurship instead of critical thinking through fundamental as well as ethical education?

Have we been green washing with sustainability initiatives instead of addressing climate change? Have we been investing in solar farms in North Carolina at the expense of reducing our campus emissions locally, when we could and should do both? Are too many of our students working on autonomous cars and clever apps instead of public mass transit? How can we, MIT, change our commitments?

What could we learn about human agency and organization if we devoted our social science to solving the institutional and political problems of climate change? How do we solve the "presentism" that animates too many voters? How do we overcome the collective action problems of mobilizing both the populace and the world's leaders? How do we get past the selfish economic interests of fossil fuel companies possessing unmatched political power? What if we stopped discounting the future in our models so that creating a sustainable world is no longer economically inefficient? Why do we make the decisions we make rather than others? Who determines what decisions we get to make? Who is setting the agenda? What do we know about changing minds that might help change directions? These are social questions.

We have promised to raise one billion dollars to advance socially responsible computer science. What will happen to this ambition when the Charles River is three feet deep on Vassar Street, as predicted in recent models? Perhaps we should rebrand our new School as the Schwarzman College of Computing for the Climate. As my last act as Chair of the Faculty, I beg the Corporation and the Administration to do the right thing, now. Time is running out.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXXI No. 5, May/June 2019