Climate Action Symposium

Monday, November 16, 2020

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, John, for the introduction. I am tremendously grateful to you, as well as to everyone who helped create this symposia series – and especially to Paul Joskow for his leadership.

From the beginning, you have attracted a remarkable audience. You started by filling Kresge auditorium! And roughly twelve hundred people livestreamed every symposium – before Covid, and after! In short, you have built a community of interest that gives us all great confidence for the work ahead.

Now, knowing that an expert audience also joins us today, along with a superb set of speakers, I will simply offer a few words about where we stand as an institution in addressing climate change.

In 2015, when we launched our Climate Action Plan, we defined five pillars of activity. In broad terms, those pillars are fundamental research; solutions, through technology and policy; educating climate innovators; sharing climate knowledge with the world; and using our campus as a testbed.

In each of these areas, we have made considerable progress:

  • A powerful new predictive model that integrates energy, land use, water, agriculture, emissions and climate.
  • Eight new Low-Carbon Energy Centers, supporting pioneering work from solar power to mobility systems! 
  • A new simulation exercise that allows users to explore multiple paths toward a decarbonized world.
  • Innovative policy proposals to increase corporate disclosures of climate-related financial risks.
  • A new Environment and Sustainability minor, and the infusion of new climate-related content in our General Institute Requirements.
  • New undergraduate research opportunities tied to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • An award-winning online primer on Climate Science, Risk & Solutions that shares essential knowledge and dispels persistent myths. 
  • And – even in the middle of a building boom on campus – we remain on track to meet our goals for reducing MIT’s carbon footprint.

I could have highlighted literally hundreds of other climate-centered projects the people of MIT have pushed forward in the last five years. I expect that nearly everyone listening today has played some role in those advances, and I hope you all take pride in that. 

But I expect we all agree that, given the scope of the climate emergency, we need to do more – much more.

I will offer a few thoughts about that in a moment. But for now, I offer an observation on a defining element of our Climate Action Plan: Our strategy of engagement, particularly with industry. 

By important measures, this strategy has worked well. 

  • It has supplied hundreds of millions of dollars to important research on low- and zero-carbon technologies – research that would not have been funded in this period otherwise. 
  • And, perhaps most excitingly, it led to the launch of, and MIT’s continued collaboration with, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, or CFS. The birth of this MIT spin-off is a direct result of 12 years of engagement with a longtime MITEI member, the Italian energy company Eni. To get CFS off the ground, Eni invested $50 million, which attracted further funding; one backer is The Engine, which specifically supports such tough-tech start-ups. Fusion is now the largest single area of research supported through MITEI, and CFS aims to deliver a demonstration fusion reactor by 2025.

The CFS story proves the power of addressing the climate crisis through a strategy of engagement. 

At the same time, however, in terms of our ability to influence the behavior of other major energy companies, that strategy has not produced all the progress we hoped. 

In the new year, we will hold two forums to weigh and reflect on MIT’s engagement strategy. One forum will focus on viewpoints from the MIT community, the other on experiences of our external partners. What we learn will be important as we refine our plans for the future.

Today, and even since this symposia series began, our world is profoundly changed, in at least four ways relevant to today’s discussion.

First, the climate problem has, of course, grown worse. It is accelerating. And it is now directly harming the lives of millions of human beings – and countless other species – around the world. 

Second, of course, is the pandemic. This tragic natural crisis has demonstrated that, as individuals, and as a society, we can change more, and faster than we may have believed possible. It has also made clear that refusing to change can be catastrophic, and that nature does not respond to wishful thinking.

Third, as a nation, we are also engaged in a complex period of reckoning around racial justice and economic inequality, both of which have bearing on questions of environmental justice.

And finally, there is the recent election. Our 2015 plan was built on the premise that we would be working in concert with the federal government. Instead, since 2017, the federal government actively undermined and reversed critical climate policies.

Today’s panel is exceptionally well positioned to help us understand what policy change is now possible, nationally and internationally. 

  • John Podesta was the central force for climate action in the Obama White House. 
  • Todd Stern was the chief US negotiator for the Paris Accord. 
  • And Representative Kathy Castor not only chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, she comes from Tampa, Florida, a district dramatically flooded, again, just last week, by the 28th storm in this year’s record-setting hurricane season.

Even as a non-expert, I find it a huge relief to know that the new Administration will use every available lever to remove roadblocks and support progress on climate action. 

Reentering the Paris agreement will help. Executive orders can help somewhat, right away. And regulation can surely make a difference, although it will take years. In other words, given political realities, we cannot expect policy miracles.

So, in that context, we need to decide what course of action makes sense for MIT. 

While we wait for good policy to work its way through the political process, I believe we have the opportunity to make a tremendous difference by accelerating progress on climate-critical technologies.

I am convinced that building broad and deep popular support for climate action would be much, much easier – and much more likely to succeed – if we could offer to society much more fine-grained scientific models, and technological solutions for mitigating and adapting to climate change that are dramatically less expensive: solutions inexpensive enough to win widespread political support, to be affordable for every society and to deploy on a planetary scale.

Passing a carbon tax would surely spur the development of cheaper low- and zero-carbon energy. But it is equally true that developing cheaper low- and zero-carbon energy sources would make it much easier to pass a carbon tax! So, we need to push for both, as fast as we can!

Next semester, we expect to have a new climate plan for the Institute, including more ambitious goals for reducing our campus carbon footprint. But for today, I want to emphasize two key elements in our thinking now, one that is well under way, and one that is new.

Thanks to the leadership of Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, Associate Provost Richard Lester and a committee of 26 faculty leaders from across MIT, last summer we launched an ambitious new research effort called the Climate Grand Challenges. 

In effect, the Climate Grand Challenges is a mechanism for inspiring our faculty to work together, across disciplines, on big, demanding, high-impact ideas – ideas for sharpening our understanding, combatting climate change itself, adapting constructively to its impacts and enabling nine billion humans to adopt the technologies and behaviors the crisis demands.

We were thrilled to receive nearly 100 Letters of Interest, representing the work of more than 300 MIT faculty and researchers, from all five Schools and the College.

And through a recent series of 16 workshops, those researchers came together to share, to sharpen and in some cases to combine their ideas across teams. As usual, when MIT faculty get to talk freely across labs and disciplines, the atmosphere was creative and inspiring. We very much look forward to the next round of submissions in about two weeks and to further development in the Spring.

With the help of a group of leading international experts, five or six of the most compelling ideas will be selected – the ideas that offer the most effective levers for rapid, large-scale meaningful impact.

Going forward, the Climate Grand Challenges will be the centerpiece of our effort to advance climate science, solutions and policy. And we expect that the projects that emerge will make it possible to do what we have not been able to do before: Inspire significant research funding for energy and climate work, not only from the government, but from philanthropic and industry sources too.

Now, for the new idea: I offer a brief preview of a new effort now advancing thanks to the leadership of Dean of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan and Head of Materials Science and Engineering Jeffrey Grossman: The MIT Climate & Sustainability Consortium. 

The idea extends our strategy of engagement to include leading firms in a range of industries – from food to finance to automotive to retail – firms that have a vested interest in accelerating climate action and that are seeking to achieve a net-zero future. 

By working to understand these industries’ most difficult environmental and climate problems, by encouraging them to share sustainability ideas across sectors and by grounding these relationships on a shared commitment to social justice, economic equity, and environmental benefit, we aim to speed the development of large-scale, real-world climate solutions.

You will hear much more about the Consortium and the Grand Challenges between now and the start of the new semester. Both will be central to our new climate action plan.

I would like to close with one observation.

Those on this “digital stage” today have significant influence and expertise when it comes to accelerating climate action. But, looking at us, you will see that we do not have – we cannot have – the perspective of many who will be seriously affected by the consequences and repercussions of climate change. We cannot speak for communities of color and the citizens of the global south who are likely to be hurt first and worst. Equally, we cannot speak for workers around the world who make their living pulling coal and oil from the ground, and who fear the transition will cost them everything. And we cannot speak for young people – everywhere, from every background – with their whole lives ahead of them, nor for all those who will come after them.

I know that many members of the MIT community have aspirations for how the Institute should organize itself to address climate change. And I am also aware of a degree of tension between different groups, as to the best emphasis and the best approach.  

I hope that we can explore these tensions respectfully and use this moment, together, for the intense and urgent planning and collaboration that this immense challenge requires – because I have no doubt that we are united in our goal and that reaching it will require all of our strength, working together.

Thank you.

Professor Deutch, back to you to introduce today’s outstanding panel.