Environmental Solutions Initiative puts sustainability front and center at the MIT career fair

When MIT students walk into the Johnson Athletic Center for fall career fair — or this year, hop onto Zoom — they’re greeted with flashy displays from hundreds of employers vying for some of the top tech and engineering students in the world. Company reps eagerly tell them about salaries, office perks, and opportunities to contribute to cutting-edge work.

Now, thanks to a tool developed by MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), students can also learn how environmentally responsible their prospective employers are.

Read the full article on MIT News.

Letter from the Director: “Post-election: getting on with our work,” November 2020

As of this writing, Donald Trump has not conceded defeat to Joe Biden, though the result is now clear.

As we look to the next few months and years, the passing of 2020 marks the beginning of the need for rapid annual and decadal global greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement will be a necessary but not sufficient next step. Significant increases in emission reduction commitments are needed right away and the international community has much work to do. Alongside this necessity will be the continued weaving together of action-oriented coalitions inclusive of industry and finance, cities and communities and many elements of civil society – including research universities – which have worked these past four years to maintain momentum toward a low-carbon future. Coalition building to meet the climate crisis will benefit greatly from leadership by the U.S. federal government, supported by a return to science-based decision-making and productively allied with our international partners.

The ESI wishes well all in government, especially at the EPA, DOE, NOAA, NASA, NSF and other government agencies, during the coming White House transition and in their efforts to make possible a just and robust transition to a future of low and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Welcome back to arguably the greatest challenge humanity faces.

John E. Fernández, Director
November 8, 2020
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

Student Sustainability Journeys: Tessa Weiss

by Elizabeth Gribkoff

ESI has the pleasure of working closely with many of MIT’s undergraduates who are most deeply involved in environmental research, activism, and real-world action. As they depart MIT, we’ll be interviewing a few of them to understand what worked and didn’t work in their sustainability careers on campus.


Tessa Weiss knew since high school that she wanted to combine her passion for sustainability with her aptitude for math and science – and going into clean energy seemed like a good way to do that. Although Weiss majored in mechanical engineering at MIT, she was also able to explore her passion for climate policy through courses and extracurriculars. This helped her discover that she wants a career where she can take a holistic approach to solving environmental problems.

Weiss, who hails from Phoenix, AZ, sought out courses that would allow her to gain hands-on experiences in the field of sustainability. She took part in MIT’s unique first-year program Terrascope, in which students work on solutions for a different global environmental challenge each year. In 12.000 Solving Complex Problems, Weiss and her cohort came up with ways to make cities more equitable and sustainable by 2050. And that spring, she built a small-scale wind turbine in another Terrascope class, EC.746 Design for Complex Environmental Issues.

“It really framed my whole experience at MIT in terms of thinking about the bigger impact that what we’re doing in class can have on the world,” says Weiss of the Terrascope program.

For her internships, she sought out opportunities to gain engineering experience at sustainability-focused companies. After her sophomore year, she was an energy efficiency intern at McKinstry and Company in Golden, Colorado. The summer before her senior year, Weiss interned at Oklo, a California-based nuclear reactor startup. But Weiss, finding herself drawn to “systems-level thinking,” has never been satisfied by pure mechanical engineering design work.

“Sometimes in engineering, you can get into these rabbit holes where you just think very intently about one part of the solution, whereas I always found myself drawn back to the bigger picture,” she says.

One of Weiss’ favorite classes was 11.003 Methods of Policy Analysis with Prof. Cherri Abbanat, which she took her senior year. “That class made me a lot more motivated to look at things from a policy perspective as well,” Weiss says. “That was a theme that came to fruition for me later on at MIT – we had a lot of these technical solutions, but what was holding us back was having the right policies to implement them.”

Weiss, a collegiate athlete, decided not to run cross country or track her last year at MIT, using her newfound free hours to “dive into climate and sustainability wholeheartedly” through extracurriculars. She ended up co-chairing the campaign to divest MIT’s endowment from fossil fuels. In that role, which Weiss sees as one her “defining experiences” at MIT, she was able to organize and lead fellow students.

“It was interesting getting to learn how a university like MIT makes decisions and what its priorities were, and how sustainability or climate fits into those priorities,” she says.

That spring, Weiss attended a conference with Net Impact, a networking organization for business leaders and students interested in effecting social and environmental change. At that conference, Weiss met Bill Weihl, the former Director of Sustainability for Facebook and now the founder and Executive Director of ClimateVoice, a non-profit that aims to channel the workforce as a tool for climate action. She started volunteering with ClimateVoice and now directs its efforts to recruit student leaders to pressure companies to support climate policy.

Weiss also did a UROP her senior year in urban metabolism, the study of the material and energy flows in cities, with the Environmental Solutions Initiative’s (ESI) new Cities and Climate Change program. She worked with ESI director John Fernández and other students on a project to improve the efficiency of resource flows in Bangkok and other Thai cities.

That experience and her earlier participation in Terrascope and at McKinstry sparked an interest in building sustainability – the field Weiss now hopes to work in. In the U.S., buildings account for 40% of energy use, and Weiss sees this as an area where energy efficiency work could have a major impact.

“I think also, at a personal level, there’s room in that sector for working at the intersection of engineering, policy and business development,” she adds. “There’s potential for my role to move in a direction that I would really enjoy in the future.”

 

 

Revamped MIT Climate Portal aims to inform and empower the public

Stepping up its ongoing efforts to inform and empower the public on the issue of climate change, MIT today announced a dramatic overhaul of the MIT Climate Portal, climate.mit.edu, which provides timely, science-based information about the causes and consequences of climate change — and what can be done to address it. Read the full story at MIT News.

Letter from the Director: “Vote as if _______ Depends on It – Because It Does,” September 2020

As Director of the ESI, I’ve used this space to write “notes” on a number of subjects. I now take this opportunity to join the growing chorus encouraging everyone to exercise an essential individual right of our democracy – the right to VOTE.

Let me state clearly that the ESI is nonpartisan and we work across the political spectrum in the US and internationally. Our cross-partisan activities are always focused on leveraging MIT’s capacity and talents in contributing to improving people’s lives, promoting sustainable and equitable prosperity and protecting the planet.

However, being nonpartisan does not mean we are apolitical. Politics matter. Engagement in the political process matters. The ESI currently works with policymakers at the federal, state and local levels for a low carbon and equitable future. For many Americans, voting is the most powerful and accessible way to engage in our political system. And while the individual act of voting seems almost trivial in a world of massively concentrated power and wealth, voting itself holds the promise to recast everything about the political reality we live in. Seems that we Americans have not appreciated this well enough. Consider that the largest party in America is neither the Democrats nor the Republicans – it’s the party of nonvoters[1].

So, while the ESI is nonpartisan, we are deeply engaged in the consequences of our evolving political landscape and are particularly attuned to how the dynamics of governance shapes our environmental present and future. These past few years have been a sobering reminder that some political agents believe that accelerating environmental and ecological destruction, inaction on climate change, perpetuation of entrenched environmental injustice, and short-term profits for the few over long term prosperity for many are acceptable results of our political system.

I do not. Our system was conceived and engineered to serve the Right of the People, though from its origins it was deeply flawed. In fact, history has taught us that our nation’s founding ideals were false when written[2] and eventually required that the US Constitution be amended in significant ways. This work to make a more perfect union is certainly not done, and not by a long shot. How we conduct ourselves toward the environment and act on climate change will hinge on how many of us decide to vote[3].

As the US Declaration of Independence states, “… when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

The abuses were those of George III. Today, abuses of our political system, assaults on our institutions, and the specter of despotism are 21st century American realities. Voting is one way to throw off such Government and provide new Guards for our future security.

So, please vote. Vote as if our democracy – and the environment, and justice, and sustained prosperity – depend on it because they most certainly do.

John E. Fernández, Director
September 24, 2020
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

Below we list several resources to assist you and others in exercising your right to vote:

 


[1] Attributed to and paraphrased from Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration.

[2] Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “The Idea of America – The 1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine [New York City], August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html   Accessed September 16, 2020.

[3] See the work of Nathaniel Stinnett and the Environmental Voter Project: https://www.environmentalvoter.org

 

“The Emerald Tutu” wins NSF grant for design to protect Boston’s coastline

The Emerald Tutu began as a simple idea for a new kind of coastal protection system to address flood risk in Boston — and as a commentary on the urban history of the city. “The spirit of the Emerald Tutu is to re-imagine what public infrastructure can do for citizens,” says Gabriel Cira ’08, CEO of The Emerald Tutu, Inc. “To address the true danger of climate change in Boston, we wanted to focus on making infrastructure green, inhabitable, and accessible, rather than reinforcing the division and erasure that Boston’s major infrastructure initiatives of the 20th century brought.” The U.S. National Science Foundation agreed, as they recently announced the award of a $256,000 research grant to help The Emerald Tutu realize their vision.

Read the full story at MIT News.

Rapidly Responding in a Complex World

by John E. Fernández

August 13, 2020

Environmental justice and fossil fuel infrastructure; industrial agriculture and climate change; a post-COVID global hunger crisis; the real message of climate models; the asymmetrical social and economic burdens facing communities battling for toxic cleanups; the weakening of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; the dangers to vulnerable horseshoe crab populations from pharmaceutical companies… these are just a sampling of the 44 diverse issues that a group of 20 students took on this summer as inaugural members of the ESI Rapid Response Group (RRG).

Members of the Summer 2020 ESI Rapid Response Group

Members of the Summer 2020 ESI Rapid Response Group

Formation of the group was motivated by two distinct needs: first, to provide well-timed, science-based assistance to people working to advance climate and environmental priorities. Second, to do for policy-making what we do so well at MIT for science and engineering, learning by doing. When learning about the underlying social and economic structures, legal and political processes, indistinct interests and shifting motivations driving policy discussions and decisions, there is no substitute for doing the work of engaging directly with individuals, communities, institutions, companies, and government.

For example, consider that 70 percent of workers in the industrial meat workforce are people of color, more susceptible to serious health consequences of COVID and without significant workers’ rights to organize, leading to “systemic human rights violations” according to Humans Rights Watch. This is in an industry that is under increasing pressure to address its greenhouse gas emissions. Connect these issues and pathways for significant beneficial reforms emerge. Or consider the increasing reliance on private financing to fill the funding gap needed to adequately address resilience in urban communities. As private money is mobilized, equity may suffer leading to the next generation of environmental injustice. Already today, the greater prevalence of green spaces in wealthier urban areas – beneficial to moderate the consequences of flooding and provide relief from climate-induced urban heat – is leading to resilience inequities.

Consider the increasing impact of air pollution from trucks arriving and leaving from warehouses serving our digital purchasing needs – Amazon “fulfillment centers” and others. As e-commerce has exploded during the pandemic, air pollution around these warehouses and other facilities has increased and disproportionately affected residents of lower income and less education – and increased worries of a correlation to bad COVID-related health outcomes. Another reason to accelerate the development and deployment of electric trucks and creative and equity-driven land use planning.

What students of the RRG learn quickly is that solutions are as varied, and often as complicated, as the situations themselves. The work of the RRG is non-partisan and built on the principle that a working democracy requires an informed citizenry that holds government to the idea that it derives its powers “from the consent of the governed.”[1] To do this effectively, we believe it’s important to engage directly; to understand the complexity and to accept that expressing one’s views in a climate march is one thing, but real solutions almost always require much, much more.

During this summer of COVID, the RRG collaborated with several congressional offices, Cambridge City Councilors, various community organizations, the MIT Washington Office, many MIT professors and researchers, a range of environmental groups, industry trade groups, individual companies, and many others. The RRG project portfolio is the result of a weekly pitch session in which all members bring one or more new projects to the table and then vote to activate. Group members have produced state of the art synopses, fact sheets, talking points, research agendas, Op-Eds, panel discussions, information pieces and more.

The RRG is now accepting applications for the 2020 Fall term. All MIT undergraduate and graduate students are eligible to work for pay and undergrads for UROP credit. Please send an email to esirrg@mit.edu if you or someone you know may be interested in joining us.

Summer RRG undergraduate members

MIT: Danielle Grey-Stewart, Diane Li, Jess Cohen, Melissa Stok, Naomi Lutz, Jessica Horowitz, Ben Delhees, Tessa Weiss, Lucy Milde, Ava Waitz, Jacob Fine

Reed College: Samantha Hordyk

Holy Cross: Emily O’Regan

Summer RRG graduate members

MIT: Alexander Gant, Priyanka deSouza, Zak DeGiulio, Nina Mascarenhas, Jack Hanly, Caroline White-Nockleby, James Minor

 


[1] The Declaration of Independence – you can find this phrase in the sentence right after “the pursuit of Happiness.”

MIT and Wyoming Explore Energy and Climate Solutions

Members of Wyoming’s government and public university met with MIT researchers to discuss climate-friendly economic growth.

The State of Wyoming supplies forty percent of the country’s coal, used to power electric grids across the country. The production of coal and other energy resources contributes over half of the state’s revenue, funding the government and many of the social services—including K-12 education—that residents rely on. With the consumption of coal in a long-term decline, decreased revenues from oil and natural gas, and growing concerns about carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the state is actively looking at how to adapt to a changing marketplace.

Recently, representatives from the Wyoming Governor’s Office, University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources, and Wyoming Energy Authority met with faculty and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a virtual, two-day discussion to discuss avenues for the state to strengthen its energy economy while lowering CO2 emissions.

“This moment in time presents us with an opportunity to seize: creating a strong economic future for the people of Wyoming while protecting something we all care about—the climate,” said Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon. “Wyoming has tremendous natural resources that create thousands of high-paying jobs. This conversation with MIT allows us to consider how we use our strengths and adapt to the changes that are happening nationally and globally.”

The two dozen participants from Wyoming and MIT discussed pathways for long-term economic growth in Wyoming, given the global need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The wide-ranging and detailed conversation covered topics such as the future of carbon capture technology, hydrogen, and renewable energy; using coal for materials and advanced manufacturing; climate policy; and how communities can adapt and thrive in a changing energy marketplace.

The discussion paired MIT’s global leadership in technology development, economic modeling and low-carbon energy research, with Wyoming’s unique competitive advantages: its geology that provides vast underground storage potential for CO2; its existing energy and pipeline infrastructure; and the tight bonds between business, government and academia.

“Wyoming’s small population and statewide support of energy technology development is an advantage,” says Holly Krutka, executive director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources. “Government, academia and industry work very closely together here to scale up technologies that will benefit the state and beyond. We know each other, so we can get things done and get them done quickly.”

“There’s strong potential for MIT to work with the state of Wyoming on technologies that could not only benefit the state, but also the country and rest of the world as we combat the urgent crisis of climate change,” says Bob Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative, who attended the forum. “It’s a very exciting conversation.”

The event was convened by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative as part of its Here & Real project, which works with regions in the U.S. to help further initiatives that are both climate-friendly and economically just.

“At MIT, we are focusing our attention on technologies that combat the challenge of climate change—but also, with an eye toward not leaving people behind,” says Prof. Maria Zuber, MIT Vice President for Research.

“It is inspiring to see Wyoming’s state leadership seriously committed to finding solutions for adapting the energy industry, given what we know about the risks of climate change,” says Laur Hesse Fisher, director of the Here & Real project. “Their determination to build an economically and environmentally sound future for the people of Wyoming has been evident in our discussions, and I am excited to see this conversation continue and deepen.”

For media inquiries, contact Laur Hesse Fisher: lfi@mit.edu.

 

Student Sustainability Journeys: Gabriela Cazares

ESI launched the Minor in Environment & Sustainability in 2018, which means we now have the pleasure of seeing our first cohorts of graduates go out into the world. As they depart MIT, we’ll be interviewing a few of them to understand what worked and didn’t work in their sustainability careers on campus.


Gabriela Cazares came to MIT from Mission, Texas, where some outstanding teachers in chemistry and environmental science already had her thinking about the impact she could have on the planet. That commitment to sustainability never wavered at MIT, but it took her some time to find the right links between her field of chemistry and her interest in the environment.

Gabriela Cazares

In her chemistry GIR 5.111 Principles of Chemical Science with Prof. Moungi Bawendi, the connections clicked for her. Prof. Bawendi gave a lecture on thermodynamics where he tied the subject to the challenge of powering the planet. “When he was talking about enthalpy of reactions, he talked about chemical bonds breaking and forming and how that relates to energy density,” says Cazares. “So why we use fossil fuels, and what is the challenge of electric cars and solar energy. And that was the moment where I was like, there is a link in chemistry, right? So I was like, I can do this.”

Cazares became interested in atmospheric chemistry, but she had a hard time getting a toehold in real lab work. Many opportunities were unwilling to teach the foundational skills she would need to get ahead in the field. “I had zero experience in anything, so I had such a hard time finding UROPs,” she says. “They were like, what’s your experience using this, and what’s your experience coding. And I was thinking, well, nothing, because I didn’t start taking labs, nor did I start coding until junior year.” Her second year at MIT, she finally broke through with a UROP under Prof. David McGee, reconstructing the ancient climate of Mexico with a graduate student named Gabriela Serrato Marks. “She was like, don’t worry about the experience. You’ll learn here. Out of everyone, she was the biggest help at MIT for me. I still talk to her to this day. She was super helpful with the academic part, but also with the personal side.”

“I can code now,” Cazares adds. “Like, once you get one job, other jobs are like, okay, you have experience.”

Cazares is still pursuing the connections between chemistry and climate, as she heads off to UC Berkeley to pursue a PhD in physical chemistry in order to research atmospheric dynamics. She also found ways, in her last year at MIT, to extend her interest in sustainability beyond her lab work. As part of the spring 2020 class EC.719 D-Lab: Water, Climate Change and Health, Cazares and some of her classmates began designing a climate change class for high school and early college students, called “Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century.” “And then we actually went through with making the course and teaching it in the summer,” Cazares says. With her classmate Clara Gervaise-Volaire, Cazares brought the class online and ran it for high school and college students.

“But there were also all of these other projects that had the potential of continuing,” she says. She continues to spend the summer working with the MIT administration on the education portion of MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change. “The idea that I like the best is implementing climate change into classes,” she says. “Most fields have something to do with climate change. There don’t have to be a lot of issues with changing a whole syllabus.” After all, this worked for Cazares herself, when Prof. Bawendi brought the climate crisis into his thermodynamics lecture back in her sophomore year.

“It’s not like a major change in classes,” she says. “I think this would be the most efficient way to introduce climate change education at MIT.”

 

 

Innovations in environmental training for the mining industry

ESI collaborated with multinational mining company Vale to bring sustainability education to young engineering professionals in Brazil. Read the full article at MIT News.