Celebrating the Challenge: The ESI at 10 Years

The ESI was established in May 2014, and we are now celebrating our ten-year anniversary. This brief note is not intended to capture in any comprehensive way all that we have accomplished during this span of time. Instead, it attempts to delineate highlights in our trajectory, especially as we look toward the next chapter. 

At its inception, the desire for a commitment to address multiple challenges facing the planet – climate change chief among many – had been in discussion at MIT for some time. A group of professors and researchers at the Institute had met regularly for years and discussed, wrote proposals and advocated to senior administration for an initiative focused on the environment. By way of their sustained efforts, the ESI was inaugurated with Prof. Susan Solomon as the founding director. I took over as director 18 months later in October 2015. 

The ESI was launched with two first-order objectives: to establish a minor in environment and sustainability available to all MIT undergraduates and to launch a research effort across diverse topics in the environment, sustainability and climate change. The research portfolio was founded with two rounds of seed grants to multidisciplinary teams across departments at MIT. Today, ESI research is comprised of six programs including Mining and the Circular Economy; Natural Climate Solutions; Climate Justice; Cities and Climate Change; Plastics and the Environment; and Arts, Media and AI. 

The ESI also created and expanded a major effort to engage the public and communicate all aspects of climate change beyond MIT. We refer to the fruits of this effort as the “three Ps” – the Climate Portal, the Climate Primer and the TILClimate podcast. 

All three legs of the ESI – research, education and engagement – have become instrumental at MIT in offering varied and rich experiences to students, opportunities for research to the MIT faculty and understanding and learning to those beyond our campus and worldwide. Listing and describing all that we have done since our launch would constitute a very, very long article. I will simply note there is much to celebrate about the past ten years. 

First year MIT undergraduates at an ESI event featuring US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, 2017

First-year MIT undergraduates at an ESI event featuring US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in 2017. Photo courtesy of Stephanie McPherson.

I will also note that there is much left to do – more than many would have predicted ten years ago. While the rate of growth of global emissions has decreased, emissions are still increasing, 1.3% in 2022 and 1.1% in 2023, amounting to 410 million tonnes to a new record high of 37.4 billion tonnes. Global biodiversity loss – a much more difficult challenge to assess – likely increased greatly in the ten years since the ESI started operating. In the Living Planet Report 2022, the World Wildlife Fund asserts that global wildlife populations have been reduced by 69% since 1970. And recently, the Stockholm Resilience Center announced that six of nine Planetary Boundaries have been breached and are now at high risk. 

While I could go on in this sobering way with many other markers of the enormous challenge that has grown ever more complex and seemingly difficult these past ten years, I risk creating ever greater despair that may contribute to ever greater stasis. In fact, for many years now there has been a concerted effort to adopt a decidedly positive and forward-looking attitude toward our environmental challenges. Many in the scientific, policy, business and advocacy communities have been focusing on communicating positive perspectives that are intended to drive action and momentum, from Katharine Hayhoe’s regular messages as Chief Scientist for the Nature Conservancy to Hannah Ritchie’s climate optimistic book, Not the End of the World. 

I have been doing the same for some portion of the communications I engage in, whether speaking to an audience, writing articles or otherwise discussing climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues. Yet, when I have done so I experience an almost imperceptible internal pause; it feels like something of a discontinuity of belief in my own words. Can we really be as optimistic as some, including myself, believe we should be? 

This pause becomes a full-on break when I contend with messages that use a forward-thinking and self-consciously positive perspective to intentionally or unintentionally diminish the challenge and open the door to greenwashing. Can we really continue to expect “natural” gas – an extremely powerful greenhouse gas – to be managed responsibly and act as a “bridge” fuel to decarbonization? How much longer will people erroneously believe that wood for fuel (mostly in the form of wood pellets) is a carbon neutral or negative emissions heat source? Have we learned our lesson of rampant mismanagement and outright fraud in the carbon offset market? Does the current fossil fuel industry media blitz on carbon capture achieve anything more than open up a new tactic for climate action delay? This list of questions about miseducation and misinformation could go on and on. 

Eight and a half years ago when I agreed to be the director of the ESI we used the slogan, “The Time is Now” to focus attention not on 2100 or 2050, but on research and actions that can deliver meaningful results now, or as soon as possible. Ten years later the time is still now, actually more now than ever. 

This is where the ESI has landed, between the need for active optimism in light of enduring and often purposefully exacerbated challenges and the urgency for actions now. Frankly, we have no other pathway than to endeavor to expand our work and engage deeply in solutions across environmental challenges. The planet and life on Earth don’t really care whether we are optimistic or not. Our next chapter has to be as much about results as the first chapter has been. And now with the announcement of The Climate Project, the ESI is positioned as a key asset across research, education and engagement to accelerate the creation and deployment of solutions for best results as soon as possible. 

In the early days of the ESI, we also had another oft-repeated mantra that went something like the following: “Possibly the most important and durable solution we can deliver to the world are a steady stream of well-educated and deeply motivated students.” This, because students leave MIT and continue their journey for decades to come. What they do in the world, hopefully motivated by a sense of accomplishment on environmental topics while at MIT, could be one of the more important game changers we can offer. I believe this more than ever because since ESI’s earliest days students tell me how much they value the initiative. 

So, I leave you with a few words from a former MIT undergraduate from the class of 2020 who has been working in wind energy since she graduated. I had not heard from her for a couple of years. She wrote the following to me just a few days ago: “The initiative had a monumental impact on my time at MIT…and I’m glad it continues to be a resource for students trying to figure out how they could possibly contribute.” 

J.E. Fernández, Director MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative
May 31, 2024
Cambridge, Massachusetts