ESI and the MIT Climate Action Plan

by Aaron Krol

When the Environmental Solutions Initiative was founded seven years ago, MIT defined a mandate to tackle “environmental challenges of global import,” with all the scientific, engineering and imaginative capacities of the MIT community to draw on. Even then, it was clear that climate change would be the greatest—though not the only—focus of our attention.

Now, MIT has announced its ambitious and far-reaching Climate Action Plan for the Decade, which charts a clear course for a whole-of-MIT effort, worthy of our resources and abilities, to ensure that generations to come will continue to enjoy a habitable Earth.

At ESI, we have been party to many of the discussions, public forums and calls for ideas that led to this moment, and the coordination and commitment we have seen across the MIT community, as much as our own contributions to the plan, give us immense hope for its success. We have also done much work, over the past seven years, to jumpstart many of the plan’s key elements and aspirations. As such, the time is right for us to take stock of what we have accomplished on this greatest of all environmental and social challenges, and describe how we have positioned ourselves to do more.

Below, we look at three of the core pillars of the new Climate Action Plan that call on ESI to play a leading role as MIT moves ahead together on the profound challenge of climate change.

“Spark, Foster, and Speed Adoption of Important Innovations”

In 2014, one of ESI’s first activities was to issue seed grants for the kind of early-stage, multidisciplinary and novel environmental research in which funding was not readily available but which held the potential for profound impact. Many of the early seed grants were directed toward climate science and solutions—from better understanding and managing the carbon storage function of crucial ecosystems like peatlands, to using AI to improve climate models that give early warnings on the regional impacts of climate change, to replacing carbon-intensive cement with new materials based on industrial byproducts.

As we raise the funds for future stages of research, solutions like these will continue to hold a central place at ESI. Two years ago, we established our Natural Climate Solutions Program with an anchor project in the Colombian Amazon. This work, combining technology with deep community engagement to safely and permanently protect a vital carbon-storing ecosystem, is based on the premise that natural climate solutions will not be permanent unless they are a source of socio-economic uplift for the people living in and around strategic ecosystems, particularly indigenous and afro-descendant communities.

ESI research affiliates speak with some of our community partners on the ground in Mocoa, Colombia.

ESI research affiliates speak with some of our community partners on the ground in Mocoa, Colombia.

As the Climate Action Plan rightly emphasizes both issues of environmental justice, and the need for climate innovations that can rapidly scale, our Natural Climate Solutions work—joined with related efforts at the Parsons Lab and others—provides an essential complement to excellent work elsewhere at MIT on energy, mobility, and food systems. The Natural Climate Solutions Program has enormous room to grow, prove the impact of its community-first approach, and extend to other sites around the world.

The Climate Action Plan’s welcome pledge to add up to 100 climate and sustainability graduate and postdoctoral fellows will also significantly expand the cohort of researchers who are focused on the environment and climate change. ESI is the proud administrator of MIT’s standout graduate fellowship in this area, the Martin Society of Fellows for Sustainability, and we look forward to connecting this program to a growing community of climate researchers. There are now over 400 alumni of the Martin Fellows program, and we are strengthening the connections within this remarkable community of alumni, so the Martin Society can continue to make its mission felt across academia, industry, civil society, and all the many places its fellows now strive to build a more sustainable world.

“Educate Future Generations of Leaders, Problem Solvers, and Citizens”

Every school and department at MIT has within it outstanding faculty and teaching staff who are finding new ways to instill among their students both a clear-eyed understanding of the climate challenge, and the appetite to solve it.

It has been ESI’s unique privilege to work with all these schools and departments. As the administrator of the Environment & Sustainability Minor, we have advised students in every school, supported the creation of new climate-focused classes and provided new resources and materials for existing subjects, and worked with students to assess the climate connections in their summer internships and work opportunities so they can bring principles of sustainable practice and design to their future careers.

Kelly Wu and other MITASC members at the Net Impact Conference 2019

In addition to supporting climate-related coursework at MIT, we have connected students to career-building opportunities focused on sustainability, like the Net Impact Conference.

We do this not only to help train a new generation of climate leaders—though that would be reason enough. We also do it because students have been among our best resources in carrying out climate research and engagement work. The Climate Action Plan’s pledge to “make a climate or clean-energy research opportunity or experiential learning opportunity available to every undergraduate who wants one” reflects this confidence in our students’ ability to make meaningful contributions on climate change and sustainability. Together with our partners across MIT, we look forward to creating many more undergraduate positions in the years to come.

ESI has also taken on the unique task of introducing environmental themes to foundational STEM courses across MIT, so that a climate-informed perspective is not restricted only to those students who seek out environmental coursework. We are thrilled to contribute this perspective to the Climate Action Plan, and will continue and deepen our collaborations across the Institute to build climate content into these foundational classes. This curricular effort will form a solid bedrock for a whole-of-MIT initiative on climate education.

“Inform the Work of Governments and Leverage Their Power to Accelerate Progress”

“Public officials and policy makers are essential to driving progress on climate change,” the new Climate Action Plan states. “MIT will take every feasible opportunity—at the city, state, federal, and international levels—to share evidence-based knowledge of climate science, as well as technology- and policy-based solutions, with those officials whose decisions can facilitate or impede the world’s transition to a decarbonized economy.”

This is core to ESI’s understanding of our own mission, and we have acted on it.

Our Rapid Response Group of student investigators has provided relevant, timely scientific and policy briefs to government officials from U.S. Congressional staff to City Council members here in Cambridge. Our Plastics & the Environment Program has brought together policymakers, including federal regulators and a bipartisan pair of U.S. Senators, to discuss sustainability and effective policy solutions with corporate representatives and environmental advocacy groups. And through our Here & Real Program, we have collaborated with state leadership, community groups, and citizens in coal-producing regions of the U.S. to understand what climate action and the energy transition mean to them, and how to move ahead in a low-carbon future.

The last of these programs, concentrating on issues of public will and social and economic justice as localities around the world confront decisions about a changing climate, runs at the heart of the MIT Climate Action Plan. Our Here & Real engagements have been fruitful, but also opened more questions: can this work be extended at scale to more communities? How do we build trust with those we can’t reach directly? Will decision-makers carry on this engagement all the way to a zero-carbon economy, and will we have helped them acquire the tools to create economic opportunity when they do?

U.S. Senator Ed Markey

U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA; center) headlines one of our People, Prosperity & the Planet events.

As MIT commits itself to working broadly and deeply with policymakers, we will keep asking these questions and experimenting with new answers. We are doing so already: knowing that local journalism remains one of America’s most trusted sources of information, we recently launched ESI Journalism Fellowships that will support deep, extended climate coverage in local outlets around the country. We are also welcoming new expertise and perspectives to ESI to broaden our capacity to work with policymakers around the globe—most recently, by hosting Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s former Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development, as an MIT MLK Fellow.

Finally, the Climate Action Plan affirms our efforts to “continue to tell the science-based climate story to the world.” We have worked hard to produce outstanding resources for the public to find factual, approachable, usable information about all aspects of climate change, through the MIT Climate Primer, MIT Climate Portal, and TILclimate podcast. These award-winning resources together form a first-class beginner’s guide to climate science and solutions. Our task now is to see them used in more places and by more people—beginning with the educators who do so much to shape the state of local knowledge in communities around the world.

“The work before us is to help humanity gain the tools and concepts to solve the existential problem of global warming, and the will and capacity to use them,” wrote MIT’s President Reif and his colleagues in their introduction to the new plan. This is the right task for MIT in this decade, and as we and our many extraordinary partners in the Institute commit ourselves to it, we can and will forge new paths toward a prosperous, equitable, zero-carbon future.


Read the entire MIT Climate Action Plan for the Decade.