ESI launches Climate Justice Program

by Briana Meier, ESI Postdoctoral Associate

On December 14th, 2022, the Environmental Solutions Initiative launched the MIT-ESI Climate Justice Program at an afternoon workshop with MIT faculty and staff. Led by myself and ESI Director John Fernandez, workshop participants explored how to develop an Institute-wide, cross-disciplinary, engaged research and teaching agenda focused explicitly on urgent topics related to climate justice. The workshop served as a first opportunity to articulate the program’s core commitments, brainstorm priority pilot projects, identify funding needs and pathways for funding, and lay the groundwork for near and long-term collaborations.

ESI’s Climate Justice Program is grounded in a commitment to partner with communities most impacted by climate change and the transition to a decarbonized society. The program will include perspectives from a wide range of stakeholders and rights holders including various Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and historically marginalized communities.

Jay Julius W’tot Lhem, former Lummi tribal chairman and president of Se’Si’Le, joins the workshop virtually.

Three Indigenous climate justice leaders kicked off our first workshop by offering their insights and expertise in support of this emerging program. Donna Chavis, Lumbee community leader and Climate & Energy Justice Program Manager with Friends of the Earth U.S., spoke about the importance of tribal self-determination. Donna also shared her experiences in the successful effort to prevent construction of a natural gas pipeline in her region. Duke University Professor and Lumbee tribal member Dr. Ryan Emanuel emphasized the importance of co-creation of knowledge and solutions between academia and impacted communities. Jay Julius W’tot Lhem, former Lummi tribal chairman and president of the Indigenous-led nonprofit organization Se’Si’Le, shared the importance of Indigenous philosophies of interrelatedness and spoke of the struggle to manage the interconnected threats of natural and cultural extinction facing Pacific salmon and tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest. Se’Si’Le Executive Director Dr. Kurt Russo also shared insights on the importance of cultural specificity and respect in any work on climate justice.

Faculty and staff from a wide variety of MIT departments, labs and centers participated in the workshop launching the Climate Justice Program.

This first workshop focused on identifying the greatest needs for advancing climate justice, understanding how the most impacted communities are working toward climate justice, and the specific contribution that MIT can make to this vast field. The workshop identified relevant work already underway at MIT and opportunities for collaboration among faculty and staff on climate justice related topics. We explored community-led and community-engaged models for climate justice research and teaching. We also began to articulate year one priorities and pathways for funding and building further collaborative research and teaching agendas. Faculty and staff from the Departments of Urban Studies and Planning, Anthropology, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Nuclear Science and Engineering; the Program on Science, Technology, and Society; the Sloan Sustainability Initiative; the Office of the Vice President for Research; MIT OpenCourseWare; the MIT Climate & Sustainability Consortium; the MIT Office of Sustainability; and postdocs, students, and staff from ESI contributed to the discussion.

We welcome further faculty and staff involvement as we continue to shape this new program. Members of the MIT community are invited to attend a second workshop on Thursday, January 19th. This workshop is supported by an MIT Climate Nucleus IAP award. If you would like to participate, please register for the workshop by January 12th. If you would like to be involved, but you are unable to attend the workshop, please contact me, Briana Meier, at