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MIT panel backs divestment from coal, tar sand firms

In a sweeping new report, a climate change committee at MIT has thrown its support behind targeted divestment from coal and tar sand companies and called for the creation of a new institute dedicated to global warming.

The 52-page report, released this week, described climate change as “society’s grandest challenge of the present day, possibly of all time,” and urged broad action in confronting it.

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“The time has come for MIT to play a prominent, visible part in the action and solutions needed to confront the climate challenge,” the report stated.

Final recommendations will be presented to Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Rafael Reif this summer. Reif is expected to unveil a climate change plan this fall.

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Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, said in an email to the campus community that the report delivered “an exceptionally constructive and illuminating process for exploring the most effective strategies for climate action.”

Students and faculty have called on the Cambridge university to divest its $12.4 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies, joining a growing movement on US campuses. The report, which culminates a yearlong discussion on climate change, rejected the idea of blanket divestment from all fossil fuel companies, raising concern that it would likely hinder the university’s relationships with such companies.

The committee also warned against “lumping together firms that differ dramatically in their roles in the climate issue.”

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But the panel supported divestment from companies whose operations are “heavily focused” on exploration and extraction of fuels such as coal and tar sands that are “among the most carbon-intensive and environmentally hazardous fossil fuels.”

Tar sands, also known as oil sands, can be mined to extract bitumen, a thick substance that can be refined into oil.

The panel concluded that shedding their investments would not likely have a sizeable impact on endowment returns.

Jeremy Poindexter, a graduate student and member of Fossil Free MIT, said that while he would have liked to see the panel call for broader divestment, he was pleased by the show of support.

“It’s very promising it’s been endorsed in this report,” he said. “This is an opportunity for MIT to step into the spotlight and take a leadership role.”

Earlier this month, a large group of MIT faculty members signed a letter to Reif in support of divestment, saying the move would represent “one of the clearest and most powerful ways to demonstrate our seriousness about tackling catastrophic climate change.”

“Many fossil fuel companies have a proven record, past and present, of actively working to obscure the scientific consensus around climate change,” the faculty wrote. “By continuing to invest in these companies, we knowingly endorse efforts to undermine MIT’s commitment to scientific analysis and practical action for the betterment of humankind.”

The divestment movement has gained momentum on campuses in recent years. Last year, Stanford University announced it would divest from coal companies, and Georgetown University recently followed suit.

Other schools, such as Syracuse University and Hampshire College, have pledged to divest their entire portfolios.

This spring, students at Tufts University held a 55-hour sit-in to protest fossil fuel investment, and students at Harvard blocked administrative buildings. At Yale, police arrested 19 students in a campus protest against fossil fuel investment.

But most colleges have rejected the idea of divestment, saying it is unlikely to bring about change and could carry a substantial cost.

“Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies,” Harvard President Drew Faust wrote in 2013. “And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry.”

Fossil Free MIT urged administrators to adopt the recommendations, which include putting a price tag on its carbon use and creating an ethics advisory council to assess investments.

“We reject the notion that ethics should play no role in investment,” the report stated.

Geoffrey Supran, a graduate student on the committee who backed the recommendations, said the proposals could establish MIT as a leader in combating climate change.

“I hope it will be a watershed moment,” he said. “It really builds on a year of unprecedented momentum.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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