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President Reif speaks at MIT Climate Symposium

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President L. Rafael Reif delivered the below introductory remarks at today’s “Progress in Climate Science” symposium.

Good afternoon!  I am delighted to be here with all of you.

At MIT, persuading people to leave their labs and their classrooms to attend a daytime event is notoriously difficult. Attracting a crowd to fill Kresge Auditorium can feel almost impossible! So, the full house we have this afternoon is deeply significant. It is a sobering mark of the urgency and importance of the subject matter and an inspiring sign of the breadth, depth, and passionate commitment of MIT’s climate action community.

Also: A warm hello to everyone joining us via livestream! It is wonderful and fitting that the knowledge and ideas from this session are being shared around the world.

This is the first in a series of six symposia.  For the tremendous effort it took over many months to create this outstanding series, I want to express my thanks and admiration to the Climate Action Symposia Organizing Committee – and especially to its chair, Professor Paul Joskow. The challenges of dealing with climate change will take all of our collective talents and the best work of countless MIT minds and hands, so I hope we can maintain this terrific level of interest and attendance for all six in the series!

These six symposia will help us take stock of all that the people of MIT have accomplished through MIT’s Climate Action Plan, and they will inform and inspire our plans going forward. In this work, I am grateful to Vice President for Research Maria Zuber for her leadership in creating the plan four years ago, in tracking our progress ever since, and in raising our sights for the future.

I would also like to express my profound admiration for today’s keynote speaker, Professor Susan Solomon. Susan has an incomparable record of producing superb science on subjects from the depletion of the ozone layer to global warming: superb science that formed the springboard for policies that have literally changed the world. We were fortunate in 2012 when she joined our faculty. We are certainly fortunate to have her with us today. And, we could not ask for a more powerful and inspiring voice in our drive to increase fundamental knowledge and to accelerate progress towards a sustainable human society.

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that this is a serious moment in the life of the MIT community. It is a moment for engaging intensely with each other on many urgent questions, including how we should raise funds for the work of the Institute and what principles should guide us. It is a time for serious debate – and for serious listening.

In this era of growing fortunes and shrinking federal funds, it is clear that as a community, we need to consider many questions. We need to understand the changing nature of the donor population. We need to decide how to weigh the political, cultural and economic impacts of donors’ behavior – and much more.

Questions like these are certainly relevant to how we fund MIT’s work on energy and the environment, the work of the people in this room.

As members of MIT’s climate action community, we need to have serious conversations with one another about the best way to move forward. Our capacity for respectful argument has always been a signature strength of MIT. So I hope you will begin those conversations with each other in the days ahead, especially with the people who disagree with you.

Considering those who will speak today, and looking out at all of you, I am conscious that this is a room full of climate experts – and that, as a former electrical engineer, I am not one of them. So I will offer just a few comments based on my observations and conversations here, in Washington, and in philanthropic circles, as I have been striving to build support for the work of climate science and solutions at MIT.

Last June, our MIT Commencement speaker was the prominent philanthropist and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg. On the day of his remarks, he announced a remarkable personal commitment: $500 million to launch a new national climate initiative, which he calls “Beyond Carbon.”

He described an ambitious agenda of political action: taking necessary steps to close coal plants, to block the creation of new gas plants, to support the leadership of state and local politicians, to create incentives like a carbon tax and, in his words, to take the climate challenge “directly to the people.”

As he explained to our MIT audience, in his view (and I quote), “At least for the foreseeable future, winning the battle against climate change will depend less on scientific advancement and more on political activism.” And just ten days ago, former US Vice President and climate action pioneer Al Gore published a piece in the New York Times. He made a similar argument about the need for political action, because, in his words, “We have the technology we need.”

I am a big admirer of both Mayor Bloomberg and Vice President Gore. I am profoundly grateful for their early leadership and relentless activism. I appreciate their faith in the kind of technologies that have already been developed – some of them invented and advanced on this campus. I agree that unless and until society demands a change in policy, priorities, and behaviors, technology alone can’t save us. And I share their view that it is absolutely vital to build popular political support for climate action.

But with the greatest respect, I would like to propose an additional perspective, because I am convinced that we also need to do a great many other important things, at the same time.

  • We need to dramatically improve our ability to predict the localized impacts of climate change and to design solutions that allow coastal cities and other vulnerable areas to adapt to and survive them.
  • We need to make solar cells and wind turbines more efficient and to produce them with less reliance on rare or costly materials.
  • And, we need even better grid-scale storage options to handle intermittency.
  • We need to find ways to expand the nation’s transmission infrastructure to support the efficient deployment of solar and wind.
  • We need to make car batteries and carbon-free hydrogen cheaper and more efficient.
  • We need better mass transit – and not just here in Boston!
  • We need smaller, safer, more modern and less costly nuclear plants to supplement intermittent renewable sources.
  • And, we need to address not only electricity and transportation, but also agriculture, manufacturing, buildings, and much more.

In short, I am convinced that building broad and deep popular support for climate action would be much, much easier, and much more likely to succeed, if we could offer to society much more fine-grained scientific models and much less costly technological solutions. To break the impasse, I believe that, as a society, we must find ways to invest aggressively in advancing climate science and in making climate mitigation and adaptation technologies dramatically less expensive: inexpensive enough to win widespread political support, to be affordable for every society, and to deploy on a planetary scale.

Many climate activists argue that the best path lies in political will. They note, for example, that the cost of renewables has been dropping for years and that once we put a tax on carbon, market incentives will keep pushing prices down and make non-carbon alternatives more attractive. That is clearly true. Less clear, however, is whether the carbon-cost hammer is enough to drive the nail of global societal change. 

In my view, it is crucial to understand that while passing a carbon tax would surely spur the development of cheaper low- and zero-carbon energy, developing cheaper low- and zero-carbon energy sources would make it much easier to pass a carbon tax! So, we need to do both, as fast as we can!

Ordinarily, funding at the necessary scale would come with government leadership. Certainly, when we developed our Climate Action Plan in 2015, we expected to encounter reliable, long-term federal support. 

In the current political environment, I believe the answer, until government leadership becomes available, is private philanthropy – a conclusion that brings us back to the questions for our community that I highlighted at the start. I believe that those of us committed to this cause need to come together to seek out new ways to support the advanced science and technology that will enable political action to succeed on the path to a sustainable future for us all.

I look forward to joining you in this urgent work. Thank you.

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