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Private Higher Education
February 29, 2024

In 2023 AVDF approved a grant to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to encourage open, civil dialogue on campus. As part of the grant, MIT will make curricular and co-curricular additions to one of its first-year learning communities known as Concourse. Roughly 50 freshmen are part of the Concourse community where students learn together through a seminar as well as courses in math, science, and the humanities.

In addition to the Concourse program modifications, MIT is hosting a speaker series to bring together outside experts with differing views to discuss controversial topics. After each event, MIT holds a forum for students and community members to discuss the views expressed by the presenters.

The speaker series kicked off with a conversation focused on how to address challenges related to climate change.

“Climate Change: Existential Threat or Bump in the Road” featured Steve Koonin, theoretical physicist and former U.S. undersecretary for science during the Obama administration, and Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at MIT. A crowd of roughly 130 students, staff, and faculty gathered in an MIT lecture hall for the discussion on Tuesday, Oct. 24.

“The bump is strongly favored,” Koonin said when the talk began, referring to his contention that climate change is a “bump in the road” rather than an existential threat. After proposing a future in which we could potentially expect continued growth in America’s gross domestic product despite transportation and infrastructure challenges related to climate change, he concluded that investments in nuclear energy and capacity increases related to storing wind- and solar-generated energy could help mitigate climate-related phenomena.

Emanuel, while mostly agreeing with Koonin’s assessment of climate challenges and potential solutions, cautioned against underselling the threat of human-aided climate change.

“Humanity’s adaptation to climate stability hasn’t prepared us to effectively manage massive increases in temperature and associated effects,” he argued. “We’re poorly adapted to less-frequent events like those we’re observing now.” Decarbonization, Emanuel noted, can help mitigate global conflicts related to fossil fuel usage. “Carbonization kills between 8 and 9 million people annually,” he said.

Both Koonin and Emanuel recommended a slow and steady approach to mitigation efforts, reminding attendees that, for example, developing nations cannot afford to take a developed world approach to climate change. “These people have immediate needs to meet,” Koonin reminded the audience, “which can include fossil fuel use.”

Both Koonin and Emanuel recommended a series of steps to assist with both climate change mitigation and effective messaging:

  • Sustain and improve climate science — continue to investigate and report findings.
  • Improve climate communications for non-experts — tell an easy-to-understand and cohesive story.
  • Focus on reliability and affordability before mitigation — don’t undertake massive efforts that may disrupt existing energy transmission infrastructure.
  • Adopt a “graceful” approach to decarbonization — consider impacts as broadly as possible.
  • Don’t constrain energy supply in the developing world.
  • Increase focus on developing and delivering alternative responses  — consider the potential ability to scale power generation, and delivery methods like nuclear energy.

Mitigating climate risk requires political will, careful consideration, and an improved technical approach to energy policy, both concluded. “We have to learn to deal rationally with climate risk in a polarized society,” Koonin offered.

The audience asked both speakers questions about impacts on nonhuman species (“We don’t know but we should,” both shared); nuclear fusion (“There isn’t enough tritium to effectively scale the widespread development of fusion-based energy; perhaps in 30 to 40 years,” Koonin suggested); and the planetary boundaries framework (“There’s good science underway in this space and I’m curious to see where it’s headed,” said Emanuel.)

“The event was a great success,” reported Alex Byrne, one of the grant leaders. “The audience was engaged, and there was a good mix of faculty and students.”

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