MIT on Climate = Science + Action

Days after news broke that NASA and NOAA declared 2015 the hottest year on record – a second record-breaking year in a row – leading MIT researchers gathered for “MIT on Climate = Science + Action,” a daylong symposium sponsored by the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and the Lorenz Center.

An audience of over 300 alumni, students, and faculty packed the Kirsch Auditorium to hear a video greeting from Vice President of Research Maria Zuber talking about the importance of basic science in understanding and informing our response to climate change. Speakers went on to explain what we know and what’s left to learn about climate, detailing the diverse climate-related research happening across MIT – with the morning spotlight focused on the fundamental climate science (from exoplanets to the deep ocean and everything in between) underway in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. 

“Effectively addressing climate change is a defining challenge of our time,” said Raffaele Ferrari, the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Oceanography in EAPS and organizer of the event. “We are losing sight of the nature of climate science and our fledgling understanding of the climate system. We must put more resources into theory and observations. It is crucial that we continue basic climate research if we want a positive outcome for humanity and the environment.”

Throughout the day, current and former MIT faculty members gave short “TED-style” talks outlining the state of present knowledge about climate systems, from the atmospheres of distant planets (Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science and Physics), through links between climate and the evolution of life including major extinction events (Lindy Elkins-Tanton Ph.D. ’02 (XII), now Director and Foundation Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University) and swings between hothouse eras and “snowball Earth” epochs (David McGee, Kerr-Mcgee Career Development Assistant Professor) to the role of clouds (Dan Cziczo, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry), our understanding of the role of oceans (John Marshall, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography), and land (Elfatih Eltahir, Sc.D. ’93 (I, XII, XII M), Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering), risks associated with climate change such as storms, droughts, and sea-level rise (Kerry Emanuel ’76 (XII), Ph.D. ’78 (XIX), Professor EAPS), and finally how we can summarize and communicate that uncertainty (Ron Prinn Sc.D. ’71 (V), Professor EAPS). 

The afternoon talks focused on action that could and should be taken to combat climate change. They described low carbon energy technologies (Dennis Whyte, Professor and Head, Nuclear Science and Engineering Director, Plasma Science and Fusion Center), the economic and health benefits of pursuing energy alternatives (Valerie Karplus, Class of 1943 Career Development Professor and Assistant Professor of Global Economics and Management), design of cities (John Fernandez ’85 (IV), Professor and Director of the Building Technology Program in the Department of Architecture and Director of the Urban Metabolism Group), linking science with climate policy and decision making (Noelle Selin, Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Associate Professor), negotiating agreements on mitigation measures (Larry Susskind, Professor and Head of Environmental Planning and Policy Group) and harnessing “collective intelligence” through the Internet to find, evaluate, and disseminate solutions (Tom Malone, Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management, Professor of Information Technology, and Director, MIT Center for Collective Intelligence).

Keynote speakers included former EAPS professor and now Editor-in-Chief of Science Marcia McNutt, and Justin Gillis, The New York Times environmental science writer, who set the stage for the final panel with a provocative talk accompanied by stark images of melting sea ice and storm impacts. 

A final panel discussion focused on the potential for MIT to take a leadership role on the issue of climate change, from advancing basic climate research and developing technological solutions to educating the next generation of scientists and engineers and raising climate literacy among the general public. 

Chancellor Eric Grimson, in closing, remarked on MIT’s unique interdisciplinary approach to global challenges such as climate change. Grimson noted that the symposium had succeeded in illustrating the complexity of climate science and highlighting the importance of MIT’s assuming a leadership role on the world stage in meeting the challenges posed by climate change and understanding, reducing, and mitigating its rippling impacts.

You can watch the whole symposium here: