Thursday, July 23, 2009

Environment and Sustainability Studies at MIT

MIT does not have an undergraduate or a graduate major or minor in environment and sustainability. The 75 members of MIT's Faculty Environmental Network for Sustainability (FENS) are trying to do something about this. You can see our preliminary proposals for an Undergraduate Minor in Environment and Sustainability and a Graduate Certificate of Advanced Interdisciplinary Study in Environment and Sustainability at or In the fall of 2009, these proposals will be thoroughly vetted by groups across the campus. By the spring (2010) we hope to have a curriculum package to put before the MIT faculty for a vote.

I've been on the MIT faculty for forty years, and in all that time I've never seen anything quite like this. A substantial group of faculty members from all fields and disciplines is taking the initiative. I'm not talking about gathering names for petitions to complain about something or taking a stand on a political question. Rather, the FENS involves a large group of faculty from all parts of the campus working together to reshape MIT's teaching efforts in what is now referred to on other campuses as Sustainability Science. Curriculum reform efforts at MIT usually start with one member of the administration or a single department seeking to expand into a new area or offer a new degree. But the Environment and Sustainability proposals advanced by the FENS have been prepared jointly by faculty from all five schools at MIT. They represent a "bottom-up" faculty-led rather than a "top down" administration-inspired initiative (although the MIT administration has been quite supportive).

There are five issues that have made it difficult to reach agreement: (1) Is there really anything to learn about environment and sustainability that isn't already covered effectively by the 25 or so Departments on the MIT campus? (2) Doesn't MIT's new Energy Initiative (MITEI) represent a sufficient commitment to environment and sustainability? (3) How can we teach what needs to be taught when the Institute is facing severe budget constraints? (4) Is MIT currently admitting students who care enough about this field to want to take on even more than their already overwhelming degree program requirements? (5) What's the best way to administer a cross-campus, interdisciplinary degree program (when we don't have any in place at the moment)?

In 2008, undergraduates and graduate students organized Sustainability@MIT ( I'm not sure of the exact number of students in the group (since quite a few graduated in June and incoming undergraduates and graduates have not yet had a chance to sign up), but I'd guess at least 10% of MIT's 4,200 undergraduates and 10% of its 6,200 graduates students are involved. Sustainability@MIT completed several surveys last spring. Based on their results as well as input from faculty teaching "environmental" subjects spread out across the Institute, I think we can answer questions #1 and #4 above. Student interest is strong and classes currently offered are insufficient.

MIT's Energy Initiative worked hard to win support for an undergraduate Energy Minor last year. (They have not yet been able to suggest anything at the graduate level). The Energy Minor is linked to MIT's massive build up of funded energy research on the campus. The Minor will expand course offerings in interesting ways; however, given the way it is structured, it will be quite possible for a student to fulfill the requirements while focusing almost exclusively on new ways of burning fossil fuels. That's not satisfactory from the standpoint of most of the faculty in the FENS. While MIT students are always pre-occupied with technological innovation and new ways of "doing science," there appears to be a growing commitment among students in all areas of study to help find less wasteful and ecologically damaging ways of building and managing cities, new approaches to providing clean water, adequate food, new materials, renewable energy, better information management and strategies for encouraging economic development without undermining nature's services or destroying social capital. So, while there might be some ways in which the Energy Minor will generate new undergraduate courses that an Environment and Sustainability Minor might want to take, the undergraduate minor and the graduate certificate in Environment and Sustainability will focus on a lot more than energy technology.

We've looked closely at current curriculum offerings at MIT. There is a lot we
can build on. But, what's missing are interdisciplinary or interdepartmental pathways that will encourage students to ask questions that no traditional department is likely to emphasize and teach skills and methods that require different ways of framing problems. There are analytical methods (like life-cycle analysis, environmental impact assessment, carbon footprint analysis, and cost-benefit analysis that takes the value of nature's services into account) that most MIT graduates are not learning. The historical and institutional obstacles to sustainable development are not covered in most existing degree programs. There are areas like terrestrial ecology, public health, and environment law and environmental politics that are seriously under-staffed. And, finally, there are areas like conservation biology that are covered expertly by our Woods Hole colleagues, but that most MIT students never know about. We also need to expand the number of "practica" that will allow students to learn about the real-life dynamics of sustainable development by getting involved in client-driven projects in the public sector.

We have put together undergraduate and graduate proposals that assume only four new undergraduate and four new graduate subjects need to be developed. (We would like to see these offered as two-course sequences). That implies two new faculty hires. Everything else can be done by re-clustering and re-organizing existing subjects to make it easy for students to move across departmental boundaries. We hope that faculty teaching many of the existing subjects we have re-grouped into problem-focused sub-specialties will re-orient these classes so that they better serve broader audiences. We also expect MIT to ramp up externally-funded research in the Environment and Sustainability field in the same way its has grown Energy research over the past three years. We need to provide funded research assistantships for graduates and undergraduates. In addition, MIT's recent efforts to "Green the Campus" offer numerous laboratory-like opportunities for students to do research close to home.

In the final analysis, we do not see the need for MIT to devote very much "new" money to launching the undergraduate and graduate teaching programs we will propose in the coming year. We do, however, think that a new administrative arrangement will be necessary. In the end, unfortunately, this may be the most significant stumbling block we will have to overcome. Interdisciplinary, problem-focused teaching will not fit very well within traditional departmental and school boundaries, yet this is the way that MIT has always organized its teaching activities. We will call for the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Environment and Sustainability made up of one senior faculty member and one junior faculty member appointed by each of the five Deans. It would be best if these were faculty who teach in the Environment and Sustainability field. These ten faculty would then select their own chair and deputy chair. This Committee would oversee curriculum development, monitor teaching performance, allocate graduate teaching assistantships for cross-cutting courses, advocate for faculty hiring to fill gaps in the curriculum, and organize a range of campus-wide activities (i.e. speakers, job fairs, career counseling, etc.) in conjunction with Sustainability@MIT. This campus-wide Committee, rather than a single Department or School, would administer the undergraduate minor and the graduate Certificate Program.

There are, of course, numerous other models for how to organize degree programs and interdisciplinary minors in the Environment and Sustainability field. Schools all over the world, including MIT's sister institutions (of science and technology) in Japan and Europe, have already created similar programs. But, each context is different and the institutional drivers are different. So, we are not suggesting that any other university ought to do things in the same way that makes the most sense for MIT, or that MIT ought to copy anyone else. We are keeping an eye on what other schools are doing, but mostly so we know what others are doing. We look forward to sharing ideas and experiences with colleagues around the world. For the next year, though, our goal will be to build a consensus within MIT on how to address growing student and faculty interest in Environment and Sustainability Studies.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Measuring Progress in the Fight Against Climate Change

At a recent Burlington, Vermont meeting hosted by Robert Costanza (the leader of the ecological economics movement) and the Seventh Generation Corporation, we tried to figure out how to measure progress in combatting climate change over the next five years. ( I'm of the school that says "If you can't measure it, you can't fix it." So, five years from now, what do we have to measure and how do we have to measure it to know that we were making progress in the fight against climate change?

50 years vs. 5 years

Next year's global gathering in Copenhagan will be focused on how many parts per million of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) we are pouring into the atmosphere and what we should do about it in the long term. National negotiating delegations will try to set reduction goals for 2050 and 2100 -- fighting about what the developed world ought to do FIRST (because of the mess they have already made) and what the developing world has to do (because of the even larger mess they will make in the years ahead if they copy our unsustainable patterns of development). The Copenhagan Climate Change Conference needs to make sure that we don't permanently raise the earth's temperature by more than 2 degrees F. The key number for them seems to be 350 parts per million -- we need to stabilize emissions at 350 parts per million. Unfortunately, we are already beyond that level and climbing. (See Bill McKibbon's We are not going to see global CO2 levels reduced any time soon. So, how can we measure progress in the fight against climate change over the next five years while the nations of the world fight about what to do over the next 50 years?

The four most important things to measure

My colleague Tom Dietz and I came up with four things to measure in the short term -- over the next five years. The first is reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved through increased energy efficiency. Its pretty well documented that individual households could achieve 20% reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in just five years using off-the-shelf energy efficiency devices and strategies. (We are talking about liquid fuels as well as electricity.) Most households would probably save enough money in something close to five years to get back whatever costs are involved! The agricultural sector, the industrial sector, the government sector, and the commercial sector might not achieve 20% reductions in five years, but they could probably come close. More work needs to be done to set reasonable percentage reduction targets for each sector. No matter what our 50 years targets, increasing energy efficiency in the short term works to our advantage -- both financially and in terms of ecological sustainability.

The second thing to measure is increased reliance on renewable energy supplies.
About half the states already have something called Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that commit them to generating 20% of their electricity by 2020. Let's assume that the other half of the states catch up and pass something similar. Each state can meet this goal by stressing renewables that make the most sense in their part of the country -- solar in the west, terrestrial wind in the plains, biomass in the southeast, off-shore wind in New England. In five year's time, a 5% increase in reliance on all kinds of renewable energy would be reasonable.

The third way to track progress over the next five years in combatting climate change would be to see whether all states, and cities with more than 25,000 people, had put in place disaster preparedness plans and procedures. We saw what happened in the aftermath of Katrina. If climate change has already started, we are likely to see rising sea levels, increased precipitation (in some areas), storms of greater intensity, saltwater intrusion into freshwater marshes and wetlands, increasing numbers of really hot days (in some places), drought (in some places), and the like. We better be ready. An indicator of progress in the short term would be clear evidence that coastal communities, in particular, had put appropriate measures in place to protect their population and to make sure that key ecological services (like the supply of clean drinking water, the cooling provided by shade trees, the replenishment of the soil needed to grow our food, etc.) will be protected. Reductions in vulnerability to probably can't be measured in a single number, but we could determine whether every place that should have a plan for reducing vulnerability to climate change has a credible plan ready to go. That's a reasonable five year goal.

The fourth measure of progress would be enhanced resilience in all these same cities and towns. Think of the worst storm in your extended family's memory. How long did it take your people to recover? Houses had to be rebuilt, although soil erosion made that impossible in some places. Insurance coverage began to disappear. Farms (and crops) took a while to restore. Water supplies were ruined in some places. Infrastructure (including roads, bridges, waterfronts, energy facilities, parks, sewage treatment plans, water pumping operations, etc.) had to be rebuilt. If we know that climate change is going to increase the number and intensity of such storms (What if they were going to occur once every 10 years rather than once every 100 years?), we must do some advance planning to make sure that places that are hard hit can spring back. This might mean building protective seawalls or higher dams. It might mean replacing or relocating certain roads, bridges and pumping stations. It might mean swapping which lands uses are allowed near the water, what building standards have to be met (maybe all structures along the water need to have a freeboard that can be raised to let water move underneath them). Climate change resilient cities will probably have to do version of all of these things. Five years from now, if a city hasn't put a Climate Change Adaptation Plan together, it probably hasn't made sufficient progress. We need a national advisory group to help set appropriate standards for adaptation planning. In the most vulnerable areas (i.e. with the lowest elevations near the water), just having a plan in five years isn't good enough. The top 5% of the vulnerability list should have begun implementing their adaptation plans by then.

Most cities and towns in the United States are still operating as if the 100-year flood should set the standard for how development and ecosystems are managed. These are not climate-change ready communities.

Who should do the measuring?

Measuring climate action progress will require collecting technically-credible information on a regular basis. We collect consensus data for the nation as a whole and make it available on line to everyone every five years (state) or ten years (federal government). So, we could do the same thing to track climate change progress. We know how to measure changing levels of employment, shifting population characteristics, spending patterns, and a whole host of other things while still respecting individual confidentiality. We need to get cracking with a Climate Change Measurement Project led by a team of federal agencies and states. All kinds of interested groups and organizations should be invited to collaborate. We only need to set targets for the first five years. After that, once we've see what has happened, we can produce a better set of targets for the following five years. Each set of five year targets will be set in light of the long-term goals established in Copenhagen, but we can do something now and keep making adjustments along the way (as we learn more).

Getting the word out

It's clear that greenhouse gas emissions are in the process of altering our environment. Those alterations will eventually eat away at our economy (in the same way that a terrible month of rain in June cut deeply into the profitability of tourism in New England). While we need to set long-term CO2 reduction goals, we also need to track progress in every single place along the way. Cities should benchmark their progress in the fight against climate change. So should states and national agencies. This is true in every country, not just the United States. Different places will set more or less ambitious targets; that's fine. But they need to set measurable five year goals that can be used to chart their progress. And they need to use appropriate indicators that reflect the world's long-term efforts. If we don't measure how we're doing in the short term, though, we'll never get started and we'll never get better.