[00:00:00:08] SPEAKER 1: This is Climate Conversations by ClimateX.
[00:00:03:29] SPEAKER 2: The pledge is a personal commitment for MIT students and alumni to say that they will consider criteria related to climate change and sustainability in their jobs, both when they're making decisions about a new job and also within their existing careers in their companies and institutions where they might be able to actually influence climate policy.
[00:00:26:16] RAJESH: Welcome to Climate Conversations. I'm Rajesh Kasturirangan. And here in the studio, I have--
[00:00:33:13] DAVE: Dave Damm-Luhr.
[00:00:34:14] LAURA: Hi, Laura Howells.
[00:00:35:27] RAJESH: We have, I think, a fire cracker of a podcast today waiting to happen.
[00:00:41:14] LAURA: I'm very excited for today.
[00:00:42:23] RAJESH: Yeah. So Jeremy Poindexter is a graduate student in the PVC, which is to say the photovoltaic cell lab. And he will be talking primarily not about his research, which is fascinating, but about his new venture, which is a career pledge.
[00:01:01:07] DAVE: I'm looking forward to it. Jeremy is somebody I've known for three years now in his work with Fossil Free MIT, the student group.
[00:01:08:00] RAJESH: Fantastic. So let's see what he has to say. Today, we have as our special guest, graduate student, provocateur extraordinaire, Jeremy Poindexter.
[00:01:19:27] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Hello, everyone. Good to be here.
[00:01:21:17] RAJESH: Jeremy, kind of hard to introduce you. You sit in in front of presidents' offices, you do quantum modeling of photovoltaic systems. What else?
[00:01:36:24] JEREMY POINDEXTER: I do anything that relates to climate change these days pretty much. Sustainability has taken over my life. So I work on solar energy in the lab. I work on some on campus sustainability projects here at MIT. And I work on climate activism in Fossil Free MIT.
[00:01:56:15] LAURA: Fantastic. So you've developed this kind of interest in solar and this interest in the more scientific elements of climate change into a slightly more politically active career. And I'd be really interested to know how you got into that and how it's grown and developed for you over time.
[00:02:14:24] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yeah, so I actually looked back at some of my graduate school essays that I wrote when I was applying to programs. And it's funny looking back on those words that I wrote five years ago now, I guess, and I wrote, I think that technology has the power to really change the world and change how people live and improves people's livelihoods, something which I still believe. Otherwise I wouldn't still be passionate about solar energy. But the longer I've been at MIT and independently, just events that have happened on campus and in the nation and around the world in the last five years, have really reinforced to me that it's not just technology that we need to improve. We really need to improve the social and political situation around climate change and around sustainability. And so I made a personal commitment to start doing more in those areas as well.
[00:03:17:03] RAJESH: Was there a specific incident or an event that precipitated your shift? Or was it gradual?
[00:03:26:06] JEREMY POINDEXTER: The way that I got involved in Fossil Free MIT was through the divestment campaign. And it actually happened in a little bit of an unconventional way. At Yale, during my undergraduate days, I was part of a student anti-genocide group. So that was my first foray into social justice issues. And at Yale, before I started, I think in 2006, Yale decided to divest its endowment from companies that were doing business in Sudan, because of the Darfur crisis.
[00:04:03:27] And so when I got to MIT, I learned that the group of students there was working on divesting from fossil fuels. So I was already actually familiar with divestment, which I think is unusual for most people that have gotten involved in fossil fuel divestment these days. And so I saw that, and I thought it was an interesting idea. And I attended a divestment panel, and it was very surprising to me how thoroughly thought through all of the arguments were. And the logic behind divestment was just very compelling to me. And I think the audience at MIT in particular was very precise at defining their theory of change. And that's really what got me onboard. That was sort of the crystallizing--
[00:04:56:10] RAJESH: When was that?
[00:04:57:11] JEREMY POINDEXTER: That was in November of 2013.
[00:04:59:25] LAURA: And how did that grow? I'd love to hear a bit more about what Fossil Free MIT became to you, what the biggest kind of areas of focus that you've spent the last few years doing.
[00:05:10:02] JEREMY POINDEXTER: So around the time when I joined the group and became more involved, Fossil Free was ramping up its divestment campaign. And the idea behind fossil fuel divestment is that MIT and similar universities with these large, billion dollar endowments are invested in stocks. They're invested in many kinds of different things. And that includes the fossil fuel industry itself, so big companies, both state-owned and privately owned, oil and gas primarily companies. And the idea of divestment means de-investment, so withdrawing investments in those companies or selling off investments in those companies and investing elsewhere instead.
[00:05:58:05] And the idea behind that is that, from a moral point of view, MIT shouldn't be proactively supporting the activities that are contributing to climate change. And we know that existing reserves that go into the valuations of oil and gas companies, those reserves-- we have more than two or three times what we can actually burn if we want to stay within the two degrees C limit for global warming, which scientists agree is the, quote, unquote, safe limit, even though there's not really a safe limit. It's about mitigating risk.
[00:06:41:26] And so if MIT is a place that cares about climate change, which I think many agree it is, because of the climate science that we do here, of the energy research that we do here, of the social science that we do here to understand a lot of the psychology behind problems related to climate change and other global change issues, if we care about climate change, then to be morally consistent, we shouldn't be supporting the very thing that's causing climate change in the first place. So that's the idea.
[00:07:15:25] RAJESH: And what was Fossil Free MIT's position? And where did that take you?
[00:07:21:10] JEREMY POINDEXTER: So Fossil Free MIT comprises a group of students and staff and faculty, as well as some alumni, that hold the position that MIT should divest its endowment from the fossil fuel companies. And this is similar to what many of our peer institutions and students there have advocated. Some schools have divested already. Some have not. Some have made decisions after going through a formalized process. Some have not really responded to students' demands directly. Every place is different. And so at MIT, there was a conversation with the executive committee of MIT, which makes the major decisions for the MIT Corporation--
[00:08:12:17] DAVE: And its endowment.
[00:08:13:22] JEREMY POINDEXTER: And its endowment. And so the feedback that we got from the executive committee was that, well, we're just a couple of dozen students who care about this. How do we know that this is something that MIT in general, that the MIT community as a whole supports? So we decided to start a petition and gather as many signatures as we could in support of divestment. Eventually, we gathered 1,000, 2,000, 3,000-- now we have in excess of 3,500-- names on our petition all across the MIT community. So we brought these signatures to President Reif and said, look, we did what you asked for. Here are all of the people at MIT that are in support of divestment. Your move.
[00:09:00:28] RAJESH: And?
[00:09:03:12] JEREMY POINDEXTER: And after that, there was some skepticism on behalf of the administration that the sample size was biased or that only people who were passionate about climate change would sign it, which I can see as somewhat reasonable. And so President Reif wanted to make sure that whatever MIT as a community decided to do about climate change was something that had broad support across the entire institute. And so just for the timeline, this is now in the spring of 2014.
[00:09:39:09] And at that point, President Reif decided next academic year, we are going to hold an institute-wide climate conversation and get feedback from all across the institute about all of the things, including divestment, but including many other things as well, that MIT can do to act on climate change. So that began a year of lectures and listening tours and, on our side, conversations about divestment and why we supported it and why we thought that it was something the administration could do. And there was a committee to help convene all of these events and ultimately write a report at the end of the academic year and give their recommendation to the MIT administration, as happens on many kinds of academic committees at MIT.
[00:10:39:19] DAVE: Now, the committee, as I remember, included the whole spectrum of the MIT community.
[00:10:45:10] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yes.
[00:10:45:19] DAVE: And so faculty, staff, grad students, undergrads, everybody.
[00:10:49:13] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yes. And a member of Fossil Free MIT was also on that committee.
[00:10:55:04] DAVE: Geoffrey Supran, I think
[00:10:56:10] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Geoffrey Supran. That's right. So we did have a voice on that committee. And at the end of the academic year, the committee wrote a report. And in that report, it said that 2/3 of the committee supported divesting MIT's endowment from coal and tar sands extraction and companies whose business model includes coal and tar sands extraction. So we saw that as not the ideal scenario. That's not full fossil fuel divestment, but we thought that that was a good step forward.
[00:11:31:28] So when the climate action plan was released by the MIT administration in the fall of 2015, it notably included a decision not to divest the endowment from any sector of the fossil fuel industry. So this was a grave disappointment to the group. And in addition to not divesting, on the whole, we thought that MIT's climate action plan was generally lacking in ambition. It was a lot of business as usual repackaged. And some of the initiatives that were included in the plan were things that MIT was already doing. There wasn't much that was really added. And so we began a sit in the day after the plan was released in front of President Reif's office. We all dressed up in formal wear to make sure that we were presentable and didn't want to seem--
[00:12:29:04] RAJESH: Did you have to buy a suit?
[00:12:30:13] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Too rowdy. I did have a suit. It was an old suit, I think from college or maybe even high school. But I think the message got across.
[00:12:42:07] LAURA: How many people were there at the sit in?
[00:12:44:01] JEREMY POINDEXTER: I think that first day, there were at least 15 or 20 or so. It definitely made an impression. So that began what ended up being 116 days of sitting in. It started in October, and through the end of December, the end of the fall semester, it ran for 24 hours. There were always at least two people at the sit in.
[00:13:07:04] DAVE: Seven days a week.
[00:13:08:12] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And shortly after the sit in began, we had meetings with MIT's administration to talk about the plan and talk about why we were unhappy with it, and essentially start negotiating what we could do about it and if we could improve it, if we could change any of it. So those negotiations, which I participated in, were long and hard and I learned a lot about how to negotiate. I learned a lot about conflict management. That, I think, will help me later on in my career when I encounter tough situations. So that was definitely a learning experience for me.
[00:13:53:17] RAJESH: What was the negotiation like?
[00:13:56:01] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yeah, so we began the negotiations trying to understand the other side. And so for us, that involved understanding what the MIT administration could and could not say, their reluctance to make decisions that they felt didn't have full buy in within the full MIT community. And I think on their side, they sought to understand our anger and why we decided to sit in and our worries about the future and our hopes for MIT's leadership capability.
[00:14:39:06] So the way that the negotiations progressed as we established those values and we outlined where we had differences and we outlined where we had common ground, and the agreement that we ended up coming to was a result of where we had recognized that we shared common ground and could include some improvements to the plan that satisfied both parties.
[00:15:08:15] DAVE: So how did it turn out? What was the result of all the sitting in and negotiating?
[00:15:12:03] JEREMY POINDEXTER: So in the end, after 116 days of sitting and months and months of negotiations, we ended up coming to agreement about a few things to add to the climate action plan. We didn't convince MIT to divest, but we did convince MIT to do a few things. One, MIT agreed that its carbon emissions reduction goal of the plan, which was and remains 32% carbon emissions reduction by 2030 from a 2014 baseline, we convince the administration that campus carbon neutrality was also important and that they should aspire to campus carbon neutrality, quote, "as soon as possible," unquote.
[00:16:04:07] RAJESH: Why does MIT want to invest in fossil fuel companies? What's their reasoning?
[00:16:10:21] JEREMY POINDEXTER: So I think there are a few reasons why MIT invests in fossil fuel companies. The first is that they tend to get pretty high returns, and they're good investments, because energy companies-- everyone needs energy. Energy companies are huge. And they are natural resources, and therefore, they historically have made a lot of money. They're some of the biggest companies in the world. Secondly, MIT has a relationship with fossil fuel companies through research.
[00:16:47:10] DAVE: Longstanding.
[00:16:48:17] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yeah, there are many labs and departments on campus that get money to do research, both in fossil fuel extraction, but also in other areas. And more recently, that has been controversial, because fossil fuel companies are involved in funding renewable energy projects on campus, most notably through the MIT Energy Initiative. And so a lot of feedback that we've gotten, not only from the MIT administration, but from students and faculty on campus, is that people are afraid of divestment, because they think if we divest in fossil fuel companies, they will turn around and essentially divest from us and stop funding fossil fuel research and renewable energy research on campus.
[00:17:34:15] LAURA: And what would your counter argument be to that suggestion?
[00:17:37:26] JEREMY POINDEXTER: So my counter argument, I think, relates to where we are today and why I'm excited about this climate career pledge. I think that if you step back and consider why fossil fuel companies invest in MIT and put yourself in their shoes, it wouldn't make sense for them to cut off their ties with us just because we're no longer buying stock from them. That's not the nature of our relationship. They don't rely on MIT to hold up their stock price. MIT's just one of millions of investors.
[00:18:15:00] What they really get out of their relationship with MIT is, one, they get access to research projects and new ideas that probably they aren't working on in industry, where research and development funds are limited. So they get exposed to new ideas that could one day become a part of their business, for example. But two, and I think more importantly, they get access to talent. They get access to students and faculty and researchers at MIT who are passionate and working on really interesting problems that one day might go work for them. And that is something that is very immediate and establishing that relationship and that personal connection is very valuable for them. For them, it's an investment.
[00:19:09:16] RAJESH: So do people go work for them?
[00:19:11:29] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yeah, people go work for them all the time. They are some of the biggest--
[00:19:15:05] RAJESH: Give us some numbers.
[00:19:16:23] JEREMY POINDEXTER: I don't have any in front of me, but I know that they have a strong presence at the career fairs. They have these info sessions all around campus through various departments every fall. And they do heavy recruiting at MIT. That is for sure, especially in the chemical engineering department.
[00:19:39:05] DAVE: So I think this is a great opportunity for you to tell our listeners about the MIT career pledge project that you and your colleagues in Fossil Free are starting up.
[00:19:49:03] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yeah, so what the pledge is is a personal commitment for MIT students and alumni to say that they will consider criteria related to climate change and sustainability in their jobs, meaning both when they're making decisions about a new job and also within their existing careers in their companies and institutions, where they might be able to actually influence climate policy.
[00:20:16:27] RAJESH: It's like divesting with your feet, rather than your wallet, right?
[00:20:20:24] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yeah, and so although it's a very different kind of tactic than fossil fuel divestment, which has to go through the administration and the institution at MIT in a formalized way, this idea of a climate career pledge, I think, is similar in spirit, in that it's taking a moral stance on climate change and integrating that into people's own decision making, which many people do already.
[00:20:48:23] But I think few people think of their careers as an opportunity to advocate for climate change and sustainability. And so this pledge is just bringing that idea front and center and empowering people to be able to act on it and hopefully soon, after we get critical mass for people that have signed this pledge, allowing people to connect over their passions and learn from each other and share best practices.
[00:21:15:21] I have dreams of alumni who are, say, working at Google and coming to campus, or getting on the phone with undergraduates, with freshmen who are very early on in their careers and talking about climate change and discussing in what ways is Google working towards climate change mitigation. What kinds of projects and initiatives are there at that company? If you are someone who really cares about climate change, will you be happy working at a place like Google? Will your personal values align with the values of that company? And so this pledge is really just an idea to get people thinking about that and to then empower them to make decisions about that as well.
[00:22:05:13] DAVE: So it sounds like you're saying prospective employees at the various companies have leverage. So there's things that undergrads and grads who are looking for a job can do to encourage these various companies to be greener.
[00:22:18:23] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Exactly. And I think that, at MIT, we often forget that. Because it can be a competitive, at times, place and it's stressful and we're really, really focused on our problem sets and our research, we can forget the bigger picture and forget that people hold MIT on a pedestal. And we have leverage because of that. People want to work with us. And therefore, we can use that as a way of communicating our values and elevating the level of discussion around climate change and sustainability in the business world, which, I think, is a really important step in changing the conversation around climate change and sustainability in this country and around the world.
[00:23:07:21] LAURA: So where are you at in the timeline for the pledge right now? What kind of stage are you at?
[00:23:12:08] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yeah, so the climate career pledge was launched very recently, just a few days ago. You can go to careerpledge.mit.edu and sign up. And we have information describing more of the vision and the goals behind the pledge, as well as the pledge text itself. And so we decided to launch in late September in advance of the fall career fair, which is happening on Friday, the 29th. So if you're local around Cambridge, come find me. I will be outside talking to people at the career fair, explaining to them what the pledge entails, and encouraging them to consider signing it. So we are excited about launching it.
[00:23:55:16] LAURA: Fantastic.
[00:23:57:21] RAJESH: So it's a pledge. What does it mean to take that pledge? Do I stand with my hand to my heart and say something?
[00:24:07:14] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yeah, so the pledge, as it exists right now in the world, is a website, where you can fill out a form and enter some personal information and have your name on a website that's publicly available to say, I stand up for advocating for climate change and sustainability in my career. And part of the idea behind that is another motivation behind the pledge.
[00:24:34:08] In addition to empowering people, we also want to make a public statement about, look how many people in the MIT community care about climate change and sustainability in their careers. This is important to them. And I should also mention that this idea was also partially inspired by similar pledges that have happened in the past, both at MIT and at other schools. The graduation pledge was not about climate change specifically, but more about being environmentally conscious in your future career. And that was a pledge that everyone took at graduation.
[00:25:13:22] LAURA: And are you hoping that if the pledge is successful and you get a number of students to sign up that it'll have an effect on the relationship between fossil fuel companies and MIT kind of vicariously via the students?
[00:25:26:28] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Yes. Exactly. That's the last of sort of the three goals that we hope to accomplish with the pledge, the first being empowering individuals, the second one being vocalizing public support. Lastly, communicating directly to companies that, if they want MIT talent, they should really step up their game in terms of sustainability policy and climate policy. And that's a direct line of communication that we can have with them.
[00:25:54:19] And I think that also might affect the general relationship that those companies have with MIT. It might affect research funding. It might affect how they work with people at MIT on climate policy. And I can't predict how individual companies will respond honestly. It will be interesting to see what happens. Some might respond very positively. Others might respond negatively. And I think that if they don't, it will reveal their true colors, and I think that's something that people should know as well.
[00:26:26:13] LAURA: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:26:27:23] RAJESH: So we always end with a hokey question, which we call the magic wand. So if you had a magic wand and you could wave it and you could solve some problem that you want solved, maybe get everybody in the world to sign the career pledge, what would that be?
[00:26:48:04] JEREMY POINDEXTER: My gut reaction is I would just remove all of the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sort of fix climate change. But then I realize that wouldn't actually fix climate change, because it doesn't change any of the systemic dynamics around how our economy and our society runs. So instead, I think what I would do is I would change human psychology to make diffuse and long time horizon problems feel as serious and feel as urgent as short term personal problems. Because humans are really good at reacting to short term personal problems. And so if we could make problems like climate change feel as urgent as those, I think we'd be on a totally different trajectory in terms of working towards a solution.
[00:27:38:26] LAURA: Good answer. So we just have to fix the human psyche and we're sorted.
[00:27:42:20] RAJESH: I have a bionic implant for you if you are interested.
[00:27:47:28] LAURA: Good magic wand answer definitely.
[00:27:50:03] RAJESH: Well, thank you so much, Jeremy. Lots of food for thought. And I think I can honestly say for all of us here in this studio and the rest of the ClimateX community that we wish you all the best for roaring success for the climate pledge.
[00:28:07:24] LAURA: Absolutely.
[00:28:09:00] JEREMY POINDEXTER: Thanks so much. I'm excited, too.
[00:28:10:11] DAVE: Yeah, we look forward to supporting you in the coming year. Thanks, Jeremy.
[00:28:16:11] RAJESH: Boy, that was fascinating.
[00:28:18:18] LAURA: I can imagine he learned so much. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during those negotiations and the sit ins.
[00:28:24:28] DAVE: Also, it really seemed to go in a very productive direction. Even though the institute decided not to divest its portfolio from fossil fuel stocks, the student group really has taken the result of all of that in a very productive direction.
[00:28:39:14] LAURA: Yeah, it's great to see their reaction from that.
[00:28:41:21] RAJESH: And I bet that if lots of students actually stop working for fossil fuel companies, they're going to start noticing.
[00:28:49:13] LAURA: Yep, absolutely.
[00:28:51:19] RAJESH: With that wonderful thought, let's say goodbye for this week.
[00:28:56:03] LAURA: Thank you very much everybody. If you get an opportunity to write and subscribe on iTunes, we would very much appreciate it. You can reach out to us at climatex.mit.edu, or you could send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. So thanks very much
[00:29:10:08] RAJESH: Thank you.
[00:29:10:26] DAVE: Thanks. Bye-bye.