Skip to content
MIT Better World

By Deborah Halber

The Roosevelt Project at MIT envisions a decarbonized world that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

Initiated and led by former US Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems emeritus, the initiative engages local and national decision-makers in conversations on what a socially just post-carbon economy might look like. This is “not only the right thing to do, but essential to minimize political headwinds to make progress on the climate process,” Moniz says.

“Our mission is to understand how the country could decarbonize while boosting economic opportunities for at-risk communities. If laws and bills are written correctly, these communities can grow while still decarbonizing,” says Christopher R. Knittel, the George P. Shultz Professor of Energy Economics and professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a Roosevelt Project researcher.

Named for three iconic Roosevelts—Teddy, for his stewardship of the natural world; Franklin, for the infrastructure-focused New Deal; and Eleanor, for her passion for social justice—the project, a three-phase initiative of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, encompasses more than 30 MIT and Harvard economists, engineers, sociologists, urban planners, political scientists, and graduate students. The MIT research is supported by the Emerson Collective, which has longstanding interest in both social equity and climate.

Knittel’s team looks at household carbon footprints, which depend on location, house size, energy usage, transportation habits, and waste production and can be the equivalent of 48 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

The average carbon footprint, Knittel found, is significantly higher in middle America than on the coasts. The disparity surprised him and underscored “the fact that decarbonization, if we don’t do it right, can be very bad for the middle of the United States.

“We face real challenges, and addressing those challenges will require all of the relevant voices to be heard,” he says.

The Roosevelt Project’s first phase explored the effects of transitioning the economy toward deep decarbonization across socioeconomic groups, geographies, and economic sectors. With the input of local stakeholders, Phase 2 produced case studies of the effects of declining oil and natural gas production in Appalachia and the Gulf Coast, the effects of vehicle electrification on the Midwest’s automotive and industrial centers, and the economic welfare challenges faced by underrepresented minorities in New Mexico.

Phase 3 provides a roadmap for policymakers to decarbonize industries in a “just, equitable, and clean way,” Knittel says. For example, how to mine critical minerals such as lithium and cobalt without destroying habitats, how to funnel renewable energy transmission lines into populated areas without overrunning neighborhoods experiencing economic hardship, and how best to retrofit coal-burning steel plants with hydrogen.

The pie-in-the-sky goal of Phase 3, he says, “is to convince policymakers to support these industries in a way that is cognizant of the potential local environmental impacts. We need to understand—not just across socioeconomic groups, race, and ethnicity, but also geographically—how we could grow those communities as opposed to shrinking the opportunities those communities have,” Knittel says.

The good news is that research points to the fact that this is doable. “Our modeling shows that you can decarbonize those regions in a way that can potentially grow the local economy in an environmentally sustainable way,” he continues.

Since the project’s inception, Moniz has held discussions with lawmakers, Congressional staffers, and members of the Biden-Harris administration. He’s found stakeholders receptive to seeing the MIT and Harvard research on approaches that have worked—or not worked—in Canada and elsewhere.

Moniz has found that a lot of what the Roosevelt Project is trying to do is being reflected in legislation. For example, tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 are tied to boosting so-called “energy communities,” vulnerable regions that, Moniz says, “have every reason to be concerned about their position in the transition” to clean energy.

The IRA also promotes the concept of hubs and clusters for strategic carbon dioxide transport and storage infrastructure. Given the large regional variations inherent in energy transitions—Detroit isn’t facing the same problems as Baton Rouge—such place-based initiatives couple well with the Roosevelt Project approach, he notes.

Knittel says, “We provide the data to the stakeholders. And the stakeholders decide whether or not the benefits of doing these activities outweigh the cost.”

He has reason for optimism: “If you provide objective data,” he says, “policymakers do potentially change their opinions.

Give now: Support the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research