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MIT Better World

By Kris Willcox

Greene County is a case-study site for Here and Real, a project launched in October 2018 by MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). The project engages with hydrocarbon-producing regions in the United States to connect local perspectives, values, and priorities with climate-change science and solutions, and works with government and academic leaders in Wyoming to foster conversations about how to lower carbon emissions while maintaining a strong local economy. In addition, Here and Real is collaborating with local newsrooms though the recently launched ESI Journalism Fellowship, which supports and trains journalists in connecting what is happening on the ground locally with the broader reach of climate-change science and solutions.

“The name ‘Here and Real’ highlights the fact that climate change is here, and it is very real for people in the United States and the world,” says John Fernández ’85, director of ESI and a professor in MIT’s Department of Architecture. Through Here and Real, MIT can contribute to “the paramount challenge of making low-carbon solutions a priority in states and communities across the country.”

ESI Program Director Laur Hesse Fisher explains that Here and Real is built on collaborations between MIT and organizations like CCJ, which works on a variety of issues related to the fossil-fuel industry and impacts to Greene County residents. CCJ Executive Director Veronica Coptis says that in her community, conversations around coal, climate, and the economy are often defined by sharply opposing viewpoints; MIT provides an important third-party perspective to facilitate conversation.

ESI’s role is to listen to local needs and fill in knowledge gaps so the community can address those needs, Hesse Fisher says.

“We’re not coming in to tell people what to do or what they should prioritize. We’re trying to present them with the information in an accessible way, so that they can make the best choices for themselves and their future,” she says. This nonpartisan spirit is embedded in the project’s mission to “listen thoughtfully to real and perceived roadblocks to taking local action on climate change; respect communities’ deep-seated values; and pursue shared, science-based goals across political lines.”

Needs-driven research

In the fairground game, for example, players are asked to find ways to support their community as fossil-fuel deposits dry up and dependent businesses fail. Using a chicken-wire version of Kerplunk, the players build supports with dowels representing different government services, employers, and other key factors. Then they simulate the impacts of events such as a mine closure or drop in tax revenue by removing dowels. Balls falling through the supports represent losses for the community of jobs, health care, and public schools.

The game, developed by MIT researchers and Emerson College students and adapted by CCJ, is just one example of research integrated into CCJ’s work. MIT research and analysis has also supported CCJ’s door-to-door community engagement and conversations with county decision makers, for example, by supplying data illustrating the drastic impact of shrinking coal tax revenues on county services for the entire community, including schoolchildren, residents experiencing economic hardship, and elderly residents. “We thought these changes were happening, but we didn’t have hard data,” Coptis says. “Working with ESI let us speak about these issues with confidence.”

Needs-driven research is equally appealing to MIT researchers, says Hesse Fisher: “One of the senior research scientists in the Wyoming project told me, ‘If the work that I’m doing can be used by a governor’s office in solving some of these challenges, that’s incredibly motivating for me.’” The same is true for students. “MIT students want to have real-world impact in areas such as climate equity and social justice.  These are real, multifaceted situations we’re embedding students into, which makes it a very strong educational experience,” Hesse Fisher says.

A just future

Caroline White-Nockleby, a student in MIT’s doctoral program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society, spent time in Greene Country on a CCJ research internship. Her work, which builds on that of other student researchers, is summarized in a white paper coauthored with Mimi Wahid ’21, Caroline Boone ’21, and Benjamin Delhees ’21. The paper describes the severe impact of lost tax revenue due to coal company closures and the failure of the recent shale-gas boom to replace those resources.

Such clear information can be a basis for action, White-Nockleby says. “ESI is an important node for bringing together all of the research that’s going on at MIT,” from engineering technology to economics and anthropology, and applying it. Like Fernández and Hesse Fisher, she believes a clean-energy future must also be a just future. “Communities that have provided energy for this country for such a long time, and are now dealing with economic and environmental aftereffects, can’t be left behind.”

Just as Here and Real works through grassroots connections, Fernández says it is also shaped by global goals. “At the ESI, we have adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a framework that guides our work and as a reminder that environmental challenges must be considered within a trajectory of development. In other words, it is not enough to focus on goals like mitigating greenhouse gas emissions; you also have to understand the implications for providing greater access to electricity, food, water, health care, and education to the world’s least developed regions.”

“Here and Real connects MIT’s work in climate science and solutions with the local priorities of states, communities, and residents,” says Fernández, starting in Pennsylvania and Wyoming. “In the coming months and years, we hope to engage with many more communities on a diverse set of actions around climate impacts, solutions, and the transition to a net-zero future.”