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Wide Angle

Community Building

Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Early this year, the New Vassar Street Residence, the first undergraduate living community built at MIT since Simmons Hall in 2002, opened its doors to campus after three years of construction. But the community that would populate the space started taking shape well before New Vassar’s opening. Drawing on a longstanding MIT tradition of consulting many stakeholders in the residence hall development process, a Founders’ Group of students, faculty, and staff was formed in October 2019 to provide input on the final elements of the building’s furnishings and finishes, establish a governance system, and define the community’s values. The group built upon years of student input solicited throughout the planning process.

“We’ve long said that residence halls are ‘the other classroom’ at MIT, where students can learn from each other and develop intellectually, personally, physically, and spiritually,” says Suzy M. Nelson, MIT’s vice president and dean for student life. “We’re thrilled to see how the students of New Vassar are living those values.”

Founders’ Group member Ololade Abdulai ’23 says the group embraced the idea of “something for everyone.” The new residence’s design features a yoga studio, grocery store, music practice spaces, and workout rooms. It also has one of the largest and most visible makerspaces of any MIT residence and an outdoor maker yard where students can test their projects.

Supporting healthy eating was an important goal, says Emily Larson ’21, also in the Founders’ Group. Unique among MIT’s student residences, New Vassar’s dining hall houses an array of cook-for-yourself stations stocked with blenders, pans, and coolers full of ingredients. Outside of the dining hall, there’s also a full country kitchen so “students can have fun cooking together—once the pandemic has subsided,” she says. “The amenities allow students to feel more connected within the New Vassar community and help to solidify the relationship between New Vassar and the broader MIT community,” Larson says.

The residence hall also has a distinctive open-plan design, which Abdulai hopes will eventually increase opportunities for serendipitous meetings and cross-disciplinary interactions, both academic and extracurricular. “Our goal was to create spaces where people share ideas and interests and see what comes from that dynamic,” he says. “I’m really interested in seeing how the community evolves.”

Researchers are using the lab-friendly grass Brachypodium—a good analog for classic cereal grains—to understand how intermittent drought affects plants at a molecular level. Image: Wikimedia Commons


Fortifying Crops for Climate Change

J-WAFS project aims to help food grains weather drought

Researchers are using the lab-friendly grass Brachypodium—a good analog for classic cereal grains—to understand how intermittent drought affects plants at a molecular level. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Almost 700 million people worldwide struggled to get the food they needed in 2019, according to a recent United Nations report. And certain aspects of climate change, such as variable weather patterns and increased levels of carbon dioxide, are likely to create more difficult conditions for crops, making the food security crisis even worse.

“Frankly, the danger has been understated. It’s a really, really big issue that people aren’t talking about enough and certainly aren’t acting on enough,” says David Des Marais, the Walter Henry Gale Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “To address this, we’re going to have to think bigger about the future of farming.”

That’s exactly what Des Marais is doing in a collaborative project supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS). J-WAFS was founded in 2014 to catalyze MIT research that addresses global food and water systems challenges brought about by climate change, rising populations, and urbanization.

Building genetic resilience

Des Marais and his co-investigator, Caroline Uhler, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as well as in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society, are studying how plants respond to the environment on a molecular level and exploring how tweaking cellular pathways could help plants adapt to unpredictable circumstances. “We are developing a more nuanced understanding of how plants perceive and respond to environmental cues,” says Des Marais.

Right now, crops in even moderate drought conditions will drop their leaves and abort their seeds, thereby destroying any chance of recovery for that season, even if much-needed rain materializes. Some of the major crop seed manufacturers have produced cereal grains that thrive on much less water than their traditional counterparts with the expectation that climate change will create all-around drier growing regions. But in many locations, weather will likely be much more variable than that. Crops will need to be engineered to be able to handle a short-term drought, but also be able to thrive in wet conditions when the rain returns. Engineering this type of variable drought resilience has been tricky.

“The real challenge is teaching a plant how, genetically, to understand, ‘you got water today, so grow great, but tomorrow there’s going to be a little less, and don’t freak out, just hang in there, because chances are, there’s more rain coming,’” says Des Marais.

In their pilot J-WAFS project, Des Marais and Uhler focused on addressing unpredictable rainfall, one of the many issues associated with climate change. Des Marais used the lab-friendly grass Brachypodium—a good analog for classic cereal grains—to understand how intermittent drought affects plants at a molecular level.

In all living things, the functions of genes can be turned on or off or rendered more or less active based on environmental influences. These changes are controlled by gene expression pathways. If something is altered at the top of the pathway, it can cause a domino effect that modifies how genes down the line perform. These changes can be seen in how much of a given protein is made before, during, and after the external stressors. As a proxy for the number of proteins, researchers measure RNA transcripts—or the blueprints for different proteins—which can be sequenced in single cells in a high-throughput manner.

Des Marais’s lab grew the plants in increasingly drought-like conditions and sequenced their RNA at various time points. He then sent the sequences to Uhler, who used her machine-learning expertise to build a novel algorithm that modeled the molecular action of the plants. This algorithm was able to pinpoint where Brachypodium changed its cellular pathways when exposed to drought conditions. It could also identify how these pathways affected the plant’s response to environmental stress and predict ways in which genetic modifications might create more drought-resilient plants.

This analysis revealed that when Brachypodium received less water than was ideal, the plants altered how they metabolized carbohydrates. In follow-up studies, the researchers plan to explore the specifics of this—for example, what does a plant do when it needs extra sugar? Does it pull from reserves, or does it steal from another process such as respiration? They will model possible genetic tweaks using the algorithm and then will apply the most promising adjustments to the plants using gene editing.

Further details of the work will be reported in an upcoming paper.

A biotech toolkit

Adjusting the genetic pathways of plants is no longer a prohibitive undertaking, thanks to the advent of CRISPR and other such genetic engineering techniques. Des Marais hopes that, once perfected, Uhler’s algorithms can be used to inform improvements in crops grown by smallholder farmers around the world.

“We want to provide a toolkit that allows us to say, ‘OK, grow crops in the field and measure these things.’ Then we provide the statistical pipeline, and this algorithm will help researchers to develop hypotheses about what they need to do in biotech” to create more resilient crops, says Des Marais.

This project, marrying molecular biology and machine learning to help the world’s food supply adapt to climate change, is illustrative of the types of boundary-pushing endeavors J-WAFS was created to support.

“J-WAFS lets us take those ideas that are good, but maybe not quite ready to sell to the US Department of Agriculture and try them out in a pretty low-stress setting,” says Des Marais.

“Now that we have some proof of concept, we can push this further,” says Uhler. “That’s the really exciting thing about a J-WAFS grant. We couldn’t have done this work otherwise.”

From the President

A Grand Global Challenge

Long before MIT issued its 2015 climate action plan, students, staff, and faculty across the Institute have focused on crucial aspects of mitigating the climate crisis by advancing science, innovation policy, and education. Given the scope of the climate emergency, however, it is clear that we need to do more—much more.

In that spirit, in July 2020, we initiated the ambitious research effort called the Climate Grand Challenges, and in January 2021, as a natural complement, we launched the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), an Institute-wide strategy with the potential to make all of MIT’s climate efforts more effective.  Just as the Climate Grand Challenges are accelerating research on climate science and solutions, MCSC aims to vastly accelerate the adoption of such solutions, at scale, and spanning industries around the world.

The consortium’s member companies represent a range of industries, from construction to mining, transportation to textiles, real estate to pharmaceuticals. By convening major corporations that are striving to reach their own net-zero goals and by inspiring them to collaborate across sectors, we hope to test and deploy serious climate solutions on a global scale in time to make a real difference.

This issue of Spectrum highlights the remarkable range of MIT’s climate expertise, which resides in all five schools and the college of computing. MIT researchers are leading the way in climate modeling, alternative energy, low-carbon materials, and energy storage. They are making climate a central concern in architecture and building technology, transportation, and food safety. They are out in the field, around the world, studying the carbon cycle in coastal environments and working to reduce air pollutants in megacities. They are bringing economic, political, and cultural research to bear on climate change by addressing its societal dimensions. Researchers are even exploring the best ways to motivate people to take action.

An MIT project in collaboration with the City of Cambridge brings home the stark reality of the climate threat. It focuses on mapping and modeling the MIT campus to prepare us for climate resiliency in the face of potential threats like flooding or extreme heat. It is sobering to confront these not as remote possibilities but as eventual developments that require practical plans.

As a campus, a community, a nation, and a planet, we are all vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change. At MIT, we are meeting that challenge in the best can-do tradition, fearlessly pursuing facts with ingenuity and boldness.



L. Rafael Reif

Janelle Knox-Hayes. Photo: Sarah Bastille


The Human Scale of Climate Change

Janelle Knox-Hayes explores link between values, sustainable practices

Janelle Knox-Hayes. Photo: Sarah Bastille

Janelle Knox-Hayes isn’t sure carbon-emissions trading and financial markets are the best solutions to the climate crisis, even though she’s written a book about them. “We’re putting a price on greenhouse gases and pretending the market can solve our problems,” says Knox-Hayes, associate professor of economic geography and planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). “We assign value to negative externalities, but we ignore the value of positive externalities like clean water, soil conservation, and clean air.”

Further, she notes, “We pretty much ignore the opinions of the people who are most affected by our decisions.”

At DUSP, Knox-Hayes leads the Resilient Communities Lab, which focuses on shaping the environmental, social, and economic impacts on coastal communities, mapping social values of communities in transition, and planning and designing resilient solutions.

Much of her work centers on finding ways to ensure that local experience and community values are taken into consideration when leaders draft environmental policy. For example, to better understand the interplay between values, development, and sustainability, she has developed a methodology for “geocoding values.” This involves surveying residents about their views, charting how their values vary geographically, and correlating results with the built and natural environments.

She and colleagues recently used this methodology to assess the role of values in shaping sustainable development in Iceland; their case study was published in December. Knox-Hayes hopes the methodology, which centralizes the importance of place and context in developing solutions to environmental problems, can one day help policy makers everywhere find ways to incorporate local knowledge and needs into their global planning.

“Now, we’d like to collaborate with other communities across the Arctic,” she says, “to see which values are universal to the region, which are specific to particular cultures, and how the values relate to specific landscape features.”

Environmentalism meets global finance

Born and raised in Cortez, Colorado, Knox-Hayes studied ecology, international relations, and Japanese as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 2005, after a stint working as an energy analyst at the US Government Accountability Office, she enrolled in an Oxford University graduate program at Green College (later Green Templeton) on a Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. “I actually thought the name Green meant environmental studies,” she says today, laughing because the college is actually named for a benefactor. “Which I thought was perfect, as I was planning to study environmental policy, something very close to my heart.”

Knox-Hayes wanted to study and work with populations living on the front lines of climate change. But her plans and vision expanded dramatically during her five years at Oxford, where her interest in environmental studies morphed into a study of markets. She read stinging critiques of contemporary capitalism by Erik Swyngedouw, now a professor of geography at University of Manchester, UK. She also explored the opposite side of the political spectrum by studying economic geography with Professor Gordon Clark, who became her PhD advisor at Oxford.

“He was interested in how investors behave regarding long-term sustainable investments,” Knox-Hayes recalls. “I wanted to come up with a thesis topic that would bridge that interest with my interest in environmental activism. That’s how I decided to study carbon markets.”

After completing her doctorate, Knox-Hayes continued to explore the intersection between environmental conservation and global finance as a faculty member at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she taught environmental sustainability, environmental finance, and political economy. Her research eventually took form in The Cultures of Markets: The Political Economy of Climate Governance (Oxford University Press, 2016).

In this book, Knox-Hayes examines six emissions markets spread across Europe, Asia, and the United States and explores how national and cultural differences affect those markets. For example, she observes that markets and environmental policy faltered in the United States during the 2008 financial crisis, leading to an emissions market shift to East Asia.

The work is sound scholarship, but once Knox-Hayes shared an early chapter with an environmentalist colleague, she realized that something important was missing. “She asked me where all the intrinsic values were,” she says. “Where are the data on why people care about the environment, or the social values in crafting environmental policy? What do these policies mean to communities on the front lines who are directly impacted by climate change?”

Refocusing on people

Those questions steered her back to her undergraduate ambition: to study and work with the people most affected by changes in the global environment. She traveled to Iceland on a Fulbright Scholarship and met with Indigenous communities in the Arctic Circle whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by global warming and rising seas. “These people have an incredible connection to the land, and to the ice, along with knowledge that has allowed them to thrive there for thousands of years,” says Knox-Hayes. “Now, with rising global temperatures, that ice is melting. Emerging and established powers around the world are eyeing potential sea routes there. It’s like a new frontier.”

The contrast between developed world policy and Indigenous environmental values came into stark contrast for Knox-Hayes at an international policy meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, in 2014. During the first two days of presentations, she says, representatives from industrialized countries professed great respect for Indigenous rights and values. But that respect was never reflected in their agendas.

“On the third day, a representative from one of the Indigenous councils got up and said, ‘The Arctic is our territory, and these issues are ours to manage,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘You people from south of here. You should just leave us alone and solve problems in your own backyards.’”

These words stayed with Knox-Hayes as she joined the faculty at DUSP in 2016 hoping to work more directly on sustainable development and planning. In addition to listening to Arctic communities, she also traveled with some of her students in 2019 to Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles—an island in the Mississippi River that is disappearing as a result of erosion that’s been exacerbated by local petroleum- extraction operations. They have been working with the Indigenous inhabitants, the Isle de Jean Charles band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, to study relocation efforts. Knox-Hayes and her team are also collaborating with members of other First Nations, including the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, in a project seeking to combine traditional ecological knowledge with conventional science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics disciplines for better coastal assessment and management.

“I still have an interest in economic theory,” she says. “But what I’m doing now is a lot closer to what I always wanted to do. Connecting to specific places and populations. Bringing Indigenous knowledge and sovereignty into the global discussion. It’s what coming to teach at a school of planning has allowed me to do.”

Greene County, Pennsylvania, is a case-study site for the Environmental Solutions Initiative program Here and Real. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Low-Carbon, Locally

ESI program Here and Real connects MIT climate research to communities

Greene County, Pennsylvania, is a case-study site for the Environmental Solutions Initiative program Here and Real. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A county fair in Greene County, Pennsylvania, the heart of Appalachian coal country, isn’t where one might expect to find education on adapting to climate change; yet, in the summer of 2020, the nonprofit Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), in partnership with MIT, presented an interactive game to share important ideas about coal, adaptation, and the local economy.

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.”


Hot Market

Climate- and sustainability-focused companies with MIT connections have their sights set on global impact

Technology: Preconstruction intelligence for architects and manufacturers
People: Founded by Dries Carmeliet, graduate student in the MIT Department of Architecture

Buildings are responsible for almost 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, including emissions generated by building operations and those produced by the creation of construction materials. Acelab, cofounded by architect and MIT graduate student Dries Carmeliet, recipient of the MIT NuVu Prize in 2020, is helping to tackle this through an information marketplace that connects architects and manufacturers.

According to Carmeliet, architects have increasingly become aware of their responsibility in choosing building materials that both perform well and are sustainably created. However, they must often rely on outdated sources of information such as trade shows, brochures, and word-of-mouth to learn about new materials; there is a surprising lack of digital resources, he notes.

Acelab’s online marketplace uses an advanced algorithm to enable architects to explore an extensive product database; it also provides access to third-party testing results to find more sustainable options for their construction projects. “Our mission is to make construction workflows easy and efficient, from design to execution,” says Carmeliet. “We are excited by the potential for architects to have complete ownership over their materials sourcing while contributing to a more sustainable industry.”

Acelab, which is currently building out its operations, was a 2020 finalist in MIT’s $100K Accelerate competition, which helps early-stage teams develop their ideas with the support of industry experts and experienced entrepreneurs, and was a winner of the Harvard Real Estate Venture Competition. The company received funding from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program and is a member of the MITdesignX 2020 cohort, a venture incubator in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.

Cambridge Electronics, Inc.
Technology: Gallium nitride technology for more efficient 5G mobile devices, data centers, and electric cars
People: Founded by Bin Lu SM ’07, PhD ’13 and Tomás Palacios, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

photograph of a glass-lined corridor in an office

The poor energy efficiency of silicon (Si) semiconductor chips is the most critical barrier to the wide adoption of 5G broadband services. These Si chips not only quickly deplete the life of phone batteries but also output such weak microwave signals that users have to be very close to a 5G cell tower to be able to connect to the 5G network. The performance of the Si power management chips also limits power delivery to data center microprocessors, not only by constraining performance per server but also by wasting about 15% of the electricity. Even electric cars have their range limited by the inefficiencies of today’s Si electronics. Cambridge Electronics is working to overcome these constraints by developing a new generation of semiconductor devices and chips based on a revolutionary gallium nitride (GaN) technology. Using a novel three-dimensional structure, Cambridge Electronics’ GaN chips promise significant performance improvements in both 5G radios and the power electronics in data centers and electric cars.

“Our goal is to accelerate the deployment of 5G millimeter-wave broadband and to make data centers and electric cars much more efficient,” Palacios says. “The products currently being developed by Cambridge Electronics will make the promises of 5G communications a reality while enabling more sustainable and affordable cloud computing and mobility.”

Cambridge Electronics plans to release the first generation of its 5G products in 2022. It was recently awarded the Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential program by the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy to mass produce its chips. “Our plan is to leverage large-scale Si chip manufacturing and take advantage of Moore’s law to produce the most advanced GaN chips,” Lu says. “It’s a game-changing step that redefines GaN electronics and is critical to realizing our mission.”

Commonwealth Fusion Systems
Technology: The world’s first net-energy-producing fusion machine
People: Dan Brunner PhD ’13, chief technology officer; Brandon Sorbom PhD ’17, chief science officer; Robert Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15, CEO

Safe, limitless, and commercially available carbon-free energy is the mission of Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), which is collaborating with MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) to build SPARC, the world’s first fusion device that produces plasmas that generate more energy than they consume.

The SPARC project was conceived by researchers including Brunner, Mumgaard, and Sorbom as well as Zach Hartwig PhD ’14, assistant professor in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering; Dennis Whyte, PSFC director and the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering; and Martin Greenwald ’72, senior research scientist and deputy director of PSFC. It involves a broad MIT team spanning disciplines ranging from engineering to physics and from architecture to economics. SPARC is being designed using well-established plasma physics as well as cutting-edge tools that include advanced simulations, data analysis, and science from existing machines. The key technology for SPARC is new, high-temperature superconducting magnets that enable tokamaks (devices used to contain plasmas) to be built much smaller and at lower cost than ever before. CFS has received support in its mission from MIT’s venture firm The Engine.

“As a mission-driven company, CFS is working to get clean fusion energy on the grid as fast as possible to combat climate change. SPARC is an important and historic milestone in our mission as it will demonstrate for the first time in history that fusion can work as a power source,” says Sorbom. “Our next big milestone is happening this spring when we will demonstrate our key magnet technology. If these magnets work, we know SPARC and our approach to commercial fusion will work.”

The company recently announced plans for a 47-acre research and manufacturing campus in Devens, Massachusetts.

Infinite Cooling
Technology: System that captures and recycles vaporized water from thermoelectric power plants
People: Founded by Maher Damak SM ’15, PhD ’18; Karim Khalil SM ’14, PhD ’18; and Kripa Varanasi SM ’02, PhD ’04, professor of mechanical engineering

Worldwide, roughly three trillion gallons of fresh water are consumed every year to serve the needs of power plants. A typical 600 megawatt combined cycle plant consumes about 1 billion gallons a year—which is about as much water as 100,000 people consume in a year. Much of that power plant water is used for cooling and ends up as vapor. The MIT spinoff Infinite Cooling has developed a patented system that uses electric fields to recover water from the evaporative losses of cooling towers so the H20 can be reused by the power plants, yielding cost savings and potentially a whole new source of drinking water.

Created by Damak, Khalil, and Varanasi with initial support from the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, Infinite Cooling’s technology was successfully piloted at the Central Utility Plant—with funding from the MIT Office of Sustainability—and the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory on MIT’s campus. The startup has won several awards during its short life, including the grand prize at the 2018 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, the diamond prize at the 2018 MassChallenge Awards, and the US Department of Energy’s 2017 National Cleantech University Prize Competition.

“I am excited about the tremendous interest we generated among potential customers in power, chemicals, data centers, and other fields,” says Damak. “A lot of people are interested in water-conservation options, and we are happy to offer a solution to realize massive savings while creating a positive impact on the environment.”

Varanasi adds, “A broader vision is to apply this for desalination. Hence we can turn power plants into water plants, too.”

Infinite Cooling is now based in the cleantech incubator Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts. Multiple additional deployments of its technology are planned around the country in 2021.

Sublime Systems
Technology: An alternate path to lime making that enables next-generation, low-carbon cements
People: Founded by Leah Ellis, Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, and Yet-Ming Chiang ’80, ScD ’85, the Kyocera Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE)

photo of cement being poured

Cement is the most massively consumed human-made material and the single biggest industrial emitter of CO2: each kilogram of cement made produces 1 kilogram of CO2, and overall, cement production is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions. Seventy-five percent of these emissions derive from calcination, thermally decomposing limestone to get reactive lime. Sublime Systems hopes to replace current processes—which rely on high heat produced by burning coal—with an electrochemical process.

The Sublime Systems process, which centers on the use of an electrolyzer, employs renewable electricity to produce the same cement product as traditional methods while eliminating and capturing CO2 from existing cement operations.

Sublime Systems spun out of DMSE in March 2020 and was cofounded by Ellis and Chiang. The company, which is a member of Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts, recently achieved semi-continuous kilogram-per-hour scale and is currently building its team and identifying its first industrial partners.

“Everyone who comes to MIT dreams of developing a new technology that changes the world for the better,” says Ellis. “I am living that dream, which is as exciting as it is scary. I am grateful for the entrepreneurial spirit at MIT that taught me how to think big and brave.”

Technology: Green roofs for urban areas
People: Founded by Eytan Levi MArch ’21, MSRED ’21, Tim Cousin MArch ’23, and Olivier Faber MArch ’23, graduate students in the MIT Department of Architecture and at the MIT Center for Real Estate.

The concentration of buildings, roads, and other human-made structures traps heat in urban areas, creating a heat island effect with consequences for both the environment and human health. Roofscapes works to combat the climate impacts of heat islands by transforming rooftops into urban oases, providing new outdoor spaces in cities while supporting urban farming and biodiversity.

Whereas planting systems have already sprung up on many flat city roofs, Roofscapes plans to greatly expand the space available for such “green roofs” by deploying lightweight wooden structures on pitched roofs. In the company’s first target city, Paris, two-thirds of buildings have a pitched roof, representing more than 2,000 hectares of untapped surfaces. In addition, such urban farming promises to reduce the transportation and packaging needed for foods grown elsewhere, as well as enabling access to new places in cities.

MIT architecture students Levi, Cousin, and Faber launched Roofscapes in 2020 at MITdesignX, a venture incubator focused on the built environment. The company received a 2020 Judge’s Choice Award for “visualizing solutions” from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab at MIT and is a finalist for the 2021 Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize.

In the fall of 2020, Roofscapes was selected by the City of Paris’s Urban Lab to deploy and monitor a pilot project in Paris during 2021 and 2022. Roofscapes was also picked to build a pavilion at the 2021 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism to display its broader vision for urban resilience at the roof level.

“Issues of urban resilience constantly surround us. Roofscapes is a thrilling opportunity for us to unveil the potential of untapped pitched rooftops in climate-change mitigation, while working with brilliant people at MIT and in Europe,” Levi says.

Spoiler Alert
Technology: Enterprise software platform that helps food and consumer goods brands manage excess and distressed inventory in the grocery supply chain
People: Founded by Ricky Ashenfelter MBA ’15 and Emily Malina MBA ’15

Every year, approximately 133 billion pounds of food goes to waste in the United States, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. This not only contributes to food insecurity but also to methane emissions from landfills.

Spoiler Alert, cofounded by Ashenfelter and Malina, is working to address this problem with a business-to-business software platform. Using data about distressed inventory from disparate sources within food manufacturing and grocery distribution operations, Spoiler Alert helps companies digitize their liquidation and donation processes with a national network of discount retailers and nonprofits. Backed by leading food, technology, and supply chain investors, notably Maersk, the company has attracted customers including Campbell Soup Company, Danone North America, and Kraft Heinz.

“Covid-19 has introduced tremendous volatility into the global food supply chain,” Malina says. “It’s more important than ever to focus on resiliency and getting more affordable nutrition to those hit hardest by the pandemic.”

Technology: Hybrid cooling device that absorbs humidity from the air for more efficient refrigeration
People: Founded by Mircea Dincă, the W. M. Keck Professor of Energy, and Sorin Grama SM ’07

Air conditioning will account for as much as a 0.5-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of the century, according to the World Economic Forum. As air conditioners become more ubiquitous—especially in hot and humid countries, many with emerging economies— global electricity demand for air conditioning is expected to triple by 2050.

Transaera, founded by Dincă and Grama, D-Lab instructor and former entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, developed a cooling solution to tackle this challenge. The system, attached to a traditional air conditioner, uses a novel, highly porous, sponge-like material discovered at MIT that removes water from the air more efficiently than any other known material. The heat generated by the air conditioner’s compressor then dries the “sponge” for the next cycle, providing cooling and dehumidification while using dramatically less energy than today’s room air conditioners.

“I’m excited about the potential impact of this technology,” says Grama. “Global warming is the defining challenge of our times. As our world gets hotter, cooling will become an essential need, not just for comfort but also for health and survival in many parts of the world.”

In 2019, Transaera, which is a member of Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts, was named one of eight finalists in the $1 million Global Cooling Prize, a competition to design a room air conditioner that produces five times less greenhouse gas over the course of its lifetime than a standard unit.

Via Separations
Technology:  A new membrane material to make manufacturing more energy efficient
People: Founded by Shreya Dave ’09, SM ’12, PhD ’16; Brent Keller PhD ’16; and Jeffrey Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and head of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium

According to the US Department of Energy, the separation processes used to recover and purify products account for more than 40% of energy demand in the chemical process industries. That’s because many industries use thermal methods of separation. “It’s like boiling off water to get to pasta rather than straining it off,” says Dave. Together with Keller and Grossman, Dave launched Via Separations in 2017 to provide an energy-efficient alternative: a graphene oxide membrane that filters solutions mechanically. “We make that strainer for a lot of applications,” Dave says.

Via Separations has set a goal to eliminate 100 megatons of CO2 emissions by 2050 with its products. “That’s what gets us excited,” says Dave, who credits MIT with helping the company get off the ground. Via Separations received one of its first investments from MIT’s venture firm The Engine and has received advice and support from the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, and the MIT Technology Licensing Office. The company began a pilot this spring at a US paper factory and plans to have a full commercial system in place by early 2022.

Zilper Trenchless
Technology: Trenchless boring technology that reduces the cost of installing, rehabilitating, and replacing underground pipeline infrastructure
People: Founded by Daniel Zillante MBA ’19 and Roberto Zillante

To address the growing need for water pipelines across the globe and the problem of chronically underfunded infrastructure, Zilper Trenchless, born at MIT and based in Bogotá, Colombia, created a technology to install underground utilities without the need for a trench. Zilper’s system minimizes surface disruption and enables city and state governments to execute more water projects, save costs, and minimize environmental impact.

The brainchild of Daniel and Roberto Zillante, brothers who grew up in Venezuela in a family of construction workers, Zilper won the Audience Choice award at the 2018 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, first place at the School of Architecture and Planning’s MITdesignX Demo Day in 2019, and first place at the Urban Water Challenge during 2019 World Water Week in Stockholm. The company was also awarded Best New Trenchless Equipment and Best Trenchless Innovator at the 2019 ICTIS Trenchless International Conference organized by the Colombian Institute for Subterranean Infrastructure Technologies and Techniques in Bogotá, Colombia.

More recently, Zilper piloted its technology in projects across Latin America and celebrated a milestone: over half a kilometer of pipelines installed. The company plans to raise funds to launch its commercial operations in the United States by late 2021.

“What excites me the most is the value that we are creating for all of our stakeholders,” says Daniel Zillante. “Employees, governments, citizens, investors, suppliers, and the environment are all benefiting from the innovations we bring to market. That’s enough to keep us going no matter what challenges we might face.”

Roberto Rigobon PhD ’97 heads the Aggregate Confusion Project. Photo: Courtesy of MIT Sloan


A Business Lens for Sustainability

Aggregate Confusion Project targets better ways to judge corporate behavior

Roberto Rigobon PhD ’97 heads the Aggregate Confusion Project. Photo: Courtesy of MIT Sloan

How hard is it to make ethical financial decisions? Roberto Rigobon PhD ’97, the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management at MIT, offers an example. Say you want to support animal rights. Should you buy vegan clothes? They’re often made of plastic, which may end up in a landfill or the ocean. So, he asks: “How many seals do you want to kill to save one sheep?”

Rigobon’s work bluntly tackles exactly these kinds of thorny ethical questions. Societally, we measure importance poorly, he explains, making decisions as if the world were made of single issues. Rigobon describes himself as obsessed with measuring options more effectively and incentivizing different behaviors earlier. Such work is essential for addressing a time-sensitive crisis like global warming, he says, and it is at the heart of the Aggregate Confusion Project.

Launched in September 2020, led by the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, and headed by Rigobon, the Aggregate Confusion Project aims to help investors practice responsible investing more effectively by working with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data. Aggregated by various rating agencies, ESG data are intended to help investors put money toward more ethical companies. However, project research has shown that ESG ratings diverge broadly, varying not only in what categories of data they consider (such as carbon emissions or labor practices) but also in the weight they give different kinds of data. In one recent study, the researchers found 64 measurable attributes varied among ESG rating providers.

“If you’re a company and you have 64 different categories in which you might improve, which are the ones you prioritize? The ones that are easier, not necessarily the ones that are impactful,” Rigobon explains.

Seeking reliable measurement

Even with agencies working hard to obtain accurate, real-time data, there’s a lot of noise, and agencies try to set their data apart from competitors. The Aggregate Confusion Project intends to present information in a standardized way so that it’s easier to understand and utilize.

Jason Jay PhD ’10, senior lecturer and director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, says, “There’s exponential growth in assets under management that are trying to incorporate ESG considerations, particularly climate-change risks and opportunities. This trend is like a skyscraper we’re building as fast as possible, and it’s a good vision—capital markets internalizing social and environmental risks and incentivizing good behavior. But this edifice stands on a shaky foundation, filled with cracks and holes, which is the quality of measurement.

“The Aggregate Confusion Project is working to fix some of those cracks and holes by creating more reliable measurement, not just in climate change but in a suite of essential issues that include women’s empowerment, racial justice, corruption, labor standards, and human trafficking.”

While demand for responsible investing options has grown, there’s debate about what strategies actually drive climate-friendly results. Should investors divest from carbon-intensive companies, prioritize carbon-efficient companies, or use shareholder power to force companies to change?

Rigobon believes the latter option will produce the fastest results. “We need to get our hands dirty,”  he says. “We want to measure the consequences of companies’ actions and say, ‘Here is evidence of your damage. Let’s fix it.’ And the financial system will be able to say, ‘Actions A, B, and C are unacceptable.’” According to Rigobon, changing the behaviors of just three to five of the nation’s biggest polluters would make a huge difference.

That’s why it’s so important to establish clear criteria for judging corporate behavior, Rigobon says. Already, the Aggregate Confusion Project has a working paper titled “Aggregate Confusion: The Divergence of ESG Ratings”; two more papers are on the way to assess the portfolio consequences of divergent ratings and to provide recommendations to regulators.

“Keep in mind that ESG rating is still a young field, and the definition of sustainability is by nature a fluid one,” says Aggregate Confusion Project postdoctoral research fellow Florian Berg. “What’s important today might not be important tomorrow.”

The team has also developed a web-based game, ESG Machine, that measures how participants allocate resources and make trade-offs. For example, a player might be given $100 and asked to choose between supporting women’s empowerment, environmental protection, or social justice charities. Nearly 1,000 people have participated so far, providing data that will help researchers learn how societal values change over time.

Real-world impact

Although still relatively new, the Aggregate Confusion Project is already working with a consortium of financial leaders that will help it set standards and push for increased transparency and consistency. A founding member is Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management, which manages the $75 billion Pension Reserves Investment Trust Fund that’s made up of several public retirement systems in the state.

The project is currently seeking further corporate member participation, and Rigobon encourages interested parties to sign up for the Sustainability Initiative newsletter. He’s also working to educate students on additional subjects related to corporate responsibility, such as human trafficking. “The only way to solve these problems is to create an army of able individuals who are willing to tackle important questions. It’s a thankless job, but that spells MIT—multidisciplinary, important, and thankless.”

Elizabeth Pedlow ’20. Photo: Sarah Bastille

Inside the MIT Campaign for a Better World

The Power to Connect

New fellowship helps MechE grad student advance robotics

Elizabeth Pedlow ’20. Photo: Sarah Bastille

Elizabeth Pedlow ’20 vividly remembers the day she learned a new electronics shop had just opened in her hometown of Golden, Colorado. The store carried microcontrollers and do-it-yourself computing kits for “all these cool projects,” says Pedlow. Time in the shop fired her imagination, she explains, and confirmed her decision to pursue the best engineering education she could find.

Pedlow was thrilled to be accepted at MIT, where she majored in mechanical engineering with a concentration in control instrumentation and robotics. Today, she is a graduate student in the Marine Robotics Group at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), which is led by John J. Leonard, the Samuel C. Collins Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering.

At CSAIL, Pedlow explores technology that enables robots in a group to work together to locate each other and explore the environment without the use of preset beacons or other infrastructure. This capability, called collaborative localization, is useful when GPS won’t work: to map a cave, for example, or to navigate when a natural disaster has destroyed infrastructure. “If there’s a collapsed building where you can’t trust the structure and it’s unsafe for people to go in, you can send in robots to explore,” she says.

Pedlow is just beginning research for her master’s, but she says some intriguing topics for that work are already beginning to take shape. She is considering working to improve the algorithms that measure distances between multiple robots in different locations that are moving at varying speeds; her goal would be to reduce error and improve the accuracy of those measurements.

She says the best part of being at MIT is the community that shares her passion for solving hard problems like this and covering new ground. “Everyone at MIT has something that makes them light up when they talk about it. Even with the shyest person, if you find the right topic, they will be so excited to tell you all about it. I think it’s that kind of passion that really drives this place.”

Staying grounded

The unfolding Covid-19 pandemic has changed many facets of daily life at MIT, yet Pedlow has found ways to stay grounded and positive. Having grown up climbing, biking, and hiking, Pedlow finds time outdoors refreshing. She takes weekly Sunday walks from Cambridge over the Charles River to Boston, where she attends Park Street Church, and she says she enjoys the time for reflection. “I find a lot of peace and hope in my faith,” Pedlow says.

While Pedlow focuses her research on connecting robots, she says she considers the relationships between people the real key to success. “Just because you’re working on a technical project together doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial to know the people you’re working with as individuals.” Interpersonal skills not only make friendships stronger, says Pedlow, they also make for better leaders and stronger engineering teams.

This year, Pedlow is empowered by a new kind of MIT relationship as the first recipient of the Donald Brookfield Graduate Fellowship in Mechanical Engineering, created by David ’69 and Jeanne-Marie Brookfield in honor of David’s father. “Having this fellowship brings the sense of relationship into research in a new way,” she says. “I actually got to meet the Brookfields, tell them about what I’ve been doing, and thank them for their support. They’re a huge influence in what I’ve been able to do. I’m very grateful for that.”

Students chat on campus in the fall. Photo: Gretchen Ertl


Economics and Well-Being

Class gives students frameworks to improve decision making

Students chat on campus in the fall. Photo: Gretchen Ertl

14.13: Psychology and Economics

Frank Schilbach
Gary W. Loveman Career Development Associate Professor, Department of Economics

From the catalog

Behavioral economics (aka psychology and economics) is a growing subfield that incorporates insights from psychology and other social sciences into economics. The broad goal of these efforts is to make economic models more realistic and to strengthen their predictive power by incorporating previously neglected features such as self-control issues, concern for others, or aversion to losses. This course covers recent advances in behavioral economics by reviewing some of the assumptions made in mainstream economic models and by discussing how human behavior systematically departs from these assumptions.

“It’s refreshing to have this field that addresses a lot of the issues related to the assumptions made in standard economic models, issues that definitely occurred to me when I first learned these models in earlier classes,” says Grace Chuan ’21.

“If I can get students excited about economics while they’re also using some of those insights to understand themselves better and make better decisions in their lives, that’s really exciting,” says Associate Professor Frank Schilbach.

The class

The first two-thirds of the class focuses on the ways in which behavioral economics can provide a more complete picture of human action than classical economics does. “When people think about economics, they often think about money, finance, and the like. But a lot of economics, in fact, is about trying to better understand choices that have important economic and other consequences in people’s lives,” says Schilbach. “It’s really much broader than finance and money. For many such choices, including finance, psychological factors are important, so we need to understand them better.”

Students learn how behavioral economics takes assumptions made by traditional models and bolsters them with insights from other social sciences. These alternative models paint a clearer picture of how people make decisions with economic implications—from personal shopping to policy making.

“We talked about tax salience, for example, and how people’s purchasing decisions change when the tax is incorporated into the price tag,” says Chuan. “These little things can inform policy making.”

Topics in the first two-thirds of the course include:

  • Time preferences: Why do people choose between happiness in the present and in the future? (For example, Fiona Chen ’21—one of the fall 2020 teaching assistants—says people often procrastinate unless they have “commitment devices,” such as a deadline or a friend to hold them accountable.)
  • Risk preferences: How do people make choices in the face of risk?
  • Social preferences: How do people take others into account when making decisions? (This semester, the class discussed this topic in the context of adherence to Covid-19 safety guidelines.)
  • Beliefs: What information and beliefs do people use when making decisions?
  • Non-standard decision making: How much do factors such as someone’s socioeconomic circumstances or the way a choice is framed matter?

In the final few weeks of the course, students explore how behavioral economics is applied to public policy and general well-being in society. For example, one lecture focuses on poverty through the lens of psychology—an area of research for Schilbach.

“I try to understand mental health in the context of poverty and the economic consequences of psychotherapy or any kind of mental health interventions and more broadly the relationship between economic and mental well-being,” says Schilbach.

This work leads students into a unit on happiness and mental health in general, and how better mental well-being leads to better decision making and a happier life. “A lot of students at some point during their time at MIT struggle with mental health issues,” says Schilbach. “The hope is that talking about these issues specifically might encourage some to seek help and try to improve their own mental health.”

In the final lecture, students hear about how behavioral economics applies to gender, discrimination, and identity.

The assignments

Most problem sets (PSETs) in 14.13 require students to work through the quantitative aspects of the alternative economic models covered in lectures. But in fall 2020, with classes online and Covid-19 cases surging, the instructors (this year, Schilbach was joined by Dmitry Taubinsky, assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley) also devised a PSET designed to bring a little brightness to the students’ week. While covering social preferences and the idea that improving the well-being of others can lead to benefits for all, they asked students to perform a random act of kindness for someone in their lives.

“This problem set was a pedagogical way of trying to teach students about the underlying subject matter, but we were also trying to cheer them up or improve their well-being by helping them do something nice for someone,” says Schilbach.

Before taking action, students were asked to rate how good it would make both them and the recipient feel. Afterward, they reflected on how well they had estimated the emotional impact of the activity. (Most of them had underestimated it, illustrating that people often don’t fully comprehend the effect of their actions on others.)

“It was a very nice and really wholesome problem set,” says Chuan, who used the assignment to reconnect with an old friend. “It just reminded people of their humanity, especially in this very difficult time.”

In addition to problem sets, students also produce weekly memos relating class lectures to something that happened to them during that time. These reveal that many students are already applying what they’ve learned in 14.13.

“I definitely think about time preferences when I’m procrastinating on my work or when I try to plan out my day now,” Chuan says, referring to one of her favorite memos. “I think more ahead, like, ‘Do I actually have the amount of time that I think I do, or am I being naive?’”

And Chen has incorporated behavioral economics into her work in student government. While weighing recommendations for grading policies during Covid-19, for example, she says she considered both the degree to which continuing the letter grading system would act as a commitment device to help students stay on track as well as more nuanced factors.

“Problems arising from Covid-19 have amplified mental health issues for many students, particularly low-income or minority students, which could hurt students’ academic performance through negative effects on their attention or productivity. As a result, maintaining a regular grading scheme under Covid could reproduce many social inequities,” she said.

Ultimately, Schilbach hopes students continue to use what they learn, not just in economics but as a guide to improve their decision making and increase happiness in their lives.

“If I had to say what I want students to take away,” he says, “I would like them to be more deliberate and more thoughtful about the choices and decisions that they make and consider how that might improve their well-being.”

Climate change increases the risk of extreme events such as storms. Photo: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images


The Big Picture

MIT experts outline issues, offer hope for climate action

Climate change increases the risk of extreme events such as storms. Photo: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Across the Institute, work is underway to understand and address Earth’s changing climate and to mitigate the impacts of these changes on human populations. Spectrum asked three MIT faculty members who have engaged deeply with this work to provide insight into the challenges that lie ahead and suggest paths forward.

Sallie (Penny) Chisholm is an Institute Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Biology. Her award-winning research explores the biology, ecology, and evolution of marine phytoplankton, photosynthetic microbes that shape aquatic ecosystems.

 Kerry A. Emanuel ’76, PhD ’78 is the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and co-director of the Lorenz Center at MIT, an advanced climate research center. A prominent meteorologist and climate scientist, Emanuel is best known for his research on hurricanes and atmospheric convection.

 Susan Solomon is the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in EAPS and a professor of chemistry. Solomon, who researches interactions between chemistry and climate, is renowned for her work advancing the understanding of the global ozone layer.

What are the biggest scientific challenges we face in addressing climate change?

SOLOMON: One of the biggest scientific challenges is understanding how much and how fast biological processes will be affected by a warmer world. For example, we need to better understand the drivers of wildfires in the North American West, the roles of ocean acidification and warming in damaging marine life, and how climate change will affect the spread of diseases. The coupling between biology and the physical and chemical system is well recognized as important, but a lot more needs to be done. Another key challenge is better understanding extreme events, because neither humans nor ecosystems have sufficient ability to deal with them.

EMANUEL: In my view, the greatest scientific challenge we face is quantifying the risks of climate change. We spend too much time calculating and talking about global mean temperature and sea level when in fact the most serious problems are bound to arise from extreme events, such as storms, droughts, and wildfires. There is much evidence that the risk of such events, which are also the main source of insurance payouts involving naturally occurring phenomena, has already evolved well beyond historical levels, rendering obsolete the financial basis of the global insurance and reinsurance markets. It is absolutely essential that science help the world come to grips with current levels of natural hazard risk and with how such risks are likely to evolve.

CHISHOLMIt appears to me that the biggest immediate challenge is in the social sciences. Broadly speaking, natural scientists know what causes global warming and what is needed to curb it. But until the public at large accepts that anthropogenic climate change is real and the consequences dramatic, it will be impossible to implement solutions.

How do we rise to this challenge and get the public to feel the urgency? I am reminded of the popularized wisdom of Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forester: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” I too like to think that if people understood how our planet functions as a living system and how the climate system is embedded in that system, it would help move the needle.

Kerry Emanuel has produced a compelling climate primer, for example, that beautifully displays the essence of what one must understand to fully appreciate the climate challenge. I am so impressed by it that I have put a link to it in my email signature line. For my part, I have coauthored a series of children’s picture books—The Sunlight Series—that describe how our planet functions as a living system and the role of fossil fuels and climate in that system. These efforts are just drops in a bucket. What is needed is a global educational movement to bring Earth system science to the forefront.

What are you working on that gives you hope for the future?

EMANUELI have been working on a method for downscaling tropical cyclones from climate models in a way that allows one easily to generate hundreds of thousands of storms in a given climate. The important step was applying a rigorous understanding of tropical cyclone physics to the problem so as to achieve maximum computational speed with minimum loss of fidelity. This could not have been accomplished by machine learning. My work has already been applied by the nonprofit First Street Foundation to estimate flood risk, including from tropical cyclones, for every single piece of private property in the United States. Flood-risk estimates resulting from this work are communicated to current and prospective property owners through websites such as those used to shop for real estate.

By bringing quantitative measures of climate risk right down to the level of our homes, this work promises to make people much more aware of their current climate risk and how it is evolving over time. My hope is that this work will make the impact of climate change personal, and citizens will agitate for action.

SOLOMONI’ve been doing a lot of work on fully understanding the sources and sinks of fluorochemicals, including chlorofluorocarbons and their substitutes, the hydrochlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons. The fluorochemicals are potent greenhouse gases, so phasing them out has great benefits for climate. Some of my group’s recent work has shown that there are “banks” of old chlorofluorocarbons (for example, in old building chillers or even home freezers) that are still leaking and contributing to global warming. Additionally, there is some evidence that the continuing use of certain fluorochemicals as feedstocks to make other chemicals is far more problematic for the environment than it should be and could be.

What makes me hopeful is that the governments of the world are taking notice of these issues, in part because they’ve been so successful at dealing with these chemicals in the past. For example, concerns about damage to the stratospheric ozone layer that shields all life on Earth from damaging ultraviolet light from the sun led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a globally agreed-upon phaseout of the production of the worst ozone-damaging gases. There is evidence that the ozone layer is slowly starting to heal so that is a tremendous success story. Today, there is much more policy attention on what could be done to curb emissions and address global warming, so I’m optimistic that we can make improvements.

CHISHOLMMy lab does not work on climate science directly. We study marine phytoplankton, photosynthetic microbes at the base of  aquatic food webs. Like plants on land, they use solar energy to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere and fix it into the organic carbon, feeding the rest of life in the sea. This so-called “invisible pasture” is responsible for nearly half of the annual flow of CO2 from the atmosphere into the global biosphere. More importantly, the planktonic food web functions as a “biological pump,” securing an enormous cache of CO2 in the deep sea. Like so many other biospheric processes, this “ecosystem service” is something we take for granted. But if the oceans were not alive—if the pump did not function—CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere would be dramatically higher.

But you asked what gives me hope. The short answer is: the wisdom and commitment of the younger generation to fight for their future. I can see a passion and commitment for change in young people that has been lacking for a few generations. Because my lab works on photosynthesis and I have written some children’s books about it, I frequently get emails from K–12 students looking for answers.

Recently, a 14-year-old wrote to ask, “What’s stopping us from mass adoption of  ‘CO2 bioreactors’ to offset carbon emissions? Cost? Efficiency? Another factor?” That a 14-year-old is thinking along these lines is just one small example of things that give me hope.

What role do you think MIT and other research universities have to play in addressing climate change?

SOLOMON: MIT and other research universities have fantastic potential to help move the needle. For one thing, we have relevant experts in the physics, chemistry, and biology related to climate change under one roof. We also have key experts in the engineering and policy aspects of climate change. In short, we have all the research expertise needed to make progress. The problem is that it’s tough to get funding for interdisciplinary work via the traditional national funding mechanisms. Fortunately, that’s slowly changing.

EMANUEL: Universities can play a crucial role in bringing the dangers of climate change right to the front doors of ordinary people by catalyzing a revolution in the risk-modeling industry. We need to produce a new stream of talent that has a deep understanding of the physics of weather hazards; of numerical modeling; and of risk, risk-affected industries and government entities, and the risk-modeling industry. Such talent could then be employed to bring physical modeling to bear on weather hazard risk assessment. At the moment, almost all global risk modeling is done by just two firms and is extrapolated from historical records that are grossly insufficient for estimating long-term risk.

Fortunately, the insurance and reinsurance industries are rapidly coming to understand the woeful state of risk modeling and are eager to catalyze change. They are ready and willing to help fund positions in universities (e.g., postdoctoral research positions) that would produce the stream of new talent that’s badly needed to revolutionize the way we quantify and respond to climate risks.

CHISHOLM: Climate change, as well as most of the environmental challenges we face today, has emerged because we have accelerated dramatically the natural flows of energy and materials through the biosphere. The weight of human-made components on Earth now equals that of natural components, and we have appropriated roughly one-quarter of the Earth’s net plant production—the foundation of life for all other species. How has this human footprint changed the way the planet functions, and how will it change it as we move forward in the Anthropocene? And what about the unintended consequences of potential climate intervention through geoengineering? Clearly, we have a planet that is shifting dramatically from its natural self-assembling trajectory. There is little hope of making rational plans for our future until we begin to study the biosphere—and all the functions it mediates—with the same intensity as we study human biology.

So, what role should MIT play? Our late colleague Henry Kendall, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, once advised me to “never make small plans,” so here is my wish for MIT: Lead the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for the development of renewable energy and CO2-removal technologies. Create a College of Biocomplexity to consolidate and greatly expand the environmental research and education that is scattered throughout the Institute. Ensure that all new campus construction is a showcase for energy efficiency and the use of sustainable materials. Finally, advance economic frameworks that assign value to ecosystem services in the world economy. As one of the premier education and research institutions in the world, we should be leading the way.