More stories

  • in

    Arina Khotimsky ’23 awarded 2023 Michel David-Weill Scholarship

    Arina Khotimsky ’23 was selected for the 2023 Michel David-Weill scholarship, awarded each year to one student from the United States in a master’s program at Sciences Po in France who exemplifies the core values embodied by its namesake: excellence, leadership, multiculturalism, and high achievement. This fall Khotimsky will enter the master’s program in international energy, which is part of Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs. The program aims to provide a holistic understanding of energy issues, across disciplines and across all energy sources.

    Khotimsky graduated this year from MIT with a major in materials science and engineering, and minors in energy studies and in French.

    Asked what drew her to her major, Khotimsky talked about her love of the outdoors. Seeing effects of climate change on the world around made her made her want to explore solutions. “I settled on material science and engineering because there’s so many different applications: whether it be solar power, developing different battery materials and chemistries, or some other technology. Getting that technical background at MIT can help me understand how we can implement solutions around the world, with diverse cultures in mind.”

    One of Khotimsky’s material sciences professors, Polina Anikeeva, observes that “Arina possesses the spirit of creativity, optimism, and unparalleled work ethic — all necessary ingredients to solve energy and climate challenges of our century.”

    Khotimsky is well aware of the big stakes in discussions around energy policy. She explains, “We have to cooperate internationally to make a dent in carbon emissions. The United States is historically the biggest CO2 emitter and has a large role to play to transition to a more sustainable future.”

    Her interest in studying climate change solutions on a world scale also converged with her interest in studying other languages and cultures. Her main language studies at MIT have been in French, although she also speaks Russian and beginner Chinese.

    Due to her achievement in MIT French classes, Khotimsky was one of nine students selected for a two-week cultural immersion program in Paris last June, led by MIT Professor Bruno Perreau. Perreau also had her in class last fall, and spoke about the energy and commitment she brought to class, describing her as “one of my very best students since I started to teach 22 years ago.” Khotimsky is excited to be living in France for her master’s program and putting her French skills to work.

    Khotimsky’s impressive undergraduate career has also included being co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, and participating in the MIT delegation to 2022 Conference of the Parties summit (COP27) of the United Nations in Egypt last November. She also participated in the NEET Decarbonizing Ulaanbaatar project, traveling to Mongolia in Independent Activities Period 2023 with a group of students and instructors to work on clean heating technologies for traditional ger homes.

    In addition to her academic work and other extracurricular activities, Khotimsky was also a member of the MIT women’s rowing team. She walked onto the team as a first-year student, making it into the Varsity 8 boat for her senior season. Holly Metcalf, MIT women’s varsity openweight rowing coach, explains, “Being on the rowing team has in many ways become a metaphor for what Arina has come to study … She realized that rowing is about so much more than physics — it is about who one must become as an individual to contribute to the sum of mental and physical strength of the entire team.” Khotimsky was recognized on May 22 by the Patriot League, who named her the 2023 Patriot League Women’s Rowing Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

    Looking ahead, Khotimsky envisions her future involving international energy negotiations or policy. “The master’s degree I’m pursuing in international relations will help me develop skills to communicate with stakeholders from around the world and figure out how to implement solutions globally.” More

  • in

    MIT Energy Conference grapples with geopolitics

    As Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on, this year’s MIT Energy Conference spotlighted the role of geopolitics in the world’s efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

    Each year, the student-run conference, which its organizers say is the largest of its kind, brings together leaders from around the globe to discuss humanity’s most pressing energy and sustainability challenges.

    The event always involves perspectives from the investment, business, research, and startup communities. But this year, as more than 600 attendees gathered on April 11 and 12 for a whirlwind of keynote talks, fireside chats, and panel discussions, common themes also included the influence of Russia’s war, rising tensions between the U.S. and China, and international collaboration.

    As participants grappled with the evolving geopolitical landscape, some speakers encouraged moving past isolationist tendencies.

    “Some people push for self-sufficiency, others emphasize that we should not rely on trading partners that don’t share our values — I think both arguments are misguided,” said Juan Carlos Jobet, Chile’s former ministry of energy and mining. “No country has all that’s needed to create an energy system that’s affordable, clean, and secure. … A third of the world’s energy output is generated in nondemocratic countries. Can we really make our energy systems affordable and secure and curb climate change while excluding those countries from our collective effort? If we enter an area of protectionism and disintegration, we will all be worse off.”

    Another theme was optimism, such as that expressed by Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, CEO of Ukraine’s national power company, who spoke to the conference live from Kyiv. Kudrytskyi outlined Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s power grids, which included more than 1,000 heavy missiles, making it the largest-ever campaign against a country’s power grid.

    Still, Kudrytskyi said he was confident he’d be able to attend the conference in person next year. As it happened, Kudrytskyi’s presentation marked the day Ukraine resumed its energy exports to other countries.

    “The good news is, after all of that, our system survived and continues operations,” he said.

    Energy security and the green transition

    Richard Duke, the U.S. Department of State’s deputy special envoy for climate, opened the conference with a keynote centered on the U.S.’ role in the global shift toward cleaner energy. Duke was among those advocating for a more integrated and diversified global energy system, noting that no country can address climate change on its own.

    “We need to do all of these things in parallel, in concert with other governments, and through the architecture of the Paris Climate agreement that wraps it together in ambitious net greenhouse gas abatement targets,” Duke said.

    Following his talk, Ditte Juul Jørgensen, the European Commission’s director general for energy, discussed the shift in the EU’s energy policies spurred by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

    She admitted the EU had grown too dependent on Russian natural gas, but said the invasion forced European states to revise their energy strategy while keeping their long-term objective of net neutrality by 2050.

    “We see energy security and the green transition as interlinked. There is no energy security without the energy transition toward climate neutrality, and there’s no energy transition without energy security,” Jorgensen said.

    Jørgensen also outlined steps the EU has taken to improve its energy security over the last year, including rolling out additional renewable energy projects and replacing Russian fuel with fuel from the U.S., which has now become the continent’s main supplier of energy.

    “The fight against climate change is our shared ambition, it’s our shared responsibility, and I think we’ve shown over these last few years that we can turn that ambition into action and bring results,” she said.

    A challenge and an opportunity

    Optimism also shone through in the way speakers framed the green energy transition as a business opportunity. In keeping with the idea, the conference included a showcase of more than 30 startups focused on clean energy and sustainability.

    “We’re all battling a huge problem that needs a collective effort,” said Malav Sukhadia of Sol Clarity, a conference exhibitor that uses electricity to clean solar panels as a way to replace water cleaning. “This is one of the best energy conferences in the world. We felt if you’re in climate tech, you have to be here.”

    Technological development was a pillar of the conference, and a big topic in those discussions was green hydrogen, a clean fuel source that could replace natural gas in a number of applications and be produced using renewable energy. In one panel discussion on the technology, Sunita Satyapal of the Department of Energy noted the agency has been funding hydrogen development since the 1970s. Other panel members also stressed the maturity of the technology.

    “A lot of the technology needed to advance the ecosystem exists now,” said Laura Parkan, vice president of hydrogen energy at Air Liquide Americas. “The challenge is to get things to a large enough scale so that the costs come down to make it more affordable and really advance the hydrogen ecosystem.”

    Still, panel members acknowledged more technological development is needed to leverage the full potential of hydrogen, such as better mechanisms for storage and transportation.

    Other advanced technologies mentioned in panel discussions included advanced geothermal energy and small modular nuclear reactors that could be built and deployed more quickly than conventional reactors.

    “Exploring these different technologies may actually get us to the net zero — or even a zero carbon future — that we’re hoping for in electricity generation,” said Emma Wong of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, noting there are more than 80 advanced reactor designs that have been explored around the world. “There are various challenges and enabling conditions to be addressed, but places like China and Russia are already building these things, so there’s not a technological barrier.”

    “Glass half full”

    Despite the tall tasks that lie ahead, some speakers took a moment to celebrate accomplishments thus far.

    “It’s incredible to think about the progress we’ve made in the last 10 years,” said Neil Brown of the KKR investment firm, whose company is working to build a large offshore wind project. “Solar and wind and electric vehicles have gone from impossibly expensive and hard to imagine penetrating the market to being very close to, if not already at, cost parity. We’ve really come an awful long way.”

    Other speakers mixed their positivity with a confession of envy for the opportunity ahead of the young people in the audience, many of them students from MIT.

    “I have a mix of excitement from the speakers we’ve heard so far and a little bit of envy as well for the open road the young students and professionals here have in front of them,” said Jobert. “Coming back to this place has made me reconnect with the sense of opportunity and responsibility that I felt as a student.”

    Jobert offered lessons learned from his country’s struggles with an energy crisis, populist policies, and severe droughts. His talk finished with questions that struck at the heart of the conference.

    “The evidence is clear: The Earth will change. How much is still to be decided,” Jobert said. “The energy sector has been a central part of the problem. We now must work to become an essential pierce of the solution. Where should we focus our efforts? What can we learn from each other?” More

  • in

    Responding to Ukraine’s “ocean of suffering”

    Within 72 hours of the first Russian missiles striking Kyiv, Ukraine, in February 2022, Ian Miller SM ’19 boarded a flight for Poland.

    Later, he’d say he felt motivated by Kyiv’s “tragic ocean of suffering” and Ukrainian President Zelensky’s pleas for help. But he arrived with little notion of what to do.

    As he’d anticipated, his hotel in Rzeszów turned out to be a hub for aid workers and journalists. Miller was on his laptop, using the lobby Wi-Fi to work remotely as an MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) project manager, when he overheard a reporter interviewing a Finnish man about his efforts to get bulletproof vests and helmets to the front lines.

    Miller soon found himself loading supplies onto trains that had brought huge numbers of refugees — mostly women, children, and the elderly — to the station in Rzeszów. The trains ran back at night, their empty seats filled with medical supplies, generators, and baby food, their lights dimmed to reduce the chances of attack.

    In April 2022, Miller and volunteers from a half-dozen countries planned and drove a convoy of trucks packed with tourniquets, bandages, and bulletproof vests across the border, arriving at the site of the Bucha massacre soon after the Russians retreated.

    Miller peered into a mass grave. “They were still excavating it, and those weren’t soldiers, you know?” he says. “I try to avoid looking at things like that too often, because it doesn’t help us save lives to be horrified all the time.” He downplays any potential danger to himself, telling his family he’s safer where he is than in parts of the United States.

    Soon after his first trip across the border, Miller convinced his former MIT roommate, Evan Platt SM ’20, to come help. “Just for a week,” he told Platt.

    Inspired by energy

    Miller and Platt met in 2008 in Washington, where Platt was interning at the White House and Miller was about to start his senior year at Georgetown University.

    Miller majored in government, but his interest in energy policy and technology grew during the years after graduation he spent teaching science to primary and secondary school students in New York, where he’d grown up; in Boston; and in Kampala, Uganda. “Some of the most fun, inspiring, engaging lessons and modules I did with the kids were focused on energy,” he recalls.

    While pursuing an MIT master of science in chemical engineering from 2016 to 2018, he started researching photovoltaics and wind power. He held leadership positions with the MIT Energy Conference and the MIT Energy Club.

    After joining MITEI, Miller worked on electric vehicles (EVs), EV charging patterns, and other applications. He became project manager and research specialist for the Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME), which models the levels of greenhouse gas emissions from multiple energy sectors in future scenarios.

    Miller and Platt reconnected and shared an apartment for three years. Platt studied systems design and management through a joint MIT School of Engineering and Sloan School of Management program, then stayed on to work for the MIT Technology Licensing Office.

    Platt left MIT to pursue other interests in 2020. The next time the two would see each other would be in Poland.

    “It’s not easy living and working in an active combat zone,” Platt says. “There is nobody on Earth I would rather be navigating this environment with than Ian.”

    Navigating the last mile

    In Rzeszów and Ukraine, Miller and U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Lindquist oversaw fulfillment for the new team. With the help of Google Translate, their phones lit up with encrypted texts to and from Polish customs agents and Ukrainian warehouse operators.

    Platt and two Ukrainian team members took the lead on a needs analysis of what was most in demand at the front. Another team member led procurement. Their efforts crystallized in the creation of Zero Line, a tax-exempt nonprofit that works closely with the Ukrainian government at the front line (a.k.a. “the zero line”).

    With Platt on board, “we got more rigorous and quantitative in terms of lives-saved-per-dollar,” Miller says. A hundred dollars buys four tourniquets. A thousand dollars adds crude steel armor to a Jeep. Two thousand dollars provides a small observation drone or a satellite phone, equipment that locates Russian artillery and detects Russian attacks.

    “Russian artillery shells are the No. 1 killer of Ukrainians, causing around 80 percent of casualties,” he says. “Tourniquets save people injured by Russian shells, vehicles help evacuate them, and communications equipment prevents deadly injuries from occurring in the first place.”

    Miller’s skills in transportation and power system modeling, developed at MITEI under Principal Research Scientist Emre Gençer, helped the team transport more than 150 used vehicles — Nissan Pathfinders and vans for moving civilians away from the front, Ford pickups for transporting anti-missile defense systems — and hundreds of batteries, generators, drones, bulletproof vests, and helmets to the front through nightmarish logistical bottlenecks.

    Typically, supplies from the United States, Asia, and elsewhere in Europe move through Gdansk and Warsaw, then proceed via train or vehicle to warehouses in Lviv, around 70 kilometers east of the border. Next is the seven-hour trip to Kyiv or the 12-hour drive to Dnipro (the current southern edge of the safe “green zone”) and the final 200 kilometers to the front. Here, says Miller, drivers with training and protective gear, often members of the Ukrainian military, take vehicles and supplies to front-line end users.

    “From day one, we asked our Ukrainian members and partners for introductions, and we’re constantly looking for more,” Miller says. “When our vehicles reach the front lines, Evan’s team always does interviews about needs, and what’s working, what’s not. What’s saving the most lives.”

    “From my early days with Ian, it’s clear he was always looking for ways to help people. Connections were really important to him,” says MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong. “When war broke out, he found the call to answer human need irresistible. I think many of us think of doing that, but we get bogged down in the mechanics of everyday life. He just picked up and went.

    “Ian is just a terrific person and a great role model,” Armstrong says.

    Accelerating peace

    From the time Miller arrived in late February through October 2022, he continued working remotely for MITEI. He now works full time as co-director of Zero Line. For the foreseeable future, Miller will remain in Ukraine and Poland.

    He wants to see Ukrainians “follow in the happy, free, prospering footsteps of other ex-Soviet states, like the Baltics,” he says. He’d like to see the supply-chain innovations he and Platt achieved applied to humanitarian crises elsewhere.

    To date, Zero Line has raised more than $5 million in donations and delivered hundreds of tons of high-impact aid. “A key part of our approach has always been to support Ukrainians who excel in saving lives,” Miller says. To that end, the group works with Ukrainian software programmers and military units to create digital maps and processes to replace paper maps and operations “reminiscent of World War II,” Platt says. “Modernizing the intelligence infrastructure to facilitate better military operations is an important part of how a smaller military can beat a larger, more powerful military.”

    The fact that energy underlies so many aspects of the war is never far from Miller’s mind. Russia cut off energy supplies to Europe, then targeted Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. On one hand, he understands that billions of people in developing countries such as India need and deserve affordable energy. On the other hand, he says, oil and gas purchases by those countries are directly funding Russia’s war machine.

    “Everyone wants cheap renewables and we’re getting there, but it’s taking time. Lowering the costs of renewables and energy storage and supporting nascent commercial fusion — that’s a very important focus of MITEI. In the long run, that’ll help us reach a more peaceful world, without a doubt.”

    Work at MITEI and at Zero Line, Miller says, “truly could accelerate peace.” More

  • in

    Energy, war, and the crisis in Ukraine

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a global impact on many areas of the world today, affecting the balance of power among states and creating a contest between democratic and authoritarian alliances. It is also having a major impact on the global energy supply. European states have scrambled to reorient their consumption away from Russian natural gas, while Russia has used its energy assets as political leverage while finding new economic partners.

    In short, there is also a battle over energy surrounding the invasion, as a panel of experts analyzed at a public MIT event on Friday. The online discussion, “Energy As a Weapon of War,” was the latest Starr Forum, MIT’s prominent event series on foreign policy and international relations.

    The forum’s two featured speakers both discussed energy issues as well as the larger course of the war. Margarita Balmaceda, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University and an associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, listed three key aspects of the energy issue implicated in the invasion.

    In the first place, she noted, European reliance on Russian natural gas is a long-term issue that also existed with the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, but is only now being managed differently.

    “If we look at the case of Germany … you can see that the temptation of this reliance in particular on Russian natural gas was not simply something that you could ascribe to one or two corrupt politicians,” said Balmaceda, author of the book “Russian Energy Chains: The Remaking of Technopolitics from Siberia to Ukraine to the European Union.” Instead, she said, “it’s something that went to all levels of economic life,” including industrial consumers of natural gas, regional governments, and other stakeholders. 

    Secondly, Balmaceda observed, many core manufacturing industries, especially in Germany, have been particularly dependent on Russian energy, making the need for alternatives something that has direct effects in key production sectors.

    “In my view, the real story, and the story we have to pay much more attention to, has to do with … industrial users of natural gas,” Balmaceda said. In fact, she noted, gas consumption is a major part of the production cycle in Europe’s chemical, cement, steel, and paper industries, supporting about 8 million jobs.

    Finally, Balmaceda observed, European boycotts of Russian energy may have temporarily stymied Russia, but the regime has subsequently found new markets in China, India, and elsewhere.

    “It’s very important to understand that this story does not end in the European Union and North America, and if we don’t deal with the real energy concerns of global South countries, we will not get very far in trying to reduce Russia’s energy power moving forward,” she said.

    Constanze Steinmuller, director and Fritz Stern Chair of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, offered some political context as well as her own perspective on paths forward in the war.

    While policymakers in Europe frequently praise the response of the Biden administration in the U.S., in support of Ukraine, “It’s also remarkable how steadfast the European response has been,” Steinmuller said. She added, “It’s something I was very worried about.” She also praised the German government for “decoupling German dependence from Russian gas and oil imports in ways I honestly would not have thought possible.”

    While the alliance supporting Ukraine has been valuable, Steinmuller said, she believes the U.S. and Europe need to give Ukraine even more backing in terms of weaponry in particular. “It is unclear, at this point still, whether Ukraine will have the means to retain full control over its territory.”

    Meanwhile, Russia’s relationship with China, she added, is profoundly consequential for the long-term trajectory of the war. So far, China has been nominally pledging broad support of Russia while publicly de-escalating the nuclear rhetoric arising from the war. However, Steinmuller added, if China decides to “actively support” Russia militarily, “That would be, I think, the worst game-changer of all, and one that … would be the single greatest challenge that I can envision to our ability to help Ukraine win, and to maintain our own security in Europe.”

    The Starr Forum is organized by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS). Friday’s event was co-sponsored by MIT’s Security Studies Program and the MIT-Eurasia program, in addition to CIS.

    The event’s moderators were Elizabeth Wood, a professor of history at MIT, author of the 2016 book “Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine,” and co-director of the MISTI MIT-Eurasia Program; and Carol Saivetz, a senior advisor in MIT’s Security Studies Program and expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy. Wood and Saivetz have helped host a series of Starr Forum events over the last year scrutinizing several aspects of Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s defense.  

    Understanding the role of energy in the war “is obviously of critical importance today,” Wood said in her opening remarks. That includes, she noted, “How energy is being used by Russia as a tool of aggression, how Ukraine is suffering from attacks upon its critical infrastructure, and how the alliance of European [states] and the U.S. is responding.” 

    In response to audience questions, the scholars outlined multiple scenarios in which the war could end, either on more favorable terms for Ukraine or in ways that strengthen Russia. One audience member also queried about the extent to which the current war could also be thought of as a “carbon war, or climate war,” in which a move toward clean energy also lessens global dependence on large gas and oil suppliers, such as Russia.

    In response, Balmaceda noted that the ongoing infrastructure development in Ukraine might, in theory, leave it with no choice but to modernize its energy infrastructure (though its own orientation toward fossil fuels represents just a small portion of global demand). Steinmuller added that “Ukraine will need much more than just to reorient its energy [demand]. … It will have to change its role in the global economy,” given its own industrial reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

    Overall, Balmaceda added, “Regardless of whether Russia wins this conflict or loses, the rottenness within Russia is deep enough to be bad news for all of us for a long time.” For her part, Steinmuller underscored again how vital increased alliance support would be.

    “We should show that we are willing and able to defend not just a country that has been attacked by a great power, but willing to defend ourselves,” Steinmuller said. Otherwise, she added, “If we didn’t do that, we would have set for all the world to see a precedent of giving in to blackmail, including nuclear blackmail, and allowing this to happen without us being willing to see the defense of Ukraine through to the end.” More

  • in

    A breakthrough on “loss and damage,” but also disappointment, at UN climate conference

    As the 2022 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, stretched into its final hours on Saturday, Nov. 19, it was uncertain what kind of agreement might emerge from two weeks of intensive international negotiations.

    In the end, COP27 produced mixed results: on the one hand, a historic agreement for wealthy countries to compensate low-income countries for “loss and damage,” but on the other, limited progress on new plans for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

    “We need to drastically reduce emissions now — and this is an issue this COP did not address,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement at the conclusion of COP27. “A fund for loss and damage is essential — but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map — or turns an entire African country to desert.”

    Throughout the two weeks of the conference, a delegation of MIT students, faculty, and staff was at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center to observe the negotiations, conduct and share research, participate in panel discussions, and forge new connections with researchers, policymakers, and advocates from around the world.

    Loss and damage

    A key issue coming in to COP27 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 27th time) was loss and damage: a term used by the U.N. to refer to harms caused by climate change — either through acute catastrophes like extreme weather events or slower-moving impacts like sea level rise — to which communities and countries are unable to adapt. 

    Ultimately, a deal on loss and damage proved to be COP27’s most prominent accomplishment. Negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement to “establish new funding arrangements for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” 

    “Providing financial assistance to developing countries so they can better respond to climate-related loss and damage is not only a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, who attended COP27 and participated in side events. “Future emissions growth will be squarely centered in the developing world, and offering support through different channels is key to building the trust needed for more robust global cooperation on mitigation.”

    Youssef Shaker, a graduate student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program and a research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative, attended the second week of the conference, where he followed the negotiations over loss and damage closely. 

    “While the creation of a fund is certainly an achievement,” Shaker said, “significant questions remain to be answered, such as the size of the funding available as well as which countries receive access to it.” A loss-and-damage fund that is not adequately funded, Shaker noted, “would not be an impactful outcome.” 

    The agreement on loss and damage created a new committee, made up of 24 country representatives, to “operationalize” the new funding arrangements, including identifying funding sources. The committee is tasked with delivering a set of recommendations at COP28, which will take place next year in Dubai.

    Advising the U.N. on net zero

    Though the decisions reached at COP27 did not include major new commitments on reducing emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, the transition to a clean global energy system was nevertheless a key topic of conversation throughout the conference.

    The Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET), an independent, international body of engineers and energy systems experts formed to provide advice to the U.N. on achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050, convened for the first time at COP27. Jessika Trancik, a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and a member of CEET, spoke on a U.N.-sponsored panel on solutions for the transition to clean energy.

    Trancik noted that the energy transition will look different in different regions of the world. “As engineers, we need to understand those local contexts and design solutions around those local contexts — that’s absolutely essential to support a rapid and equitable energy transition.”

    At the same time, Trancik noted that there is now a set of “low-cost, ready-to-scale tools” available to every region — tools that resulted from a globally competitive process of innovation, stimulated by public policies in different countries, that dramatically drove down the costs of technologies like solar energy and lithium-ion batteries. The key, Trancik said, is for regional transition strategies to “tap into global processes of innovation.”

    Reinventing climate adaptation

    Elfatih Eltahir, the H. M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate, traveled to COP27 to present plans for the Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet), one of the five projects selected in April 2022 as a flagship in MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative. CREWSnet focuses on climate adaptation, the term for adapting to climate impacts that are unavoidable.

    The aim of CREWSnet, Eltahir told the audience during a panel discussion, is “nothing short of reinventing the process of climate change adaptation,” so that it is proactive rather than reactive; community-led; data-driven and evidence-based; and so that it integrates different climate risks, from heat waves to sea level rise, rather than treating them individually.

    “However, it’s easy to talk about these changes,” said Eltahir. “The real challenge, which we are now just launching and engaging in, is to demonstrate that on the ground.” Eltahir said that early demonstrations will happen in a couple of key locations, including southwest Bangladesh, where multiple climate risks — rising sea levels, increasing soil salinity, and intensifying heat waves and cyclones — are combining to threaten the area’s agricultural production.

    Building on COP26

    Some members of MIT’s delegation attended COP27 to advance efforts that had been formally announced at last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

    At an official U.N. side event co-organized by MIT on Nov. 11, Greg Sixt, the director of the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance led by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, provided an update on the alliance’s work since its launch at COP26.

    Food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — and are increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. The FACT Alliance works to better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders to make food systems (which include food production, consumption, and waste) more sustainable and resilient. 

    Sixt told the audience that the FACT Alliance now counts over 20 research and stakeholder institutions around the world among its members, but also collaborates with other institutions in an “open network model” to advance work in key areas — such as a new research project exploring how climate scenarios could affect global food supply chains.

    Marcela Angel, research program director for the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), helped convene a meeting at COP27 of the Afro-InterAmerican Forum on Climate Change, which also launched at COP26. The forum works with Afro-descendant leaders across the Americas to address significant environmental issues, including climate risks and biodiversity loss. 

    At the event — convened with the Colombian government and the nonprofit Conservation International — ESI brought together leaders from six countries in the Americas and presented recent work that estimates that there are over 178 million individuals who identify as Afro-descendant living in the Americas, in lands of global environmental importance. 

    “There is a significant overlap between biodiversity hot spots, protected areas, and areas of high Afro-descendant presence,” said Angel. “But the role and climate contributions of these communities is understudied, and often made invisible.”    

    Limiting methane emissions

    Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas: When released into the atmosphere, it immediately traps about 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide does. More than 150 countries have now signed the Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP26, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

    Sergey Paltsev, the deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, gave the keynote address at a Nov. 17 event on methane, where he noted the importance of methane reductions from the oil and gas sector to meeting the 2030 goal.

    “The oil and gas sector is where methane emissions reductions could be achieved the fastest,” said Paltsev. “We also need to employ an integrated approach to address methane emissions in all sectors and all regions of the world because methane emissions reductions provide a near-term pathway to avoiding dangerous tipping points in the global climate system.”

    “Keep fighting relentlessly”

    Arina Khotimsky, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering and a co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, attended the first week of COP27. She reflected on the experience in a social media post after returning home. 

    “COP will always have its haters. Is there greenwashing? Of course! Is everyone who should have a say in this process in the room? Not even close,” wrote Khotimsky. “So what does it take for COP to matter? It takes everyone who attended to not only put ‘climate’ on front-page news for two weeks, but to return home and keep fighting relentlessly against climate change. I know that I will.” More

  • in

    Machinery of the state

    In Mai Hassan’s studies of Kenya, she documented the emergence of a sprawling administrative network officially billed as encouraging economic development, overseeing the population, and bolstering democracy. But Hassan’s field interviews and archival research revealed a more sinister purpose for the hundreds of administrative and security offices dotting the nation: “They were there to do the presidents’ bidding, which often involved coercing their own countrymen.”

    This research served as a catalyst for Hassan, who joined MIT as an associate professor of political science in July, to investigate what she calls the “politicized management of bureaucracy and the state.” She set out to “understand the motivations, capacities, and roles of people administering state programs and social functions,” she says. “I realized the state is not a faceless being, but instead comprised of bureaucrats carrying out functions on behalf of the state and the regime that runs it.”

    Today, Hassan’s portfolio encompasses not just the bureaucratic state but democratization efforts in Kenya and elsewhere in the East Africa region, including her native Sudan. Her research highlights the difficulties of democratization. “I’m finding that the conditions under which people come together for overthrowing an autocratic regime really matter, because those conditions may actually impede a nation from achieving democracy,” she says.

    A coordinated bureaucracy

    Hassan’s academic engagement with the state’s administrative machinery began during graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned her master’s and doctorate in government. While working with a community trash and sanitation program in some Kenyan Maasai communities, Hassan recalls “shepherding myself from office to office, meeting different bureaucrats to obtain the same approvals but for different jurisdictions.” The Kenyan state had recently set up hundreds of new local administrative units, motivated by what it claimed was the need for greater efficiency. But to Hassan’s eyes, “the administrative network was not well organized, seemed costly to maintain, and seemed to hinder — not bolster — development,” she says. What then, she wondered, was “the political logic behind such state restructuring?”

    Hassan began researching this bureaucratic transformation of Kenya, speaking with administrators in communities large and small who were charged with handling the business of the state. These studies yielded a wealth of findings for her dissertation, and for multiple journals.

    But upon finishing this tranche of research, Hassan realized that it was insufficient simply to study the structure of the state. “Understanding the role of new administrative structures for politics, development, and governance fundamentally requires that we understand who the government has put in charge of them,” she says. Among her insights:

    “The president’s office knows a lot of these administrators, and thinks about their strengths, limitations, and fit within a community,” says Hassan. Some administrators served the purposes of the central government by setting up water irrigation projects or building a new school. But in other villages, the state chose administrators who could act “much more coercively, ignoring development needs, throwing youth who supported the opposition into jail, and spending resources exclusively on policing.”

    Hassan’s work showed that in communities characterized by strong political opposition, “the local administration was always more coercive, regardless of an elected or autocratic president,” she says. Notably, the tenures of such officials proved shorter than those of their peers. “Once administrators get to know a community — going to church and the market with residents — it’s hard to coerce them,” explains Hassan.

    These short tenures come with costs, she notes: “Spending significant time in a station is useful for development, because you know exactly whom to hire if you want to build a school or get something done efficiently.” Politicizing these assignments undermines efforts at delivery of services and, more broadly, economic improvement nationwide. “Regimes that are more invested in retaining power must devote resources to establishing and maintaining control, resources that could otherwise be used for development and the welfare of citizens,” she says.

    Hassan wove together her research covering three presidents over a 50-year period, in the book, “Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya” (2020, Cambridge University Press), named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2020.

    Sudanese roots

    The role of the state in fulfilling the needs of its citizens has long fascinated Hassan. Her grandfather, who had served as Sudan’s ambassador to the USSR, talked to her about the advantages of a centralized government “that allocated resources to reduce inequality,” she says.

    Politics often dominated the conversation in gatherings of Hassan’s family and friends. Her parents immigrated to northern Virginia when she was very young, and many relatives joined them, part of a steady flow of Sudanese fleeing political turmoil and oppression.

    “A lot of people had expected more from the Sudanese state after independence and didn’t get it,” she says. “People had hopes for what the government could and should do.”

    Hassan’s Sudanese roots and ongoing connection to the Sudanese community have shaped her academic interests and goals. At the University of Virginia, she gravitated toward history and economics classes. But it was her time at the Ralph Bunche Summer institute that perhaps proved most pivotal in her journey. This five-week intensive program is offered by the American Political Science Association to introduce underrepresented undergraduate students to doctoral studies. “It was really compelling in this program to think rigorously about all the political ideas I’d heard as I was growing up, and find ways to challenge some assertions empirically,” she says.

    Regime change and civil society

    At Harvard, Hassan first set out to focus on Sudan for her doctoral program. “There wasn’t much scholarship on the country, and what there was lacked rigor,” she says. “That was something that needed to change.” But she decided to postpone this goal after realizing that she might be vulnerable as a student conducting field research there. She landed instead in Kenya, where she honed her interviewing and data collection skills.

    Today, empowered by her prior work, she has returned to Sudan. “I felt that the popular uprising in Sudan and ousting of the Islamist regime in 2019 should be documented and analyzed,” she says. “It was incredible that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, acted collectively to uproot a dictator, in the face of brutal violence from the state.”But “democracy is still uncertain there,” says Hassan. The broad coalition behind regime change “doesn’t know how to govern because different people and different sectors of society have different ideas about what democratic Sudan should look like,” she says. “Overthrowing an autocratic regime and having civil society come together to figure out what’s going to replace it require different things, and it’s unclear if a movement that accomplishes the first is well-suited to do the second.”

    Hassan believes that in order to create lasting democratization, “you need the hard work of building organizations, developing ways in which members learn to compromise among themselves, and make decisions and rules for how to move forward.”

    Hassan is enjoying the fall semester and teaching courses on autocracy and authoritarian regimes. She is excited as well about developing her work on African efforts at democratic mobilization in a political science department she describes as “policy-forward.”

    Over time, she hopes to connect with Institute scholars in the hard sciences to think about other challenges these nations are facing, such as climate change. “It’s really hot in Sudan, and it may be one of the first countries to become completely uninhabitable,” she says. “I’d like to explore strategies for growing crops differently or managing the exceedingly scarce resource of water, and figure out what kind of political discussions will be necessary to implement any changes. It is really critical to think about these problems in an interdisciplinary way.” More

  • in

    Promoting systemic change in the Middle East, the “MIT way”

    The Middle East is a region that is facing complicated challenges. MIT programs have been committed to building scalable methodologies through which students and the broader MIT community can learn and make an impact. These processes ensure programs work alongside others across cultures to support change aligned with their needs. Through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), faculty and staff at the Institute continue to build opportunities to connect with and support the region.

    In this spirit, MISTI launched the Leaders Journey Workshop in 2021. This program partnered MIT students with Palestinian and Israeli alumni from three associate organizations: Middle East Entrepreneurs for Tomorrow (MEET), Our Generation Speaks (OGS), and Tech2Peace. Teams met monthly to engage with speakers and work with one another to explore the best ways to leverage science, technology, and entrepreneurship across borders.

    Building on the success of this workshop, the program piloted a for-credit course: SP.258 (MISTI: Middle East Cross-Border Development and Leadership) in fall 2021. The course involved engaging with subject matter experts through five mini-consulting projects in collaboration with regional stakeholders. Topics included climate, health care, and economic development. The course was co-instructed by associate director of the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP) Sinan AbuShanab, managing director of MISTI programs in the Middle East David Dolev, and Kathleen Schwind ’19, with MIT CIS/ MISTI Research Affiliate Steven Koltai as lead mentor. The course also drew support from alumni mentors and regional industry partners.

    The course was developed during the height of the pandemic and thus successfully leveraged the intense culture of online engagement prevalent at the time by layering in-person coursework with strategic digital group engagement. Pedagogically, the structure was inspired by multiple MIT methodologies: MISTI preparation and training courses, Sloan Action Learning, REAP/REAL multi-party stakeholder model, the Media Lab Learning Initiative, and the multicultural framework of associate organizations.

    “We worked to develop a series of aims and a methodology that would enrich MIT students and their peers in the region and support the important efforts of Israelis and Palestinians to make systemic change,” said Dolev.

    During the on-campus sessions, MIT students explored the region’s political and historical complexities and the meaning of being a global leader and entrepreneur. Guest presenters included: Boston College Associate Professor Peter Krause (MIT Security Studies Program alumnus), Gilad Rosenzweig (MITdesignX), Ari Jacobovits (MIT-Africa), and Mollie Laffin-Rose Agbiboa (MIT-REAP). Group projects focused on topics that fell under three key regional verticals: water, health care, and economic development. The teams were given a technical or business challenge they were tasked with solving. These challenges were sourced directly from for-profit and nonprofit organizations in the region.

    “This was a unique opportunity for me to learn so much about the area I live in, work on a project together with people from the ‘other side,’ MIT students, and incredible mentors,” shared a participant from the region. “Furthermore, getting a glimpse of the world of MIT was a great experience for me.”

    For their final presentations, teams pitched their solutions, including their methodology for researching/addressing the problem, a description of solutions to be applied, what is needed to execute the idea itself, and potential challenges encountered. Teams received feedback and continued to deepen their experience in cross-cultural teamwork.

    “As an education manager, I needed guidance with these digital tools and how to approach them,” says an EcoPeace representative. “The MIT program provided me with clear deliverables I can now implement in my team’s work.”

    “This course has broadened my knowledge of conflicts, relationships, and how geography plays an important role in the region,” says an MIT student participant. “Moving forward, I feel more confident working with business and organizations to develop solutions for problems in real time, using the skills I have to supplement the project work.”

    Layers of engagement with mentors, facilitators, and whole-team leadership ensured that participants gained project management experience, learning objectives were met, and professional development opportunities were available. Each team was assigned an MIT-MEET alumni mentor with whom they met throughout the course. Mentors coached the teams on methods for managing a client project and how to collaborate for successful completion. Joint sessions with MIT guest speakers deepened participants’ regional understanding of water, health care, economic development, and their importance in the region. Speakers included: Mohamed Aburawi, Phil Budden (MIT-REAP) Steven Koltai, Shari Loessberg, Dina Sherif (MIT Legatum Center, Greg Sixt (J-WAFS), and Shriya Srinivasan.

    “The program is unlike any other I’ve come across,” says one of the alumni mentors. “The chance for MIT students to work directly with peers from the region, to propose and create technical solutions to real problems on the ground, and partner with local organizations is an incredibly meaningful opportunity. I wish I had been able to participate in something like this when I was at MIT.”

    Each team also assigned a fellow group member as a facilitator, who served as the main point of contact for the team and oversaw project management: organizing workstreams, ensuring deadlines were met, and mediating any group disagreements. This model led to successful project outcomes and innovative suggestions.

    “The superb work of the MISTI group gave us a critical eye and made significant headway on a product that can hopefully be a game changer to over 150 Israeli and Palestinian organizations,” says a representative from Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP).

    Leadership team meetings included MIT staff and Israeli and Palestinian leadership of the partner organizations for discussing process, content, recent geopolitical developments, and how to adapt the class to the ongoing changing situation.

    “The topic of Palestine/Israel is contentious: globally, in the region, and also, at times, on the MIT campus,” says Dolev. “I myself have questioned how we can make a systemic impact with our partners from the region. How can we be side-by-side on that journey for the betterment of all? I have now seen first-hand how this multilayered model can work.”

    MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) is MIT’s hub for global experiences. MISTI’s unparalleled internship, research, teaching, and study abroad programs offer students unique experiences that bring MIT’s one-of-a-kind education model to life in countries around the world. MISTI programs are carefully designed to complement on-campus course work and research, and rigorous, country-specific preparation enables students to forge cultural connections and play a role in addressing important global challenges while abroad. Students come away from their experiences with invaluable perspectives that inform their education, career, and worldview. MISTI embodies MIT’s commitment to global engagement and prepares students to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world. More

  • in

    Migration Summit addresses education and workforce development in displacement

    “Refugees can change the world with access to education,” says Alnarjes Harba, a refugee from Syria who recently shared her story at the 2022 Migration Summit — a first-of-its-kind, global convening to address the challenges that displaced communities face in accessing education and employment.

    At the age of 13, Harba was displaced to Lebanon, where she graduated at the top of her high school class. But because of her refugee status, she recalls, no university in her host country would accept her. Today, Harba is a researcher in health-care architecture. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University, where she was part of the Global Education Movement, a program providing refugees with pathways to higher education and work.

    Like many of the Migration Summit’s participants, Harba shared her story to call attention not only to the barriers to refugee education, but also to the opportunities to create more education-to-employment pathways like MIT Refugee Action Hub’s (ReACT) certificate programs for displaced learners.

    Organized by MIT ReACT, the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), Na’amal, Karam Foundation, and Paper Airplanes, the Migration Summit sought to center the voices and experiences of those most directly impacted by displacement — both in narratives about the crisis and in the search for solutions. Themed “Education and Workforce Development in Displacement,” this year’s summit welcomed more than 900 attendees from over 30 countries, to a total of 40 interactive virtual sessions led by displaced learners, educators, and activists working to support communities in displacement.

    Sessions highlighted the experiences of refugees, migrants, and displaced learners, as well as current efforts across the education and workforce development landscape, ranging from pK-12 initiatives to post-secondary programs, workforce training to entrepreneurship opportunities.

    Overcoming barriers to access

    The vision for the Migration Summit developed, in part, out of the need to raise more awareness about the long-standing global displacement crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 82.4 million people worldwide today are forcibly displaced, a figure that doesn’t include the estimated 12 million people who have fled their homes in Ukraine since February.

    “Refugees not only leave their countries; they leave behind a thousand memories, their friends, their families,” says Mondiant Dogon, a human rights activist, refugee ambassador, and author who gave the Migration Summit’s opening keynote address. “Education is the most important thing that can happen to refugees. In that way, we can leave behind the refugee camps and build our own independent future.”

    Yet, as the stories of the summit’s participants highlight, many in displacement have lost their livelihoods or had their education disrupted — only to face further challenges when trying to access education or find work in their new places of residence. Obstacles range from legal restrictions, language and cultural barriers, and unaffordable costs to lack of verifiable credentials. UNHCR estimates that only 5 percent of refugees have access to higher education, compared to the global average of 39 percent.

    “There is another problem related to forced displacement — dehumanization of migrants,” says Lina Sergie Attar, the founder and CEO of Karam Foundation. “They are unjustly positioned as enemies, as a threat.”

    But as Blein Alem, an MIT ReACT alum and refugee from Eritrea, explains, “No one chooses to be a refugee — it just occurs. Whether by conflict, war, human rights violations, just because you have refugee status does not mean that you are not willing to make a change in your life and access to education and work.” Several participants, including Alem, shared that, even with a degree in hand, their refugee status limited their ability to work in their new countries of residence.

    Displaced communities face complex and structural challenges in accessing education and workforce development opportunities. Because of the varying and vast effects of displacement, efforts to address these challenges range in scale and focus and differ across sectors. As Lorraine Charles, co-founder and director of Na’amal, noted in the Migration Summit’s closing session, many organizations find themselves working in silos, or even competing with each other for funding and other resources. As a result, solution-making has been fragmented, with persistent gaps between different sectors that are, in fact, working toward the same goals.

    Imagining a modular, digital, collaborative approach

    A key takeaway from the month’s discussions, then, is the need to rethink the response to refugee education and workforce challenges. During the session, “From Intentions to Impact: Decolonizing Refugee Response,” participants emphasized the systemic nature of these challenges. Yet formal responses, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, have been largely inadequate — in some instances even oppressing the communities they’re meant to support, explains Sana Mustafa, director of partnership and engagement for Asylum Access.

    “We have the opportunity to rethink how we are handling the situation,” Mustafa says, calling for more efforts to include refugees in the design and development of solutions.

    Presenters also agreed that educational institutions, particularly universities, could play a vital role in providing more pathways for refugees and displaced learners. Key to this is rethinking the structure of education itself, including its delivery.

    “The challenge right now is that degrees are monolithic,” says Sanjay Sarma, vice president for MIT Open Learning, who gave the keynote address on “Pathways to Education, Livelihood, and Hope.” “They’re like those gigantic rocks at Stonehenge or in other megalithic sites. What we need is a much more granular version of education: bricks. Bricks were invented several thousand years ago, but we don’t really have that yet formally and extensively in education.”

    “There is no way we can accommodate thousands and thousands of refugees face-to-face,” says Shai Reshef, the founder and president of University of the People. “The only path is a digital one.”

    Ultimately, explains Demetri Fadel of Karam Foundation, “We really need to think about how to create a vision of education as a right for every person all around the world.”

    Underlying many of the Migration Summit’s conclusions is the awareness that there is still much work to be done. However, as the summit’s co-chair Lana Cook said in her closing remarks, “This was not a convening of despair, but one about what we can build together.”

    The summit’s organizers are currently putting together a public report of the key findings that have emerged from the month’s conversations, including recommendations for thematic working groups and future Migration Summit activities. More