Addressing the impacts of climate change is the defining challenge of our time.
The climate crisis, and the efforts to respond to it, touch the lives of almost everyone in a direct and tangible way – some more so than others. And in many parts of the world, those who are least equipped to handle their changing environment will be disproportionately impacted by it. Much can and must be achieved with existing technologies and policy approaches, but without game-changing advances in forefront innovations and multiple fields of science, engineering, and the social sciences, our collective efforts to tackle the climate challenge will not succeed.
Launched in 2020, Climate Grand Challenges mobilized the MIT research community around some of the most difficult unsolved problems in adaptation, carbon removal, climate science, climate policy, human impacts, and reducing emissions.
These are problems whose solutions could move the needle in the world’s climate response, and where progress depends on applications of frontier knowledge and the advancement and application of cutting-edge technologies.
With this initial effort, we aimed to accelerate projects that offered bold, interdisciplinary solutions including plans for rapid and large-scale implementation. Integral to this process was working with partners to create social or environmental impact as well as financial return – companies, impact investors, and social technological entrepreneurs, as well as governments, non-profits, and philanthropists.
A portfolio of multi-year projects was identified over the course of a two-phase process that drew on the creativity and commitment of the MIT community:
- Identified high-impact climate solutions across disciplines spanning MIT.
- Assembled the integrated, focused teams needed to develop and implement these solutions rapidly.
- Engaged collaborators from industry, non-profits, governments, philanthropists, investors, and other sectors of society.
Phase I stimulated ideas for transformative projects that were broad in scope, large in ambition, and had the potential to make major advances in the global climate response. We received nearly 100 letters of interest from nearly 400 MIT faculty members and senior researchers throughout all five MIT schools and the college of computing, as well as some from outside research institutions.
We held 16 virtual workshops, providing opportunities for the authors to discuss and refine their letters and to connect and collaborate with other faculty and research staff working in related areas.
Based on the recommendations of the Climate Grand Challenges Evaluation Subcommittee of the Faculty Committee, 27 teams were invited to develop comprehensive white papers which described the problem area, its significance, and a plan for achieving a solution. As appropriate, these papers also described plans for accelerated innovation and/or broad societal adoption. The white paper leads were encouraged to continue building the teams needed to define and execute these plans.
The white papers were reviewed by panels of prominent international experts in the relevant scientific and technical domains and in processes and policies for innovation and scalability. The reviewers included research leaders in the natural, physical, social and management sciences, the humanities, and engineering, as well as leaders in the public policy domain and practitioners. They had successful track records in commercializing environmental and energy technologies and/or in mobilizing stakeholder groups around social goods and goals. After completion of these reviews, an initial portfolio of five Climate Grand Challenges were selected.
Faculty Review Committee
Planning and selection processes were overseen by a faculty committee consisting of research leaders from all five of MIT’s schools and the Schwarzman College of Computing as well as participating Institute-wide units. The committee was advisory to the associate provost for international activities and the vice president for research.
Robert Armstrong | School of Engineering | Chemical Engineering
Steven Barrett | School of Engineering | Aeronautics and Astronautics
Angela Belcher | School of Engineering | Bioengineering
Vladimir Bulovic | School of Engineering | Electrical Engineering & Computer Science
John Deutch* | School of Science | Chemistry
Mircea Dinca* | School of Science | Chemistry
Esther Duflo | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences | Economics
Elfatih Eltahir | School of Engineering | Civil and Environmental Engineering
Kerry Emanuel | School of Science | Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
John Fernandez | School of Architecture and Planning | Architecture
Colette Heald | School of Engineering & School of Science | Civil and Environmental Engineering & Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Pablo Jarillo-Herrero* | School of Science | Physics
Paul Joskow* | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences | Economics
Christopher Knittel | Sloan School of Management
Tom Malone* | Sloan School of Management
Jacquin Niles* | School of Engineering | Bioengineering
Elsa Olivetti* | School of Engineering | Materials Science and Engineering
Harriet Ritvo* | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences | History
Ronald Rivest* | Schwarzman College of Computing | Electrical Engineering & Computer Science
Noelle Selin | Schwarzman College of Computing | Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
Yang Shao-Horn | School of Engineering | Mechanical Engineering
Robert van der Hilst* | School of Science | Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Anne White* | School of Engineering | Nuclear Science and Engineering
Christopher Zegras* | School of Architecture and Planning | Urban Studies and Planning
* Evaluation Subcommittee
Penny Chisholm | School of Science | Biology
Mircea Dinca (Co-Chair) | School of Science | Chemistry
Pablo Jarillo-Herrero | School of Science | Physics
Paul L. Joskow | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences | Economics
Jesse Kroll (Co-Chair) | School of Engineering | Civil and Environmental Engineering
Thomas W. Malone | Sloan School of Management
Harriet Ritvo | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences | History
Tavneet Suri | Sloan School of Management
Rob van der Hilst (Co-Chair) | School of Science | Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Anne E. White | School of Engineering | Nuclear Science and Engineering
Chris Zegras (Co-Chair) | School of Architecture and Planning | Urban Studies and Planning
Members of the Faculty Review Committee are eligible to submit or participate in the submission of letters of interest and, subsequently, to participate in the preparation of white papers. However, committee members who elect to participate in either phase will not participate in the relevant evaluation. Members of the committee who are not participating in letter or white paper submissions are eligible to give advice or input on prospective submissions if asked.
Climate science at MIT
Climate Grand Challenges is designed to complement and enhance the work of existing MIT units, including the MIT Energy Initiative, MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, the departments of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering, and many others.
You can learn more about these and other climate-related activities on the MIT Climate Portal. You can also explore MIT Climate Action, MIT’s multifaceted plan to act on climate change, and the Climate and Sustainability Consortium.