14 Feb 2019
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Plotting a Path Forward on Climate Change

An HBS expert panel explores both the roadblocks and the realistic routes to real impact

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HBS Professor Mike Toffel; Jeremy Grantham (MBA 1966), cofounder and Chief Investment Strategist of GMO, LLC; Gina McCarthy, Director of C-CHANGE (Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; and David Perry (MBA 1997), president, CEO, and director of Indigo Agriculture. (photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

We have the technology, the capability, and the talent to combat climate change and save the world. The obstacles? Big money in politics, aversion to change, and inadequate communication regarding the rapidly approaching consequences of inaction.

That was the message delivered on February 12, 2019, at “Confronting Climate Change: Boston-Based Ideas that Can Change the World,” a panel discussion at the Spangler Center moderated by HBS Professor Michael Toffel and organized by the HBS Business & Environment Initiative (BEI), in partnership with the HBS Association of Boston (HBSAB).

The blunt, 90-minute dialogue featured a trio of experts looking at climate change from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. “It took me 20 years to wake up to what an existential threat climate change is,” said Jeremy Grantham (MBA 1966), cofounder and Chief Investment Strategist of GMO, LLC, who has pledged $1 billion of his own wealth to fighting climate change through the Grantham Foundation. “Time is not on our side. We should act as if we are desperate,” he said. “We are desperate—but we act blasé.”

At the core of the stagnation in policy change, he said, is the central problem of government—interference from deep-pocketed special interest groups. “You can’t get a bill through Congress today if the rich and powerful hate it,” he said. “We need to get the money from fossil fuels out of politics.”

Locally, however, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who now serves as the director of C-CHANGE (Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, sees some moves in the right direction. “Boston is on the cutting edge of this issue,” she said, pointing to the creation of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a group of business, institutional, and civic leaders developing strategies to fight climate change and meet Mayor Marty Walsh’s 2050 carbon-neutrality goal.

However, McCarthy added, “the city is slow to respond, and it takes government a little longer than it should to catch up to the technology of today.” She cited the Seaport District as an example, where small condominiums sell for more than $1 million, but builders are not required to make their projects energy efficient, nor are incentives offered for building all-electric powered homes or to those that use geo-thermal heat pumps. “Building codes can really move the dial citywide,” Grantham said. Asked what his top climate priority would be if he were Mayor of Boston, Grantham said he would stop issuing permits for building in flood plains and use his political capital to tighten the building codes to reach the goals of which McCarthy spoke.

Moving away from the city to more rural areas, David Perry (MBA 1997), president, CEO, and director of Indigo Agriculture, said one-third of all carbon emissions are the result of the agriculture industry’s use of pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers. Soil from the average cultivated field contains 0.5 to 1 percent carbon, while soil from the average virgin land, including forest and prairie, contains 3 to 7 percent. “Carbon capture is the only way to get out of this,” he said, explaining his company commercializes microorganisms that improve crop health and productivity, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. “We could absorb all the carbon humans have put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution if we could get [agricultural land] back to that 3 to 7 percent.”

We do not need new technology, Perry said—we need to apply capitalism and government regulation to these problems to provide incentives to farmers or convince consumers they should pay for this change either through higher prices or by providing carbon credits that at the right price will drive change. McCarthy said a two-pronged approach is required: take the politics out of climate change by making it a health and economic issue and properly communicate the science to the general public.

As an environmental advisor to Governor Mitt Romney, McCarthy developed a climate action plan that the Republican governor supported, not because he was a crusader against climate change, “but because everything in it would save money and Romney knew it.” Her charge at C-CHANGE, she said, is to take the science and translate it into English, making it relatable to people on a personal and economic level, which will in turn provide politicians with the political capital and will to make changes.

“There is a way to turn this around if we make it more personal,” she said. “People may not care about the health of the planet, but they sure as hell care about their kids and their grandchildren. I think we can change this, but it is about communication with people in a way that relates to them— we have to talk about solutions and innovations.” Democracy, she said, needs to be driven by the will of the people.

Grantham said he looks toward institutions like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton to lead the charge for change, but is not particularly optimistic.

“It is the number one social, economic, and financial crisis facing the world, and you’d never know it,” he said, noting that it is the obligation of these prominent universities to make politicians and the public aware of the severity of the crisis, which he said “takes sustained energy and communication that you have to project into the world.”

McCarthy, on the other hand, has faith in the next generation of business leaders to do the right thing. “Businesses who don’t get climate change will be the losers in the long run,” she said. “I do not think the young people will sit back and let capitalism work the way it has before.

“I have great hope and faith we are going to address this issue I don’t see any other answer than to fix,” McCarthy said. “This university and others need to be major players in it. Harvard can be an engine of innovation.”

The impact of climate change will be felt around the globe in the coming years. Learn more about the implications for business in this HBS Background Note. Consider how Boston will look as sea levels rise using the Climate Ready Boston Map Explorer. Join us at Stepping Up: Business in the Era of Climate Change, a five-part WBUR series in collaboration with Harvard Business School and Boston University Questrom School of Business. Confronting Climate Change: Risks and Opportunities lists additional resources alumni can use to explore the topic.

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Class of MBA 1997, Section A
Class of MBA 1966, Section C

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