Roger Shamel (MBA ’74) explains why some HBS alumni are worried about climate change, and why you might worry too.
“Leaders making a difference” is the hoped-for outcome of the Harvard Business School mission, “To educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” And perhaps no greater difference is needed today than the difference of slowing the advance of the changing climate that threatens our future.
So, with this statement of fact in mind, it was only fitting that on Friday, September 20, 2019, a group of nearly 50 HBS alumni, administrators, faculty, staff, students, and community members should join forces to make HBS the first business school in the nation to engage in a Global Climate Strike.
Although HBS was the only business school known to be participating, the event here was one of about 5,000 worldwide, involving some 4 million people in over 150 countries, who were demonstrating to demand action by world leaders who were preparing to discuss climate change at the United Nations.
Scientists and activists have been sounding an alarm on climate change for decades, calling for a response to the climate crisis that is appropriate to the scale and timing of the problem. This alarm has largely been unheard, as elements of human nature, fueled by fossil-fuel-related PR, have largely neutralized the fear and response reactions that would normally come into play.
Led by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, both youth and adults are saying that it is time to recognize that the fossil fuel industry, which has served us well for many decades, has reached a point where it must be phased out, or transitioned to renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar.
Climate Science and Impacts
Basic climate science today is essentially incontrovertible. It has been studied and refined for almost 200 years. In a nutshell, certain gases in Earth’s atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap more heat from the sun as their concentrations in the atmosphere increase—with these atmospheric concentrations generally increasing in parallel with increases in the production and use of fossil fuels.
This would not be such a large problem if these gases did not remain in the atmosphere for many years, and at relatively low concentrations that make them difficult to remove. They are also colorless, odorless, and generally undetectable without scientific instruments, making them seem harmless.
Climate change caused by fossil-fuel use is a multifaceted and serious problem, requiring global cooperation to mitigate. In fact there are few aspects of our environment that are not impacted in some way by climate change, because so many of Earth’s human-friendly characteristics are climate- and temperature-dependent. Simply put, the basic human needs of food, water, and shelter are all dependent on having a relatively stable climate, similar to the one that humans have evolved in, and adopted to, in the past many thousands of years.
In fact, climate scientists believe we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with nearly 200 species becoming extinct every day. Tens of thousands of people have already died, or been displaced, from the effects of climate change. And many of these effects, such as sea-level rise, are accelerating, with positive feedback loops making things worse. Worst of all, there is a point—and we don’t know exactly where it is, except possibly nearby—beyond which humankind may literally be unable to recover.
Bottom line, we cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or ignore basic climate science with impunity. As sea levels rise, and temperatures increase, ecosystems will continue to collapse. And as important resources diminish, social unrest and upheaval will become inevitable.
Finally, before leaving the basics of climate science and its looming impacts, one point must be made clear to Harbus readers, who, to be frank, are among the world’s most elite scholars. That point is:
While it is true that the more vulnerable in society will suffer first, and be hit hardest, there is no question that middle- and upper-class citizens—yes, even those associated with Harvard—will feel the pain of climate change. Disease vectors, to cite one example, love a warming world, and show little class or wealth bias regarding who is infected. And, as another example, if aesthetic beauty is your thing, do you enjoy seeing a bright blue sky? You can kiss that “goodbye” if solar geoengineering comes into play.
Climate Contention, Human Nature, and Harvard
Climate change has only become contentious in the past several decades, when companies profiting from the fossil-fuel status quo realized that their entire business was at risk of being made obsolete. The resulting misinformation campaign has led to decades of confusion, controversy, and delay, putting us increasingly in harm’s way. Today’s best science says that we have only about a decade to make a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy.
Now comes the good news/bad news part of the story. The good news is that, although technological advances will continue to improve things, we have the basic technology, and the money, and—if we act fast—the time available to make the needed transition to clean, 100% renewable energy.
The bad news is—and this is the scary part—a little more complicated. First, although the scientific aspects of the climate-change problem are well understood, the human and social aspects are not. And these aspects, which would benefit from Harvard or other research, are surprisingly complex.
To cite one example, it is human nature to be disproportionately influenced by what we first hear about a subject, and by what first comes to mind when a subject is mentioned. And in the case of climate change, or global warming, what people often hear first about the subject may not sound bad. This means that we may start off thinking that climate change is fine, and we stick with that view!
Beyond the neurological deficits mentioned above, there are also some very subtle, yet exceedingly strong social aspects of human behavior related to climate change, and these aspects influence how we react. To cite just one example of this, when in doubt, most people tend to follow the crowd. This isn’t bad when the crowd is headed in the right direction, but it can be misleading, and dangerous, if it is not.
The Present, Progress at HBS, and a Need for Leadership
We are, today, at a nearly invisible crossroads as a species. Only a very small percentage of our kind—the climate scientists—can clearly see where we are headed. The rest of us must, for the first time in human history, make a choice based on what the science tells us, rather than on direct experience. It’s a huge shift from what we have done in the past. Consider the expression “Experience is the best teacher,” and even the development of the case method at HBS!
Nature-attuned people, including farmers, fishermen, and some others, can see that our natural world is changing. But those who are out of touch with nature, or misinformed, often look to the past, listen to friends, or read fossil-fuel-subsidized explanations, then relax, concluding that the weather and climate are always changing. It is simply part of human nature to deny bad outcomes.
This is where Harvard and HBS come into the picture, the latter with its mission, “To educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” Never in human history has this mission been more vitally needed. It is not hyperbole to say that the future of civilization literally depends on having leaders who understand the magnitude, direction, and consequences of climate change, and who are willing and able to guide humankind in the directions in which we need to move.
As an HBS alum, I am delighted to see the work of the Business & Environment Initiative (BEI) that Dean Nohria saw fit to put in place years ago, and the progress that is being made relating to climate change. BEI Chair Mike Toffel and BEI Director Jennifer Nash have been doing a wonderful job of bringing climate change into the HBS curriculum. But, despite the progress, more needs to be done.
While attending my 45th HBS reunion, I was pleased with a tour we were given relating to HBS moves to make its campus more sustainable and happy to be able to attend three lectures relating to climate change. But I was sad to hear, as part of these lectures, that some “stinking thinking” is alive at Harvard. I won’t name names, but I will advise current HBS students to be aware of the fact that statements by professors aren’t always right. I noted examples of false equivalencies, misunderstood market mechanisms, and illogical time horizons, to name a few.
Not wanting to be accused of picking on faculty, I’ll add that HBS alumni aren’t perfect, either. During the recent HBS reunions, some of us alumni conducted a survey of alumni to ascertain their levels of understanding and concern relating to climate change. We were disturbed to find that only one alum in 10 could correctly identify the three most significant greenhouse gasses. And, worse, only 40% correctly identified climate change as an issue that, if not addressed soon, according to scientists, likely has the greatest potential to disrupt civilization as we know it later this century.
Returning to the topic of leadership—a somewhat rare-but-vital element of human nature—there is a greater need for this quality today, in dealing with climate change, than ever before. The reason is that when people are faced with a new situation (such as climate change is), they turn to their friends and neighbors for guidance on what to do.
The problem is that in order to deal successfully with climate change, we must do things that we have not learned to do in evolution’s school of hard knocks. To succeed with climate change we must suppress short-term concerns in favor of long-term ones. We must listen to the advice of experts and choose a direction, before we can each sense the serious consequences of ignoring their advice. And, for the many people who don’t trust the experts, we must have leaders who can lead even the most skeptical among us in the right direction.
From what source will the leadership come? Ideally from those who lead the individual countries of the world, and/or from the United Nations, and other global institutions having a bully pulpit. And if the national leadership fails or, worse, leads in the wrong direction, then the responsibility to lead falls on the shoulders of sub-national governmental, religious, business, educational, and other organizations.
To some extent, we see this happening, but, for Harvard, not to the degree that seems appropriate.
Looking Forward and Moving Ahead
A chant heard at the HBS climate strike was “C’mon Harvard, lead the nation, give us climate education!” Of course, a chant can’t fully describe the steps that seem appropriate for HBS and Harvard to follow. So, a few more thoughts on that topic are in order.
I offer these suggestions knowing full well that no one has assigned Harvard the job of solving, or even of mitigating, climate change. Nor does Harvard have the power to order anyone to do anything (other than ordering a contractor to place solar panels on every feasible south-facing roof surface).
Yet Harvard can lead, the way all great leaders lead: by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of their charges; by clearly and vividly describing the desired outcome, along with suggested approaches that are believed will be effective; by basing these approaches on sound science, and an understanding of human nature; and by choosing provosts, deans, professors, and others who can also effectively lead.
As a vehicle for looking and moving ahead on the climate challenge, a number of HBS alumni have been contemplating and corresponding about what might make sense. In the past few years there have been numerous advertisements, advertorials, and articles in the Harbus relating to this challenge.
In 2015, for example, HBS’s two oldest alumni, members of the Class of 1939, F. Gorham Brigham, Jr., and Delmore B. Markoff, who were then 100 and 97 years old, respectively, signed an open joint letter to the HBS community, published in the Harbus, in which they proposed a new HBS project to “examine … global warming … and the associated impacts.” To date, Gorham’s and Del’s suggestion lies unfulfilled.
More recently, several members of the HBS Class of 1974 have taken Gorham’s and Del’s suggestion a step further. We have proposed that Harvard University form a University Climate Initiative (UCI), which would work to combine the strengths of Harvard’s various schools. Currently, despite efforts to integrate them, Harvard’s schools operate quite independently, being responsible for their own fundraising and so on. This differentiation often makes cooperation among the schools more difficult than it should be in terms of synergistic collaboration.
As with other Harvard initiatives, the Harvard University Climate Initiative will help to coordinate, facilitate, and integrate pan-Harvard climate-related activities among the Harvard schools in the three primary areas in which Harvard excels, namely research, teaching, and convening.
One of the first charges of the UCI, as we see it, will be to study and understand the degrees to which members of the Harvard community, and others, understand the workings and implications of ongoing, accelerating, and unmitigated climate change. Based on our research, we believe that there exist significant and worrisome levels of climate-change-related naïveté and misinformation among even the most well-educated members of society.
Other objectives of the UCI, based on the results of the above research, will be to help close any major gaps in climate-change understanding by educating not only students, but also alumni and others, through various methods of outreach, including the convening of an annual global climate leadership summit. These summits will be designed to challenge participants to create and lead competitive projects that help to mitigate climate change impacts, with the implemented projects being judged by summit participants in subsequent years.
In conclusion, Harbus readers should know that if they have any interest in the above, and/or in some of the other climate-related activities of Harvard alumni, there is a popular, growing LinkedIn group, “HBS/Harvard Alumni for Climate Action,” that has recently decided to accept membership requests from current students.
Roger Shamel (HBS Humphrey Fellow, MBA ’74) lives in New Hampshire, where he is a conservation commissioner, and has led legislation to facilitate the cost-effective use of residential solar power. After HBS, he worked for consulting firm Arthur D. Little, Inc., before founding his own consulting firm, Consulting Resources Corporation, from which he is now retired. He holds degrees in chemistry from Franklin & Marshall College and the Ohio State University. He is the founding director of the non-profit Global Warming Education Network and a founding manager of the LinkedIn group HBS/Harvard Alumni for Climate Action. He and his wife of 47 years have three children and six grandchildren.