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Harbus-LogoHBS alumni-elders Delmor Markoff (MBA ’39), Joan Mokray and Roger Shamel (both MBA ’74), offer thoughts on what they describe as “the challenge of the century,” urging Harvard Business School to lead a first-of-its-kind, University-wide, outreach to alumni, asking them to help solve climate change problems and capitalize on climate change opportunities.


Change creates opportunity…

If huge changes create huge opportunities, then ongoing, rapid, anthropogenic climate change represents the greatest opportunity ever presented to Harvard University and her alumni.  So far, this opportunity has been greatly underappreciated.  That is why now, with critically important international climate talks resuming in Paris in early December, we call on Harvard Business School to demonstrate the type of outstanding leadership it teaches, and, in so doing, to make one of the biggest damn differences the world has ever seen—a difference that could help preserve a livable climate for humankind.

We’re not atmospheric scientists, but thanks to an HBS education, we know how to judge scientists’ credentials and vet their pronouncements.  What 97 percent of climate scientists are telling us, is that we have entered a time of unprecedented climate change. This devastating phenomenon will present challenges and opportunities greater than humankind has ever experienced.

Given these stakes, why are relatively few Harvard alumni capitalizing on climate change-related opportunities?  For answers, we point to the science of human psychology, and a very-effective, long-term public relations campaign, similar to  one that created doubt regarding the link between smoking and cancer.  Create enough climate change doubt and humankind finds itself in an odd situation where, on the one hand, leading scientists—inside and outside the fossil fuel industry—know that climate change is real, potentially catastrophic and in need of our urgent attention; but on the other hand, many in the general public—including Harvard alumni—are being reassured by fossil fuel company interests that all will be fine, and that we should continue along the current, “economical” fossil fuel path.

Responding to climate change is vital

The problem with maintaining the status quo is that humankind is on track to warm our planet to a degree that will likely be incompatible with civilization as we know it—and within the lifetimes of today’s students.  This sounds ultra-melodramatic, but, unfortunately, it is a scientific certainty..  Tragically, we have already waited so long to respond to climate change that it is reportedly too late to save Earth’s island nations, and all of our global coastal cities, from up to ten feet of sea level rise—or more, by sometime later this century.

Time is of the essence

We believe that it is beyond time for informed HBS alumni, and others, to be “going gangbusters” on making the investments that will profitably capitalize on the changes that are already underway.  It’s been said that Americans are especially good at responding to extraordinary challenges.  But, sadly, surveys show that Americans are the least well informed citizens of any major country when it comes to climate change.  

A significant and influential portion of the general public, and of Harvard alumni, remain misinformed on this subject, because of the effective, anti-climate change, campaign.   And, because the United States is thought of as the leader of the free world, this climate misinformation has dramatically slowed the worldwide move to capitalize on the inevitable change and opportunity that climate change brings.

Complicating the situation is the fact that a surprising number of Americans have been led to think of climate change as either a political or a religious issue—thus positioning it as a subject that is off-limits to intelligent debate because it is widely accepted that one’s political and religious beliefs are beyond reproach.

It’s all physics, chemistry and human nature

Unfortunately, climate change is about as much impacted by our beliefs as is gravity.  Climate change science is as sound as the science that shows that smoking causes lung cancer, and it is  getting more solidly substantiated every day.  Earth’s climate is changing at a rate that is several orders of magnitude faster than normal, because of a carbon emission-enhanced greenhouse effect, as driven by the laws of physics and chemistry.  

By the same token, turning to the softer science of human nature, we should not feel guilty about having created our climate change conundrum.  Being human, we’ve simply done what we’ve always done—capitalizing on whatever has worked to advance our cause.  Fossil fuels have worked well for us, providing inexpensive, reliable energy, when and where it was needed, for many generations.  It was nearly impossible to believe that our annual gigaton-quantity burning of these substances would enhance the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect by surrounding the planet with a thickened blanket of residual carbon dioxide.  Yet, that is the case.

Turning problems into opportunities

Recognizing a problem is the first important step towards solving it.  To make urgently-needed, rapid climate progress, it is important to face the fact that we are dangerously degrading the environment in which we live.  And, just as we have responded to other challenges, we must step up to work together, in a globally-interconnected way, to respond to this one.  We must address the problems that climate change is already causing—and that are expected to accelerate.  Specifically,  the droughts, the wildfires, the melting ice, the intense storms, the rising and acidifying oceans, the invasion of warm-climate organisms, the slowing of ocean currents  and more.  

Importantly, each problem is also an opportunity—and climate change opportunities are everywhere.  They abound, for example, in relation to alternative forms of energy:  From energy generation, to storage, to transmission, to more-efficient energy use.  This is only the beginning of a long list.  But, we must respond aggressively:  Due to our decades-long, misinformation-induced delay, we are now faced with the challenge of transitioning to alternative forms of energy in a period of time that is only about half as long as would normally be required to do so—namely in about 15 to 20 years, rather than the 30- to 40-year time period that would allow for a more comfortable transition.

Pluralistic ignorance and the need for Harvard leadership

Because modern humans have not experienced rapid climate change before, we find ourselves confounded by “pluralistic ignorance,” in which under-informed citizens, not knowing how to react to an unfamiliar event, look to those around them for clues about what to do.  In situations where these “neighbors” also don’t know what to do, the citizens often respond inappropriately, leading to lost opportunities.  Bottom line, this pluralistic ignorance begs for bold, well-informed Harvard leadership!

This is where HBS comes in:  As one example of past HBS climate leadership, April’s Harvard-wide “Climate Week” was conceived at the school.  Now, with the Paris climate talks about to begin, and with climate change thus to be in the news, we are asking HBS to make the biggest difference imaginable.  Namely, we want HBS to show uncommon leadership, by asking alumni to apply their considerable education, experience, wealth and wisdom to capitalizing on climate change opportunities.  In so doing, they will make a huge leadership difference by showing others the responsible and profitable path forward.

Our “ask”

We are asking the Harvard “family” to speak out about climate change.  When Harvard speaks, people around the world listen.  We are also asking readers of this piece to send HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, and Harvard President, Drew Faust an encouraging email, if they agree that Harvard should lead on climate.  Let future history books record that HBS and her alumni, and what’s more, Harvard’s alumni, made THE BIGGEST damn difference the world has ever seen, once encouraged to do so by their alma mater.

Great change begins with understanding, but it is accelerated and focused by bold leadership.  

The world will be watching Paris and Harvard, and so will we!

Delmor Markoff, Joan Mokray & Roger Shamel