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What Business Schools Can Do About Climate Change

As governments and organizations globally take action to combat climate change, business schools have a role in both preparing graduates to lead responsibly and engaging their communities.

Today, no one can reasonably call climate change a buzzword or a passing trend. All societal stakeholders, including educators, politicians, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and communities, are getting engaged in discussions and action. And although different parties use different terms—ranging from global warming to climate crisis—we generally agree that changes in weather and the environment are threatening the health of our planet and our livelihoods.

Out of a sense of urgency and responsibility, we might even attend climate-focused marches or address it in speeches and policies and high-level positioning statements, but how many of us really know what it all means? More importantly, what we are expected to do about it?

Unlike issues such as waste and pollution and even gender issues that are more tangible on a daily basis, climate change is harder to pinpoint, which can quickly lead to differences of opinion—despite scientific evidence proving that it is indeed a critical issue for all of us. More importantly, the lack of clarity around climate change makes it challenging for us to see the impact that our actions are having on furthering or stopping the harm.

This murkiness makes climate change an easy topic to talk about broadly but not necessarily to engage in. Perhaps this is the reason that too many business schools are still a step behind when it comes to understanding the impact they have on climate change through their own actions, as well as their inactions, in regard not just to education but to their research and operations.

The reality is that climate change is an increasingly important part of the business world today as well as global society; in fact it is embedded in several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which business schools should have a leading role in supporting. Not giving graduates an understanding of the relevant issues is doing them a disservice, and also, arguably, increasing your negative contribution to climate change itself through inaction. At the same time, climate change as a topic offers a wealth of opportunities to strengthen program offerings. So what can and should business schools be doing?

Make sure everyone knows what it is. Put a policy in place, a special module, or faculty training—whatever it is, make sure that every individual in your institution’s community knows the basics of what climate change is, what is currently happening, and why it is important. Whether they believe in it or not, it is a fact that governments and organizations globally are taking action to combat climate change, and therefore it is important for community stakeholders to understand it.

Start with the science, but don’t dwell on it. Climate change is itself a scientific concept, which can make it complicated and often inaccessible (even experts have a hard time getting through the hundreds of pages in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Start with the basics and provide links to electives or readings for those who want or need to know more.

Move the discussion to areas that are more relevant to your audience. Help students understand how climate change is material to them in their present and future lives and what they can do to make a positive impact or, at the very least, not contribute further to the problem in the organizations they will be working for or leading. Start by breaking it down. Business leaders impact a whole range of sustainability issues that affect climate change. These issues spread across every discipline taught within a business school, from finance to operations, marketing to information technology. Climate change discussions and tools for action should be included in all of them.

Give faculty the resources, time, space, and ideas to help them weave this topic into their curriculum, to bring to life the core concepts that form the basis of their class. Examples include incorporating climate change into assignments, consulting projects, readings, simulations, films, or even guest speaker presentations. Include it as one of the elements you are asking students to think about when making any business decisions in the same way they should post-graduation.

Practice what you preach. Your impact as an institution includes not just the way you educate your students but also the kind of research you conduct and how you operate as an organization. Learn what is already happening and who is already engaged in these topics on campus. Have you committed to becoming carbon neutral? How are your staff and students engaged in that effort? What is your impact on climate change through your funding, research, financing, partnerships, etc.?

Assemble this information together to show students and staff what climate change action looks like in practice, and give them a chance to be a part of it. As the saying goes, be the change you want to see in the world.

Make it easier for others to engage. The impact business schools have goes beyond what happens within its walls. Business schools are also in an key position to create an environment that enables more people to engage in important issues like climate change and influences broader action. Connect and contribute to discussions and actions happening locally, regionally, and globally. Think about providing tools, space, research, funding, networks, entrepreneurial support, business advice, and events to engage others in these discussions and facilitate action.

Use it as an opportunity to rethink the way you teach. Business school curriculum is often focused on learning based on past lessons rather than looking forward to the future, and engaging students in that future. Compounding the problem is that integrating current sustainability topics, and climate change in particular, can create situations where we may be presenting contradictory messages to students, like when a business solution is best for the bottom line in the short term but does not make sense for the business long term—or for the planet. This tension is forcing us to rethink many of the longstanding assumptions about what makes a successful business and leader.

Climate change is an ongoing discussion that all students around the world are living through, and the organizations they will be working for are acting on it. Weave it into the curriculum throughout the year, bringing it in as it happens across subject areas. Designate someone at your institution to help facilitate the integration of climate change across the curriculum, research, partnerships, and operations. Use this occasion as an opportunity to rethink how you incorporate longer-term, bigger-picture issues into the way you teach and think about business moving forward.

Finally, don’t charge discussions with emotions that could polarize your audience. Everyone will connect to these issues in different ways. Some connect through their careers, even leading to new business ideas, while others connect more personally. Many tools you provide to students to help them approach climate change action in the business sector won’t even have the words “climate change” in them (e.g., circular economy) and are generally just about good business.

You don’t have to have all of the answers. Instead, provide students the tools and the space to have these conversations and to shape how they will lead climate change action as they navigate their way in the business sector and beyond.

Climate change isn’t just one issue; it is hundreds of complex and interrelated issues that we have an impact on every day and that your students, graduates, and staff impact through their work and lives. That is where business schools play such an important role. To be truly effective, avoid tacking on climate change to what you already do and instead think about your contribution, both positive and negative, to the issue and what you want your involvement to look like moving forward.

It may seem like an issue happening outside campus walls, but it is and will be your students and staff who influence the way we tackle climate change today and into the future.


Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker on sustainability. Her most recent book is The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. Follow her on Twitter @gweybrecht.