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Reflections from the HBS Climate Action Week 2023

During Climate Action Week at Harvard Business School, the Salata Institute for Climate Change hosted a two-day symposium that brought students, alumni, faculty, business, policy, asset managers, and non-profits together to reflect and discuss the current state of our climate dilemma.

When comes to our planet, I think the two greatest questions of our generation will be, “Did we do enough and did we implement change fast enough?”

The conference’s mission was a call to action around climate change. It brought together different groups who may not have agreed on the sense of urgency for action only a few years ago but do now. The urgent call for action was a common ground for seeking help and support. Some returning alumni managing billions of dollars of capital were eagerly sitting side-by-side with alumni trying to put ideas into production without the same access to capital.

Bringing diverse leaders together with a shared common purpose was exciting and an extremely powerful way to spend two days.

Here were some of my takeaways on areas where there seemed to be the most agreement:

The Risk of Doing Nothing is the Greatest Risk to Humanity Right Now

If the risk of making changes is preventing us from acting, this is a terrible reason to wait. We can’t wait until 2040 and hope to achieve climate reduction goals by 2050. A Time Value of Money (TVM) argument could be made to support this point. The carbon reduction steps we can take today, no matter how small, are going to be much more valuable than the risk of waiting to take larger strides later.

Admittedly, upgrading and transforming infrastructure to make changes to support decarbonization across multiple industries will be hard (some industries are much harder than others), on the whole, technologies to solve the problems exist or can be brought into existence with more research and development. The consensus feeling was this was not so much a technical problem as it is a human systems challenge that requires leadership.

The lesson: Every step we can take now to reduce emissions is immensely more valuable than doing nothing. We have to begin to find ways to say YES to more ideas that could work rather our default answer of NO. We need to test ideas that challenge the current status-quo.

Set Bold Audacious Goals

Kristen Siemen from General Motors shared their journey to become carbon neutral by 2040 as a company and their hope to eliminate tailpipe emissions by 2035.

The learnings? As a technical and engineering driven company, GM set bold, audacious goals that most thought were unachievable at the onset. But this led to innovative thinking and a determination that are helping them achieve their goals far faster than anticipated. Setting targets allowed them to measure against the goal. Having targets and data helped them understand the gap. With data and discipline, these gaps could be more easily achievable over time.

The lesson: Make aggressive goals, even when you don’t know how to achieve them. Measure them - every step along the way towards that goal. Set aggressive goals, be agile and get out of the way. It’s even better when people can feel inspired to accept the challenge and be mission-driven to volunteer to support the goal. Human ingenuity can find a way. And talent will be attracted to the challenge and mission-driven purpose of doing something for the planet's greater good, not just the business.

It Will Take Everyone Innovating Together to Find Solutions to this Problem

If this is more of a human systems challenge that will require everyone to participate there couldn’t be a better time to bring all voices to the table – from the accounting world to the anthropologists, overcoming the climate challenges will be a testament to our human ability to come together, change our own behaviors and innovate.

Figure: Professor Juan Alcacer shared with me after his breakout session: CASE | Iberdrola: Leading the Energy Revolution reminding us all about the need to bring all stakeholder voices together – especially utilities in solving the climate dilemma.

In conclusion

The best way to sum up the learnings are the words from Jeremy Grantham, the outspoken and notable British co-founder of Grantham, Mayo & van Otterloo (GMO), the Boston-based firm with billions of dollars under its management:

“Humans are innovative, we will only make it if we innovate our way out of this. We will find that we are either going to innovate our way out of this problem or we will fail. And the longer we wait, the odds are dropping below 50/50.”

Or, in the words of Secretary John Kerry, US Envoy for Climate, in a fireside chat discussion with Lawrence Bacow the President of Harvard University:

“If we don’t do something now to hit 2030, there will be no 2050.”


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