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Climate change has (finally) arrived at business school

The climate crisis is a curriculum item at the most prestigious schools, and MBAs are excited.

Person in cap and gown

Business schools across the country adding climate to the classroom. Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz.

There has been a fundamental shift in the way business schools talk about climate change. Where once the topic used to come up only among small groups of passionate MBA students, this year has brought a groundswell of support from high places — including the public commitment to climate research and education by the deans of eight leading European business schools and the blockbuster announcement about the creation of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability which includes faculty and curriculum from many parts of the the university, including the Graduate School of Business.

As the scale and speed of global action on climate has accelerated, so has the need for business leaders who understand the complexity of climate risks and their implications for C-suites, corporate boards, investors and managers. In a video announcing the formation of Europe’s new Business Schools for Climate Leadership (BS4CL) collaboration, Sue Dopson, interim dean of the Oxford Saïd Business School, stated boldly, "The climate emergency is frankly the biggest threat we face. And we have a responsibility as leaders and indeed as educators to step up to this challenge."

B-schools join the party

It’s taken some time for business schools to recognize the relevance and urgency of climate to business education, but this year has marked a tidal shift — due no doubt in part because of donor interests. Besides Stanford’s $1.1 billion gift from John Doerr, in 2022, Harvard also announced a $200 million gift from the Salata family to create an Institute for Climate and Sustainability.  

Even business schools without headline-making gifts to announce began to make climate more visible in their curriculum in 2022. At Cornell’s SC Johnson Graduate School of Management, nearly half of the faculty are involved in a newly created interdisciplinary theme, "The Business of Sustainability," while here at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, students can enroll in electives such as "Climate Change, Sustainability, and Corporate Governance" and "New Ventures: Climate."  

UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business has created a new Office of Sustainability and Climate Change, which sits within the Dean’s Office, with ambitions to integrate environmental and social impact programs across the school. Haas Dean Ann Harrison has stated in support, "Leadership on sustainability is not just for business leaders who work directly on climate issues or in climate technology. Accountants need to plan for the effects of climate change on valuations and outcomes; real estate developers and financiers will need to consider climate change in forecasting risk; so will consultants and investment bankers. The world is fast coming to a boiling point. Sustainability is mission critical."

Lecture hall

A session with MBA students to the 2022 ClimateCAP Summit at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Image courtesy of Katie Kross.

Harvard Business School (HBS), which has published teaching notes and cases on climate change for at least a decade, has launched a new project to look at climate and sustainability impacts across the traditional first-year MBA core courses including strategy, operations, accounting and finance. HBS professor Mike Toffel and his colleagues are developing cases and notes that embed climate change challenges into the fundamental lessons taught in core MBA courses. They are also developing a new series of teaching guides that will highlight these and other materials to help faculty at any business school embed climate change into their core curriculum.   

Can business schools evolve fast enough to prepare MBAs for a new type of leadership in the future?

Taking curriculum even further, Columbia Business School’s dean, Costis Maglaras, recently announced plans to create a new "open source" climate curriculum, which will be developed in collaboration with leading business schools and shared for other schools to implement.

Pockets of environmental interest have held sway at business schools for some time. Indeed, many GreenBiz readers will undoubtedly credit the global organization Net Impact (which began as "Students for Responsible Business" in 1998) with being an important influence in their own sustainability careers.

However, 2022 might well be the year that climate went mainstream at business schools. MBA programs are recognizing that the business world that their graduates are stepping into is dramatically different from the world of the past. Today, in almost any career an MBA can enter after graduation, a fundamental understanding of climate issues will be required. And, importantly, business schools are hearing from employers who want business graduates with an understanding of how to navigate future challenges such as ESG disclosures and net-zero strategies, in addition to their core finance and strategy skillsets.

MBA students want more climate content

Perhaps nowhere is this growing interest in climate education more apparent than in increased demand from MBA students themselves. "Almost every MBA I know wants to work on cutting-edge technology and do something good — not just for shareholders, but for customers, investors, employees and communities. Climate tech is the way to do that," shared Alexis Greco, an MBA Class of 2023 candidate at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business. Together with two of her MBA classmates, Greco is co-chair of the 2023 ClimateCAP Summit, a rotating annual business school event that will bring 300 MBAs together this month from 26 schools to learn about climate risks and innovation opportunities.

Summit co-chair Samantha Hea agrees. "We’ve seen a large increase in the number of students joining the McCombs CleanTech Group," she said. "McCombs has traditionally had a very strong pipeline into renewable energy, but we have seen student interest growing in EVs, circular economy solutions, food and agriculture, carbon markets, climate tech venture capital, corporate sustainability, sustainable supply chains and more."

ClimateCAP began as a nascent partnership with a first summit at Duke in 2018. That first event drew 150 students from 16 business schools — a success by all measures at the time. By 2022, when Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management hosted the third summit, demand was high enough to sell out tickets three weeks before the event. By November, it took only two hours to sell out 300 MBA student tickets to the McCombs event, which will take place Feb. 24-25 in Austin. An additional 240 students have signed up for the waitlist in case tickets become available.  

Brian Wong, a first-year Duke MBA student planning to attend the summit, summed up the sentiment shared by many of his classmates: "Trillions of dollars need to be deployed to get global economies to a net-zero world. I see ClimateCAP as an opportunity to meet passionate, mission-aligned MBA students from the world's leading business schools aspiring to have outsized climate impacts."

The future

Climate change will be the defining theme for tomorrow’s business leaders. Executives are already grappling with big questions of how to measure and report climate risks, develop more resilient supply chains, invest in net-zero strategies and technologies, and avoid stranded assets. The next generation of business leaders will have to go farther. The climate crisis, along with other global social and environmental issues (global health crises, environmental justice, culture wars), are demonstrating just how vulnerable companies are to external shocks and how urgently leaders must rise to new challenges. Executives are expected to act on societal priorities in a way that requires new leadership paradigms.  

Investing in climate education in business schools is just the beginning. The real question is can business schools evolve fast enough to prepare MBAs for a new type of leadership in the future?

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email jesse@greenbiz.com. ]

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