Here’s how business can save the world

Akash Gupta, Contributor

Skeptical readers of the Harbus have probably moved on to the next article after reading this headline, but for those optimists who have decided to stay, I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk about climate change and the environment across the river. Headed by Jeremy Jackson, a professor of Oceanography at Harvard, and joined by our own Professor Rebecca Henderson and HKS Professor John Holdren, the panel provided a healthy mix of viewpoints on a subject that most would rather avoid at Thanksgiving dinner.

Jackson initiated the conversation by talking about his travels through Iowa and Mississippi, painting an unnerving picture of farmers battling Shaq-sized superweeds and having to spread “Olympic-sized” pools of herbicide. While moderator Daniel Schrag, from the Harvard University Center for the Environment, had primed the audience with a disclaimer regarding “Jeremy’s characteristic gloom and doom,” we were unprepared for some of the images in the slide deck. Algal bloom in Lake Erie. The shrinking Delta. Post-Maria Puerto Rico. The superweed jokes were suddenly not funny.

For those who believed in the power of policy, John Holdren’s experience as a Scientific Advisor to President Obama was a ray of hope, but even Holdren himself seemed frustrated, given the current administration’s handling of environmental reforms. One can understand then why Henderson’s optimism toward the private sector came as a surprise. Beginning with the statement, “Destroying the world is bad for business,” Henderson continued to emphasize the capacity for companies to step up to the plate. She described multibillion dollar endeavors to improve irrigation, optimize agriculture, and halt rapid deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil. Citing consumer pressure and new generations of employees seeking sustainability commitments from companies, she recounted an interaction with a CEO who thought environmental causes were “total BS” but ended up changing his business model anyway to attract and retain top talent. As a former engineer at an oil company in Texas, I found encouragement in the fact that business leaders were starting to notice the brand impact of sustainability, especially in hiring.

Henderson also made a strong case for collective action in the private sector. Because another business could take advantage of a firm’s willingness to absorb the cost of ethically-sourced palm oil or wind-sourced electricity, companies would be better off moving toward solutions collectively. Rather than pursue separate programs with competing priorities, businesses could work together and reduce their environmental impact without worrying about the poaching of opportunities. Wrapping up her portion of the panel, Henderson asserted that collective action required appropriate public policy. Without an established carbon market, companies would be at an impasse when assessing the fair value of environmental action. If businesspeople were looking not to destroy the world, they would need help from regulatory bodies.

After hearing perspectives on climate change and the environment from three different Harvard professors, I did the unthinkable – I reflected. Even though I didn’t have a Field assignment due at 11pm, I wondered how I would approach a question that had followed me since my early days as an undergraduate chemical engineer. I could take the pessimistic approach and conclude that nothing short of a global Sharknado would alter people’s opinions about climate change. On the other hand, I could be an optimist and choose to believe that consumers would change their behaviors and force companies to re-think their green strategies. As I walked back to my dorm at HBS, I was tempted to throw out every professor’s favorite answer, “It depends.” However, I again did the unthinkable – I chose hope.

Akash Gupta (MBA ’20) is from Houston, TX and worked in the petrochemical industry before coming to HBS. His interests include renewable energy and social enterprise.

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