The Climate Crisis is Real…and Escalating. CBS Experts Weigh in on What We – and Business – Can Do About It

As the world continues to confront the threat of climate change, business must play a leading role in how society will develop solutions to this challenge.

A wild rages in Tasmania, one of dozens of major fires to break out around the world in the last year
Social Impact

In recognition of Climate Week 2021, we asked a handful of our faculty experts to frame the current state of the climate crisis and the role that business can play in developing solutions. Here are their answers.

What’s the most important aspect of the climate crisis for us to focus on at this moment?

“We need to focus 100% on switching from fossil fuels, and actually making the moves rather than talking about them. This needs more encouragement for electric vehicles and for heat pumps for heating and cooling buildings.”

“Time. Specifically, the time needed to implement the emissions-reductions solutions to reduce global emissions to net zero within three decades. We know how to solve the climate crisis, but we are running out of time to do so.”

“Coal, natural gas and petroleum emissions.”

“The rise in natural disasters across the world makes the urgency of the climate crisis clear. A reduction in uncertainty in climate predictions would help us to better estimate the magnitude of the climate crisis and help inform how best to adapt to it, as well as to combat it.

“That is what the Science and Technology Center (STC) for Learning the Earth with Artificial Intelligence and Physics (LEAP), led by faculty at Columbia as well as other universities and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), will work to do over the next few years. We will converge climate science and data science to narrow the range of uncertainty in climate modeling, providing more precise and actionable climate projections that achieve immediate societal impact through public and private institutional and community partnership.”

“People discount the future heavily, meaning they don’t give far future outcomes (e.g., in 10 years) the same weight they give near future outcomes (e.g., next week or even next year). Because the future seems distant, its consequences seem smaller. So the key is making the future probabilities feel more present. One way to do that is to make the consequences both vivid and easy to imagine. So for example, a simulation that demonstrates a quick progression to a bad outcome.”

“All sectors of the economy transitioning to net zero as quickly as possible. Our time has run out and we can’t delay.”

How can business and businesses support action on climate change?

GH: Business can lead on this, showing the way, and they can provide products and services that make the transition easier for customers. Tesla has created the EV industry and accelerated its development. Beyond Meat has driven the acceptance of plant-based protein, crucial for climate and environment.

BU: Commercialize climate solutions, at scale. Specifically, invest in low-carbon products, bring those products to market, and scale them rapidly.

SR: Green-tech is the best possible response from the private sector. There is already a large push from entrepreneurs and VCs to come up with alternatives to carbon heavy fuel, especially with battery technology and safer nuclear options to generate power.

VB: Businesses could shift the narrative from the current focus on short-term profitability to a longer-term orientation of companies’ profitability and purpose. If companies could take into account a longer-term orientation in their strategic decision-making, this would realign incentives such that innovation to slow down and combat climate change would follow.

AG: Each individual firm that takes a costly but prosocial action that their competitors don’t can put them at a competitive disadvantage. The solution to this collective action problem has to occur at the collective level – either through industry level commitments or through legislation. A firm wanting to really tackle climate change wants to impose its preferred constraints on the other members of its industry. So they need to be a leader for advocating industry standards or regulations that will be imposed on all firms and not just themselves.

SN: Businesses should be prioritizing resources and attention to strategies that deal with the business opportunities as well as risks within and across their supply chain. Cross-company collaboration within each industry and cross-sector partnerships are needed as well. We saw this in action with the rapid development and approval of multiple highly effective COVID vaccines – business plays a key role in solving problems; as does government funding and policies; and civil society, NGOs, and the social sector in deployment and implementation of solutions. We need similar action now to address climate change.

What’s the most under-reported aspect of the climate crisis that deserves more attention?

GH: Rising sea level: Southern Florida could vanish by the end of the century!

BU: We need to focus less attention on the climate problem and more on climate solutions. Products with the potential to reduce 50% of global greenhouse emissions already exist and are commercial. The other 50% are far from commercial, but with significant policy support they can get there.

SR: The R-squared of regressing emissions on GDP growth is almost one. The EU and the US can strain every nerve to cut emissions but unless India, China and Russia meaningfully contribute, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

VB: The climate crisis disproportionately negatively affects individuals and communities who are already the most marginalized, vulnerable, and/or generally underrepresented and underserved. This has important implications for, and generally worsens, existing inequality and inequity within countries and regions, as well as across the world.

AG: People want to know their behavior is truly making a difference. To me the key is the combination of making the consequences more present rather than future and linking actions today to a less cataclysmic future.

SN: Social ventures and innovation can play a greater role in transitioning us faster. We need all sectors and sizes of organizations to transition quickly, but social innovators often bring fresh perspectives and ways to do this that can disrupt existing markets. In fact, Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change was the top category of ventures who participated during Columbia’s Hacking for Humanity this past weekend.

Practicing What We Preach

Columbia Business School is committed to expanding our capabilities in a sustainable and environmentally conscious way. Our new buildings on the Manhattanville campus – which we will officially enter into this January – have been granted LEED Silver certification.  Among the many innovations that earned this distinction, our new buildings utilize advanced technologies to mitigate our carbon footprint by inducing resource sharing and harvesting solar energy.

The accomplishment builds on other innovations the School has pursued recently to enhance our environmental credentials. One recent effort includes providing tablets to incoming students, which will remove printed casebooks and handouts, conserving approximately 30 tons of paper or about six million pages each year.

More Features

A stock exchange sign reads "SUSTAINABILITY"
Social Impact

What’s Still Misunderstood About Carbon Markets: Q&A with Professor Bruce Usher

Usher explains why it’s not necessarily bad if carbon markets shift emissions, and what is crucial to creating an effective carbon market.

Glass office buildings surrounded closely by bright green leaves
Social Impact

Behind the Headlines on Net-Zero and Carbon Reduction Pledges

To what degree is optimism warranted?

A hand holding a green marker, coloring in gray smoke that's pouring out of a smokestack
Social Impact

Are Governments at COP26 Guilty of “Greenwashing?”

Lack of full transparency by governments and other entities offers an opportunity for greenwashing, says management professor Vanessa Burbano

Social Impact, Leadership, Entrepreneurship & Innovation

The Best of Bizcast 2020

A look back at some of our most popular podcasts from 2020.

Rise to the challenge.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world of business, while bringing historical inequities and injustice into sharp relief.

Subscribe to Leading Through Change to receive the latest insights from Columbia Business School to help you navigate this unprecedented time.