01 May 2015
Professor Rebecca Henderson on Climate Change
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Rebecca Henderson

As part of Harvard’s observance of Climate Week, John and Natty McArthur University Professor Rebecca Henderson (MBA 1985), based at Harvard Business School, recently participated in a panel discussion at Sanders Theatre on “Climate Change Solutions.” The event was moderated by CBS and PBS journalist Charlie Rose.

Henderson teaches an MBA course on Reimagining Capitalism, which includes cases on the effect of environmental degradation and the unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases, and another on Innovation in Business, Energy, and Environment, which focuses on opportunities for firms whose offerings are significantly involved in or impacted by energy, water, resource efficiency, transportation, and conservation. She is also co-director of Harvard Business School’s Business and Environment Initiative, which aims to deepen business leaders' understanding of today's environmental challenges and assist them in developing effective solutions.

In response to Rose’s question about how well the media have done in “communicating the science of climate change and the urgency and risk of not acting,” Henderson replied that “In many parts of the world, the science is widely accepted and the need to act is widely accepted, but here in the United States, particularly in the business establishment, there’s still significant doubt….And so I think we still have some way to go….We need to do a better job of communicating the risk.

“What I’ve found really helpful in dealing with business people is framing it like this: Let’s suppose the chance of climate change’s happening is only 25%. If one in four of the doctors you consulted said you had a very serious issue and needed an operation, you’d have the operation. And if, as is the case here, four out of five of them said you need to act now, then you need to act. So I think we need to frame it as a failure in the market that we know how to fix.

The rest of Henderson’s comments (edited) are highlighted below:

Rose: What will precipitate a change of public opinion regarding climate change?

Henderson: When we see sun panels going up on roofs and people putting in gas burners and getting rid of coal, when people see it’s not going to cost as much as they think when they participate, we will go a long way toward overcoming the risk of despair. So many people think this is an enormous problem and ask, ‘What can I do?’ It helps to have people do things and actually see what can be accomplished….

Rose: What about the fossil fuel industry’s involvement in opposing the fossil fuel disinvestment movement?

We have to remember that the industry is not monolithic, that there are businesses pushing on the other side of this in support of reducing carbon in the atmosphere. Recently, for example, I was talking to two European energy companies that are both heavy into natural gas, and they are very keen to see carbon pricing [via a carbon tax]….We see business leaders stand up and say, ‘We need carbon pricing. It’s ridiculous we don’t have this.’ So I think if we can mobilize some pervading counterinfluences in the fossil fuel industry, that’s important.

Rose: What should Harvard do?

I think we should divest from coke [commonly derived from coal, with high carbon content]. Coke has hugely harmful health effects, and so to me it comes under the rubric of tobacco; it’s just general social consensus. But I’m nervous about divesting from all fossil fuels. We’re going to need oil and gas going forward if we keep using it. I fear that in saying we should divest oil and gas, we’re kind of saying we’re casting the devil out from inside of us….I’d like to be really targeted; I’m very uncomfortable with a blanket policy. Many people think divesting would be a political decision. I fear that making a decision that could be seen as very political might hurt the long-term standing of the University, and I think [that’s a problem, since] we have a very important role to play in supporting the conversation….

Other panelists included Joseph Aldy, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School; Christopher Field, professor for interdisciplinary environmental studies at Stanford University; John Holden, assistant to President Obama for science and technology and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President of the United States; Richard Newell, professor of Energy and Environmental Economics at Duke University; Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University; and Daniel Schrag, professor of Geology at Harvard.

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