Short Intensive Program (SIP) Recap: Climate Adaptation

From January 18th through January 21st, approximately 40 students gathered in Aldrich Hall for a SIP on Climate Adaptation. This course was led by HBS Professor John Macomber with Dr. Joe Allen from the Harvard School of Public Health, and co-developed with the Business and Environment Initiative.

SIPs are an important way for faculty to build out and test new materials and themes. As Professor Macomber said at the outset, “we don’t yet know the answers to many of the questions that will come up in this course – students can help us get closer through the discussions we are having right now.” SIPs also provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure to topics that are not as deeply covered in the current curriculum.

In asking the question “What is the role of business in climate adaptation?” the course aimed to address the following: Business’s role as a key player in multi-stakeholder collaboration on adaptation; the explicit ways in which public health and equity must be taken into account in decisions around adaptation; how we place value on the co-benefits of public health improvements in adaptation measures and how we measure–and invest in–those co-benefits; and the key business opportunities, including data and technology, looking through the lens of climate risk in infrastructure, real estate, buildings and public health.

Why Climate Adaptation?

The highly visible increase in frequency and scale of wildfires, floods, and droughts–and their resulting destruction of lives and properties–sends a clear signal that all members of society must drastically accelerate efforts to both mitigate further climate change and enable resilience and adaptation to an already changed climate. It’s no longer a question of either mitigation or adaptation. It’s both. Businesses can and must play a key role in driving society’s ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Professor John Macomber, a Senior Lecturer in the Finance Unit at HBS, has been working in this area for quite some time in connection with his research and courses on sustainable cities, infrastructure, real estate, and his most recent collaboration and co-authored book on Healthy Buildings with Dr. Allen. It is our hope that this SIP serves as the first step among many in formalizing the efforts around this field of study at HBS.

The Role of Business: A Systems Approach with Explicit Integration of Public Health Co-Benefits

Professor Macomber structured the course to have students approach the topic from four points of view, and assigned student team projects to think about adaption from each of these perspectives:

  • Buildings and Housing, Resilience Metrics, and Credit: Incorporating Climate Adaption
  • Lending and Securities Investing: Considering Climate Adaptation
  • Tools, Means, Methods and Business Models: Supporting Climate Adaptation Measures
  • Counting the CoBenefits: Public Health, Physical Infrastructure, Policy, and Climate Adaptation

The program started with an interactive simulation about a city grappling with the threats of extreme heat, increased flooding, other climate-driven disruption, and those impacts on both public health and economic development. Working in teams and considering various points of view established the issues and highlighted some of the tradeoffs to set the tone for the rest of the course.

The course benefitted greatly from a deep bench of excellent class guests and speakers, representing a range of approaches to climate adaptation. One particular area of focus was on the Co-BE (co-benefits) model that Dr. Allen and his team have developed, which makes the inclusion of health benefits intentional – quantifying the health benefits enables the capture of “immediate and local benefits to influence decision-making while simultaneously helping on global and long-term” interventions.

Dr. Allen’s closing remarks at the end of the course emphasized adaptation as a multi-stakeholder problem that requires a systems thinking approach: “What if my house survives because I raised it, but neighbors don’t…is that adaptation? If Boston reinforces dams and MIT/Harvard/biotech survive, but the airport/Chelsea don’t…is that adaptation? If Boston survives, but Fall River and Providence don’t…is that adaptation? If US and rich countries survive….is that adaptation?”

Student Feedback

Following the wrap-up of the SIP, a handful of students provided their input and perspectives, including some key take-aways that may shape how they approach the remainder of their time at HBS and their careers going forward. Here’s what they said:

Angela N. Son

I decided to take this SIP because I realized that I’ve been hearing a lot about climate mitigation (e.g., carbon capture, energy transition) but very little about adaptation, which is affecting all of us today, and as I explore my own path within climate tech, I wanted to make sure I understand the full breadth of problems and opportunities.

Lessons from two speakers from the third day resonated with me deeply. Tariye Gbadegesin highlighted the importance of empowering investors and business & city operators at the local level. This lesson resonated because while climate change is inherently a global problem, the way it has shown up in my life at the different places I have lived in (e.g., California, South Korea, Boston) were drastically different, and discussing climate change in generalities can lead to mismatched problems and solutions or people feeling alienated because the someone else's problem on hand doesn’t feel relevant.

Another speaker that left me thinking was Kate Gordon. She gave a concrete example of an industry that has an opportunity to turn an existential crisis into an opportunity: the oil and gas industry. While the oil and gas industry is not on the decline (yet) like the coal industry, it faces strong perception and regulatory headwinds (e.g., the new infrastructure bill capping the number of orphaned oil fields). These changes necessarily affect the way the industry thinks about diversifying its portfolio in the future and encourages one of the largest contributors to GHG to innovate in climate technology to survive (e.g., retro-fitting the oil fields, building large carbon capture facilities at the sites). I thought this example perfectly demonstrated the choice individuals, businesses, and governments have on hand: do you choose to mitigate and adapt to climate change and grow in the face of this challenge, or do you allow it to change you?

Dee Taylor

For me the most important takeaways from this SIP was how complex the solutions to climate change are and visibility into the main challenges business leaders face when developing resolutions to the most complex problem of the 21st century. The solutions will require public and private partnerships to create sensible policy, drive technological innovation, and employ efficient use of capital. The course was an incredible opportunity to interact and network with industry leaders as well as fellow classmates with interests in the field. The course gave me a practical understanding of the tools and methodologies used to fight climate change and I will carry these lessons with me as I develop my career vision.

Laura Romine

I wanted to take the Climate Adaptation SIP to learn more about the changes we need to make to adapt to the physical risks of climate change, and specifically how to think about the business case for these efforts. Coming from a background of ESG investing, we sometimes get pushback on the value of ESG integration. Through hearing from industry experts and participating in active discussions, I feel the SIP strengthened my understanding of the importance of adapting to climate change and the pressing need for changes to infrastructure.

One point that stood out to me was the impact of climate on health outcomes, particularly looking at quantifying the co-benefits of healthy buildings. In addition, several speakers touched on proprietary climate models they use, and Prof Macomber did a nice job of highlighting this point of "who has access to these models?" as well as the potential future democratization of data. Kate Gordon’s point about climate risks being bipartisan really hit home for me too, as she pointed out that no community wants to be like the timber industry areas that didn’t get ahead of industry shift, now plagued with high opioid addiction rates. Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome also touched on the importance of an inclusive, people-first approach, such that capital meant to support disadvantaged communities can be used effectively given these communities are understaffed and need better infrastructure to even receive the money and absorb it.

David Robertson

I really enjoyed participating in the SIP and being able to focus in on a particular topic that I'm passionate about, as well as meet fellow students who are also interested in the impacts of climate change. I came into the SIP with an open mind as to what I would get out of it; if nothing else, I was excited to start growing a community of folks who had similar interests to me at HBS. However, the SIP far exceeded my expectations. Rather than having a prescriptive agenda for what we might learn from the process, my classmates and I took the time to think about the implications of climate change. What I appreciated most was the ability to analyze these effects at a very micro level, such as how the City of Boston is overcoming flood challenges, to a very macro level, such as learning how investment strategists are creating algorithms to protect against climate risk nationally. I came away from the SIP with more questions than answers, but this just underscores how much my aperture has widened in terms of both the issues surrounding climate adaptation as well as the possible business and policy solutions to these problems. Taking this SIP in my RC year has set me up for a continued deep inquiry over the next year and a half at HBS to learn how I can create a climate adaptation lens to look through as I design my personal and professional goals moving forward.

Dylan Small

After taking the Climate Adaptation SIP I was taken back, frightened, but also encouraged by:

(1) the availability of the majority of the technical solutions needed to make our society more resilient to climate change, but the information asymmetry and misaligned incentives across so many stakeholders.

(2) the breadth and size of the cross-sector problems related to climate adaptation and resilience, but the necessity of its solutions to be at such a local level.

(3) the opportunities to help realign stakeholders and price in climate risk in sectors that have not adequately done so.

The discussions reached a range of sectors from insurance to public health and public equities that I would not have imagined had much to do with climate adaption in the beginning of the week.

As an RC, this SIP was the first time I was able to engage in discussion in Aldrich with a room full of classmates who view climate as a key driver in their careers, whether that be via public policy, capital markets, architecture, real estate, public health, or urban development.

Jillian Noel

I really enjoyed this SIP and am so glad HBS is prioritizing new teaching in the climate space. I came away from the class with a better understanding of how adapting to increasing climate risk is an integral part of the transition to more sustainable industries and societies. The climate risk and adaptation field has already become rich with data but now requires a shift to insights and action – something that the presents massive opportunity for new tools, services and business models.