Blowin' in the wind: How business schools are discovering climate change

Michael Prest
Thursday 01 October 2009 00:00 BST

Climate change is on everyone's lips right now and business schools are no exception. It's no surprise that an issue with such sweeping ramifications for the economy is turning up in MBA courses, but the way in which the schools are approaching the issue varies widely, from treating it as just another problem confronting managers, through lumping it in with corporate and social responsibility, to regarding it as so important that it requires a degree of its own.

Not so long ago, there was much more resistance to climate change being on the curriculum. These doubts were not confined to academics protecting their turf – students were sceptical too. "It was regarded as very flaky 20 years ago," says Dr Stephen Peake from the Judge Business School at Cambridge University.

But attitudes have changed radically since then. As the potential gravity of climate change has sunk in – rammed home by the Stern report – businesses of all sorts have realised that dealing with it has to be integral to their plans. "Climate change has become generally embedded in corporate strategies," says Professor David Grayson, director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management.

A generation of students alert to climate change has brought its demands to business schools. "We have people coming from investment banks who want to do corporate and social responsibility," marvels Dr Patricia Hind, director of the full-time MBA at Ashridge Business School. "The generation of students coming through is very sensitive to the issue," says Dr Charlie Wilkinson, MBA director of the Business School at Bournemouth University.

Rising recognition of climate change's importance has posed a dilemma for business schools. How do you fit so complex a subject into an already crowded curriculum? For many, the answer has been to squeeze it into corporate and social responsibility. The logic is that, for many companies and other organisations, climate change is both an outside force that can hit the bottom line and, to the extent that the company is a carbon emitter, a responsibility to the wider community.

Another part of the answer is to give students a choice. In some cases, such as at ESCP Europe, Cranfield and Judge, climate change is covered as part of a broader elective course. Cranfield, for instance, introduced a sustainability elective last year. Others take a sterner view. Ashridge includes climate change in a compulsory theme module, Business in Society – although it is considering deconstructing this unit to "push it in to every crevice of the programme", as Hind puts it.

Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia goes even further. Last year it introduced the world's first strategic carbon management MBA, designed for students who want to specialise in this area in their careers. Despite these differences, a feature common to most of these MBAs is students can do consultancy projects or dissertations on climate change.

The differing solutions to getting climate change on the agenda partly reflect the schools' legacy curricula. Important as climate change may be, core MBA disciplines such as strategy and marketing fight valiantly to keep their hours of study. But there are also serious intellectual questions that go beyond senior common room politics. How does climate really affect business? And how should business respond?

"Our position is to show students that the issue is highly strategic and that companies should integrate it into their business models," says Olivier Delbard, an associate professor at ESCP Europe. Wilkinson has a robustly pragmatic analysis. "I see it almost from a corporate self-interest point of view," he says. At the very least, companies have an incentive to consume as little energy as possible.

Dr David Menachof, a visiting professor at Cass Business School and professor of logistics at Hull University Business School, also takes a fairly instrumental line. "We cover the green issues, such as the carbon footprint especially, in the shipping industry. Climate change is just one aspect of the environmental impact. It's part of the decision-making process," he says.

Judge, which offers a climate leadership elective, takes another tack. "What's the core knowledge you need to be a leader in this?" asks Peake. Part of the answer, he says, is that "you have to take students through some awkward science", especially if science turns them off or they resist the fundamental idea that climate change is man made. He is not ashamed of tapping into emotions to drive the message home. "To deal with climate change you have to get sustainability," he says, telling his students that "you might be called on to do something about this. It's transformative". As a way of engaging students – whose numbers have more than doubled to 50 in the first two years of the course – he has abolished group PowerPoint presentations and encouraged students to conduct group assessments by novel means, such as films on YouTube.

All schools emphasise that climate change should not be seen simply as a headache for business. It is also an opportunity to make money. "It's not just an extra task for managers but also a source of business opportunities," says Grayson.

Judge students have taken the lesson to heart. This year saw "a great rash of carbon consultancy projects", says Peake, and some students have already set up companies selling, for example, carbon reduction services. Nevertheless, one in 10 people find making money out of climate change "utterly repulsive", he says.

That sentiment is certainly not shared at Norwich Business School. The strategic carbon management course is aimed fair and square at helping graduates get jobs in the field. A lot of store is put by practical experience. The course requires students to do two carbon management consulting projects. "That practical experience enables our students to hit the ground running and gives them an advantage over more theoretical degrees," says Professor Terry Kendrick, MBA programme director. It sounds like climate change is good for MBA revenues too.

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