UN Figueras to HBS Alums: Elites Can Change the World…And Invest in Change

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UN Figueras to HBS Alums: Elites Can Change the World…And Invest in Change

By Carol Pierson Holding and Cynthia Figge
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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 - 10:50am


We are inspired by a call with Harvard Business School alumni, Dan Abbasi, low carbon investor and executive producer of the Emmy-winning television series on climate change called “Years of Living Dangerously,” and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Fifty of us listened as Figueres briefed us on the status of climate change action and expectations for the UN talks this week. She and Dan Abbasi were engaging with elite members of the business community to encourage us to apply pressure wherever possible to global leaders coming together on Tuesday to tackle this issue. It was meaningful to us because it marks the first time we’ve been networked with other HBS grads for social action related to climate change.

Why start with an NGO effort like the UN climate talks? In Abbasi’s words,

“The climate change issue has suffered from a serious diffusion of responsibility and resulting inaction – business is waiting for government to act, and government is waiting for business to give them permission.”

In other words, we need to move both at once to effect timely action on the climate, to keep global temperatures within the limits of human safety.

We have to say, it’s heartening to hear from this contingent when so many of our fellow graduates seem to be deep in the deny or postpone camp.

Abbasi’s main carrot for calling this group together was to show “the huge opportunity to put capital to work very profitably” and to “use the HBS network to be a force for social change that it already is.” And of course the stick will be carbon pricing. Along the way, Figueres was able to make several points that elucidated these motivational pillars:

  • $9 trillion is needed for clean energy infrastructure – the largest investment opportunity in our history.
  • China is in the lead in this transition with huge wind and solar commitments for the future. Even now, it produces double the European Union in energy from wind and has started development of a solar plant that will yield as many gigawatts as a nuclear facility. China is also helping other countries to make the transition, investing in Australia’s plan for renewables in the Pacific Islands.
  • Being the most vulnerable to climate change, ocean-dependent nations are the first to make the transition. For example, Samoa will be completely transitioned to renewables by 2016, proving it can be done.
  • Forty countries have carbon pricing in place now, plus seven pilots in China, several around the US (California for one) and elsewhere. Global carbon pricing should happen quickly once China aggregates its regional carbon pricing plans into a single national price, a price that will be easy for others around the globe to adopt as well.
  • Public opinion and an engaged citizenry is critical to these efforts. It was the outrage of China’s public over health risks of its extreme air pollution that moved that country. Here in the U.S., the People’s Climate March on Sunday the largest call for climate action in history, makes it visible to our government and UN representatives how widespread public support is.
  • The elite can exert their influence in targeted calls to government leaders and in sustainable business practices in their personal and professional lives, changes that will move sustainable behavior to the mainstream.


Abassi closed with a statement that climate change should not be a political issue, but an investment issue. The stick was left hanging, but as we learned years ago at the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future, smart companies like Dupont have been using their own internal carbon pricing for years, preparing for what they believe is the inevitable future. And by examining CSRHub’s ratings on Energy and Climate Change, as businesspeople, we can compare how companies are performing in this area, and take action.

Why was this confab so important? This is the start of an organized effort by the business elite to tackle the issue of climate change. That a small band of HBS alumni has started to build a movement is as thrilling as the global climate march. Climate change advocates already include such prominent business leaders as Michael Bloomberg and Henry Paulson, but they are outliers among Wall Street Journal readers who roundly deny or even mock efforts to address climate change. This inaugural meeting of HBS supporters could eventually change minds, moving our work to the mainstream of the business elite as well.


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 9,300+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

Cynthia Figge is a forerunner and thought leader in the corporate sustainability movement. She is COO and Cofounder of CSRHub, the world’s largest database that aggregates and organizes data and knowledge on the social, environmental, and governance performance of 9,300 companies to provide sustainability ratings to the marketplace. In 1996 she co-founded EKOS International, one of the first consultancies integrating sustainability and corporate strategy. Prior to founding EKOS, she was an officer of LIN Broadcasting / McCaw Cellular, and led new businesses and services with Weyerhaeuser, New York Daily News; and with New Ventures. Cynthia is Board Director of the Compassionate Action Network International. Cynthia received her bachelor's degree in Economics and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. She lives in the Seattle area.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 9,300+ companies from 135 industries in 106 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 343 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.


Keywords: Environment & Climate Change | Carol Pierson Holding | Christiana Figueras | Cynthia Figge | Dan Abbasi | Energy | HBS | Harvard Business School | UN | United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change | climate change