Over the past decade or more, there has been increasing attention to private-sector initiatives to address climate change, with scholarly research and considerable action being centered in business schools, particularly in the United States. This is the focus in the latest episode of my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”
I engage in conversation with Michael Toffel, Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management and Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS). We discuss the many ways in which business schools are giving much greater attention to climate change and other environmental issues, as well as how businesses and governments can and are working together to address climate change. The podcast is produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. You can listen to our complete conversation here.
Toffel, who is a Faculty Fellow of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and hosts the Climate Rising podcast at HBS, cites several examples of climate initiatives that are bubbling up organically throughout the private sector.
“What’s very interesting are …. the movement on the finance side, where you’ve got a lot deeper pockets of capital, pools of capital that are seeking out climate solutions,” he says. “You’ve got this whole ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] area that’s evolved … [which is] putting new screens on the types of investments that they want to include in their portfolio. You’ve got companies making these net zero commitments, which include a combination of decarbonizing their operations and their supply chains, and then using carbon credits to offset the residual. And a bunch of commitments in that regard remains to be seen.”
Michael emphasizes that it is uncertain how much this climate talk will translate into action.
“That’s long been an interest of mine – are companies following up with action? Who is? Who isn’t? And so that continues to be an interest of mine. We will see. A lot of my research in this area has taken the form of case writing, because so much of this is so new, and we don’t have years and years of data sets to do the type of empirical work that my scholarly work tends to gravitate toward. We’re learning in real time through cases, and then doing some empirical scholarship as well.”
Toffel cites two recent projects he’s been involved with that he is especially proud of.
“On the scholarly research side, [there] is a study that’s just coming out in AEJ Applied Micro, a leading journal or field journal … that looks at the effectiveness of U.S. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s efforts to target companies for inspection. OSHA is dramatically underfunded in the sense that they can maybe inspect every establishment that they regulate [once] every 100 years, and so they really need to make some tough decisions about where to go,” he says.
“Traditionally, they’ve been making these decisions for a lot of their inspections, based on where the problems have arisen in the past … and we conjecture and find some evidence that if they change that [strategy by] using more modern techniques and machine learning to figure out and predict where are problems more likely to be in the future, or where might their inspections do the most good … they can really reduce injuries by the thousands, with millions of dollars of consequences of reduced injury, pain, and suffering.”
The other research he cites is a Case Study, co-written with his HBS colleagues Shirley Lu and George Serafeim, on BMW’s approach to decarbonization.
“It’s a very engineering focused company, so they have a very engineering orientation to carbon accounting, to carbon management, to reduction, and to even their publicity around all of this. And their CEO has taken a perspective that whereas other companies are having these phase out dates for the internal combustion engine … they’ve said, ‘We’re not going to make that claim because we don’t know if we can keep that promise, in part because we don’t know if the infrastructure is going to be there to power electric vehicles, and will it be electric or will it be hydrogen powered fuel cells? We’re not really sure where the technology will shake out.’ So, they’ve been reluctant … to make such promises, because they have a culture … where they [don’t] want to … make promises until they know they can keep them.”
Reflecting on his almost two decades at Harvard Business School, Toffel remarks on how far the field of environmental management has come in recent years.
“When I applied to Ph.D. programs, this topic was very fringe,” he says. “This whole thing has completely changed, where most business schools now are leaning into the idea of environment and climate in particular … and scholarship is really exploding on these topics. So, that’s been really heartening to see. In addition, students’ interest in this has really risen incredibly in the 17 years that I’ve been here. Originally, no one talked about environment. Now … students are bringing these [issues] up. They’re demanding more content.”
For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 52nd episode of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month. You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Previous episodes have featured conversations with:
- Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Nick Stern of the London School of Economics discussing his career, British politics, and efforts to combat climate change
- Andrei Marcu, founder and executive director of the European Roundtable on Climate Change and Sustainable Transition
- Paul Watkinson, Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Jos Delbeke, professor at the European University Institute in Florence and at the KU Leuven in Belgium, and formerly Director-General of the European Commission’s DG Climate Action
- David Keith, professor at Harvard and a leading authority on geoengineering
- Joe Aldy, professor of the practice of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, with considerable experience working on climate change policy issues in the U.S. government
- Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, and an authority on infectious disease policy
- Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University, and founding co-director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard Business School.
- Sue Biniaz, who was the lead climate lawyer and a lead climate negotiator for the United States from 1989 until early 2017.
- Richard Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Kelley Kizier, Associate Vice President for International Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
- David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell International.
- Vicky Bailey, 30 years of experience in corporate and government positions in the energy sector.
- David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego.
- Lisa Friedman, reporter on the climate desk at the The New York Times.
- Coral Davenport, who covers energy and environmental policy for The New York Times from Washington.
- Spencer Dale, BP Group Chief Economist.
- Richard Revesz, professor at the NYU School of Law.
- Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environment and Law at Yale University.
- William Hogan, Raymond Plank Research Professor of Global Energy Policy at Harvard.
- Jody Freeman, Archibald Cox Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
- John Graham, Dean Emeritus, Paul O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University.
- Gernot Wagner, Clinical Associate Professor at New York University.
- John Holdren, Research Professor, Harvard Kennedy School.
- Larry Goulder, Shuzo Nishihara Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, Stanford University.
- Suzi Kerr, Chief Economist, Environmental Defense Fund.
- Sheila Olmstead, Professor of Public Affairs, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin.
- Robert Pindyck, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Professor of Economics and Finance, MIT Sloan School of Management.
- Gilbert Metcalf, Professor of Economics, Tufts University.
- Navroz Dubash, Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
- Paul Joskow, Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics emeritus, MIT.
- Maureen Cropper, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland.
- Orley Ashenfelter, the Joseph Douglas Green 1895 Professor of Economics, Princeton University.
- Jonathan Wiener, the William and Thomas Perkins Professor of Law, Duke Law School.
- Lori Bennear, the Juli Plant Grainger Associate Professor of Energy Economics and Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University.
- Daniel Yergin, founder of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, and now Vice Chair of S&P Global.
- Jeffrey Holmstead, who leads the Environmental Strategies Group at Bracewell in Washington, DC.
- Daniel Jacob, Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry & Environmental Engineering at Harvard.
- Michael Greenstone, Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, University of Chicago.
- Billy Pizer, Vice President for Research & Policy Engagement, Resources for the Future.
- Daniel Bodansky, Regents’ Professor, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.
- Catherine Wolfram, Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, currently on leave at the Harvard Kennedy School.
- James Stock, Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy, Harvard University.
- Mary Nichols, long-time leader in California, U.S., and international climate change policy.
- Geoffrey Heal, Donald Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise, Columbia Business School.
- Kathleen Segerson, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Economics, University of Connecticut.
- Meredith Fowlie, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, U.C. Berkeley.
- Karen Palmer, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future.
- Severin Borenstein, Professor of the Graduate School, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley.