Friday, May 15, 2009

Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities for Business and Society

If “organizations are the way that ideas change the world,” as MIT Sloan Dean Dave Schmittlein puts it, then look to institutions like MIT, which has wrapped its arms around the issues of energy and climate change, to help make sustainability real and attainable. The Dean describes some showcase work launched at MIT, including a long-lasting battery for electric cars, and MIT’s own green campus efforts.

For MIT Sloan, explains Richard Locke, sustainability is not an “in vogue concept” that is about environment or climate change. Rather, it is “an incredible opportunity for new business, and for existing enterprise to reinvent their practices.” He invites panelists and audience at Convocation sessions to engage in dialog about moving beyond theory to meet the challenges of sustainability.

Forget the notion that the climate challenge is primarily a technical one, and can be solved with the help of 21st century know-how, says John Sterman. A more useful response would combine the distributed leadership of a civil rights movement with the technological daring of a Manhattan project. There are huge obstacles to overcome: According to Sterman, while a vast majority of people have heard of global warming, believe it poses a threat, and believe in reducing greenhouse emissions, a majority also oppose any changes that would “put the true costs of energy in front of you at the pump and in your electric bill.” There’s widespread belief that we can “wait and see” whether climate change is really that bad.

Sterman is working on providing policy makers and the public with interactive models that demonstrate just how immediate the climate threat is and how a slack response will only make things worse. He wants people to perceive that they must reduce greenhouse gases dramatically, but he also wants to destroy the myth that doing so will “kill the economy.” Sterman says “addressing this issue will pay dividends—that if we can cut the use of fossil fuels, it puts money in our pockets.”

Vladimir Bulovic wants to make the climate issue personal and immediate: the arboreal forests of the world produce 2/3rds of the planet’s oxygen, and due to warming (and the diseases that accompany it), trees are dying off. This image of our world choking on its own waste is motivating MIT scientists to find alternatives to polluting energy sources. He cites in particular efforts to harness the sun’s energy, including improving silicon technology, engineering photons to make electricity, and advancing ways of concentrating and storing solar power.

British telecom BT has managed to reduce its carbon footprint by 58% since 1996. Imagine what would happen if other global corporations followed suit, queries
Kevin Moss. He challenges his commercial peers to scour their business processes to reduce real estate and transportation usage, improve energy efficiency (e.g., by raising operating temperatures at data centers), and to purchase renewable energy. BT’s next goal: an 80% reduction of carbon emissions, and to secure 25% of its energy needs by wind energy by 2016.

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