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Imagine If Harvard Took on Climate Change

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 29, 2013 10:50:51 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

It was with a heavy heart that we read President Drew Faust’s announcement that HarvardHarvard would not join the Fossil Fuel Divestment movement. At 1,275 words, her statement acknowledges how seriously Harvard’s administration considered the issue. The statement opens with “Climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges,” but “divestment from the fossil fuel industry is (neither) warranted or wise.”
Last Thursday, Seattle’s Mayor Michael McGinn wrote an impassioned protest for Huffington Post that lays out the arguments against Harvard’s stance, but it was surely no surprise to anyone. Harvard has a history of withstanding divestment movements, refusing to join even the anti-Apartheid divestment until ten years after protests began.

But still I expected more. Faust is one of my heroes. As the first female President of Harvard, she operates successfully and in some ways radically in one of the most entrenched old boys clubs in the country. My own alma mater, Harvard Business School, recently revealed a pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination that was as astonishing in its depth. Even more surprising is the fact that it was revealed at all, much less addressed with such fervor by HBS’ male Dean Nitin Nohria. Appointed by President Faust, Dean Nohria pledged to “remake gender relations.”

A few weeks before the divestment rejection, I had received another email from Harvard, the transcript of a speech by President Faust announcing a $6.5 billion capital campaign. Even more damning than Harvard’s failure to signal its support for an end to fossil fuels was its omission of climate change in its plans for the future.

Faust spoke eloquently answering the question, “What institutional commitments will we make to define who we are and who we will be decades and centuries from now?” She names Harvard’s priorities as genomics, imaging, nanotechnology, big data, computation and “forging of new connections and crossing traditional boundaries” required by digital privacy, bioengineering and understanding and alleviating ethnic and sectarian conflict.

How could there be absolutely no mention of climate change? Surely this issue is more critical to life as we know it than nanotechnology or digital privacy.

Then I remembered a phrase in the Fossil Fuel Divestment email: “funds in the endowment have been given by generous benefactors.” Here was the most likely reason for Harvard to reject pleas from 72% of its student body and millions of climate change advocates:

The fossil fuel industry and its owners give big, and their influence is pervasive.

Just one example: David Koch, the climate change denier/coal and oil baron, a graduate of MIT, has given $185 million to his alma mater.

Harvard’s campaign was kicked off with Bill Gates, suggesting that the computer industry might be its primary target. But Harvard’s campaign is too big to risk alienating its largest donors from any sector.

It seems Harvard’s anti-divestment decision might be simply put, a practical fund-raising strategy.

But the school is missing an even bigger opportunity. To quote the Harvard Political Review, “Divestment…would signal that America’s universities take the climate-energy challenge seriously.” And what better institution to lead America's universities than Harvard?

Another missed opportunity: Harvard could be raising capital to address the most intransigent, complex and compelling challenge of all, climate change. Bill Gates is more excited about it these days than computing. His big bet, TerraPower, is a nuclear energy innovator.

Imagine if Harvard put all of its might behind “forging of new connections and crossing traditional boundaries” to solve the climate crisis. It might be the best fund-raising strategy of all. Michael Bloomberg has given his alma mater John’s Hopkins a total of $1.1 billion for cross-disciplinary work, part of that specifically on sustainability. Surely there are other environmental advocates out there among the 52 billionaires who are Harvard graduates.

Maybe it’s time for Harvard to rethink its strategy.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol 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 8,400+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,400+ companies from 135 industries in 104 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 270+ 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.

 

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Residential Solar Comes of Age

[fa icon="calendar'] Aug 14, 2012 3:28:37 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Interrupting my rant about how Bill Gates is pushing nuclear power when he should be residential solarboosting solar, a savvy investor and CEO told me why she doesn’t like solar: two years ago, at an intimate meeting she attended with him in New York, Bill Gates commented that residential solar panels set roofs on fire.

Gates’ comment seemed unnecessary and extreme, especially in that environment. It's not that Gates does not support solar energy at all. Cynthia Figge, co-founder of CSRHub, summarized his comments at the Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference earlier this year: "We have a chance of reaching 50% renewable energy use in the 2060 time frame, but it will take at least one of five miracles to come true, and about 200 crazy people working really hard at all five."

His tentative support for solar in general is simply absent for residential solar.

Yes, solar panels have caused fires.

It’s a new industry short on installers, which led to a rush on training. Many installers weren’t even licensed electricians, leading to shoddy construction. The density of the panels and the flammable polymers inside make fires hard to extinguish. Difficulty in shutting them down has given electrical shocks to at least 50 firefighters.

So it was with great relief that I read today’s New York Times Magazine article “The Secret to Solar Power.” Safety hazards and a $50,000 installation cost in 2010 slowed solar installations, but outright purchase is now secondary to the new model of leasing the panels, i.e., having someone else install and maintain the system.

According to Times author Jeff Himmelman, once the cost of solar panels fell, the business model for solar leasing schemes paid out and the market exploded. Installing solar panels yourself still costs $25,000, an amount that takes years to pay back. Instead, companies are selling “solar services.”

Solar service companies use the utility company model which consumers understand, installing and maintaining their solar equipment as part of a lease arrangement where consumers pay a lower monthly charge for energy, often guaranteed not to change for some period of time. Companies like BP which entered the market to sell solar panels have left the business; dedicated alternatives like SunCity, Sungevity and SunEdison now account for 63% of new solar systems in California.

[csrhubwidget company="SunPower-Corporation" size="650x100" hash="c9c0f7"]
Click “Alternative Energy” in the CSRHub Sustainability Ratings widget above to see all the companies and their ratings in this industry.

My question still remains: why don’t we hear more about residential solar in the media? Himmelman blames two lingering misperceptions: entrenched associations of all things “green” with qualities like impractical, ineffective and expensive, and the Solyndra effect: Americans believe that solar is something we don’t know how to do so we should leave it to the Chinese.

Fortunately, it’s a message that has bypassed big investors like Google, which has invested $374 million in residential solar power.

And then there’s the Gates factor. Speaking to Wired Magazine in 2011, Gates commented, “If you’re interested in cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. If you’re interested in solving the world’s energy problems, it’s things like big [solar projects] in the desert.”

Reminded me of Gates’ comments to a banking industry audience in the 1990s, where, to strains of reggae music, he declared the Internet to be nothing but a fantasy, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

It’s a good analogy. At the time Gates made his prophecy that the Internet was a pipe dream, the transition was just as huge and to many, as unlikely, as the one that moved intelligence from hardware to software, oddly, the transition that Gates himself made happen. Yet the Internet required a dramatic shift in thinking, one that would change — as Cisco’s promotion puts it, “How we live, work, play, learn” and even love.

The same is happening now with energy, where the notion of a centralized source of energy from a power plant that draws from an oil well or a nuclear facility is giving way to a distributed system where energy is produced wherever its source, sun or wind, can reach.

The problem is, what Gates says has power, and people of influence like my CEO friend tend to believe him. That’s why Sunday’s New York Times article is so important. Himmelman is a smart guy talking to the influencers. With the residential solar industry running at $93 billion in 2011 up from $17 billion in 2007, no-one would call his commentary about the solar industry “cute.” Of course, he can’t resist the activist’s glamour, and recounts in great detail the jungle adventures of Danny Kennedy, former Green Peace activist turned solar entrepreneur. Himmelman’s story ends with Kennedy’s comment that selling solar power is by definition a subversive act, a “march…that will get to its destination.” Long live the revolution!

Photo courtesy of daveeza (Flickr CC).


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 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

 

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My Top Eleven Takeaways from WSJ’s Conference on Business and Sustainability

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 3, 2012 5:25:00 AM / by Cynthia Figge

By Cynthia Figge


A week ago I attended the Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics Conference. This event was brimming with over 200 CEOs, entrepreneurs, industry experts and policymakers, discussing profitability, innovation, and smarter uses of energy. The focus was on the opportunities and risks that are quickly emerging and changing across sectors within the intersection of business and environment. While the event left me with many thought provoking questions and ideas, I wanted to share some of what caught my attention the most here:

1. We have a chance of reaching 50% renewable energy use in the 2060 timeframe, but it will take at least one of five miracles to come true, and about 200 crazy people working really hard at all five.
Bill Gates, Co-chair, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chairman, Microsoft


2. We need a rapid change to get to 50% renewable energy in 10 years. The best generalized solution would be to price CO2.
Elon Musk, Chairman and CEO, Tesla Motors and CEO and CTO, SpaceX

3. We must change our source of food – raising cattle the way we do it doesn’t work.
J. Craig Venter, Chairman and President, J. Craig Venter Institute 

4. The present and future role of natural gas is contested, but it could be the best bridge fuel as we move away from petroleum altogether. We could cut our consumption of OPEC oil by 60%.
T. Boone Pickens, Chairman, BP Capital Management and Edward G. Rendell, Former Governor, State of Pennsylvania

5. Most people believe that there is environmental damage involved in fracking, but it’s needed for the future of energy in the US. In the words of California Governor Jerry Brown, fracking is not as bad as environmentalists say, or as good as the companies say.  How do we make the best out of a bad situation? (For more on this issue, watch for the upcoming CSRHub blog on fracking as a new special issue).
Aubrey K. McClendon, Chairman and CEO, Chesapeake Energy

6. By improving ESG (environment, social, and governance) principles, sustainability can mean more cash flow and making more money. This is crucial for incenting and supporting companies with sustainability missions.
David M. Rubenstein, Managing Director, The Carlyle Group

7. Our consumption and daily habits add up, but can add up for good. For example, Robert McDonald says 4.4 billion people on the planet use a P&G product every day. Today 40% of laundry is washed in cold water – P&G has a goal of 70% in cold water. This alone would have an impact on several percentage points of the world’s GHG emissions.
Robert A. McDonald, Chairman, President and CEO, The Procter & Gamble Company

8. Selling green is about being honest. Marketers have less control over the message, and are instead are expected to be transparent and authentic.
Dara O’Rourke, Chief Sustainability Officer, GoodGuide

9. We have the technology to reduce waste and increase recycling, reaching a waste diversion rate close to 100%. But this is an area where we need very effective subsidies and incentives, and a change in culture and behavior.
David P. Steiner, President and CEO, Waste Management

10. The best companies are embedding sustainability into their innovation pipeline. It’s in everything they do and it’s part of their image and brand.
Betty Noonan, Senior Vice President, Panasonic Consumer Marketing Company of North America  

11. China had more patent applications than the US for the first time in history last year. This marks a change in innovation, transparency, and the rule of law. This will go a long way to sparking change for sustainability in China’s economy and workforce.
C. S. Kiang, Chairman, Sustainable Development Technology Foundation

These are just some of the great comments, discussion points, and reflections I heard while in Santa Barbara. There was a clear focus on natural gas at this conference, and how the abundance of a cheaper, cleaner alternative to petroleum has changed the energy market in the US. While natural gas was once thought to be a bridge fuel to a low (or no) carbon economy, that bridge appears to be getting longer.

It is always interesting to see how a change in a key issue around energy, or any topic under the sustainability umbrella, can change how we perceive the challenges and the solutions. This is one of the reasons why in our sustainability reporting and aggregation of data, CSRHub allows users the ability to filter the data they see. A key issue, like natural gas, is the type of specific wedge point that may shift our understanding of sustainability and CSR.


Cynthia Figge, Cofounder and COO of CSRHub is a forerunner and thought leader in the corporate sustainability movement. In 1996 she co-founded EKOS International, one of the first consultancies integrating sustainability and corporate strategy. Cynthia has worked with major organizations including BNSF, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Dow Jones, Noranda and REI to help craft sustainability strategy integrated with business. She was an Officer of LIN Broadcasting/McCaw Cellular leading new services development, and started a new “Greenfield” mill with Weyerhaeuser. She serves as Advisor to media and technology companies, and served as President of the Board of Sustainable Seattle. Cynthia has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Cynthia is based in the Seattle area.

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CSRHub Co-founder Cynthia Figge to attend WSJ Eco:nomics Conference

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 20, 2012 5:30:00 AM / by CSRHub Blogging

 

CSRHub Co-founder Cynthia Figge will join top CEOs, entrepreneurs, industry experts, and policymakers at this Spring's Wall Street Journal's Eco:nomics Conference. Held in Santa Barbara, the conference focuses on the opportunities and risks of environmental capital that are quickly emerging and changing across various sectors. WSJ's Eco:nomics unique atmosphere includes working groups, rather than speeches, rigorous analysis, and discussion and debate in the pursuit of real solutions. 

Highlights from the upcoming sessions will include interviews with Bill Gates, philanthropist and chairman of Microsoft; Governor Jerry Brown of California; visionaries Dean KamenElon Musk, and Craig VenterRobert McDonald, chairman and CEO of The Procter & Gamble Company; T. Boone Pickens and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell; venture capitalist Vinod Khosla; and Waste Management CEO David Steiner. The program will cover issues that directly impact the business world: new solutions and innovations, the aftermath of the disasters in the Gulf and in Japan, the uncertainty of subsidies, funding and regulation coming out of Washington, and other vital topics.


Cynthia Figge will represent CSRHub at the three-day conference from March 21 to 23. For updates from Cynthia, follow CSRHub on Twitter at @CSRHUB

 

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What BP Can Teach Bill Gates About Sustainability

[fa icon="calendar'] May 30, 2011 11:34:05 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding


By Carol Pierson Holding

About 10 years ago, I wrote an article about the role brands could play in driving social responsibility. My argument was that social change was needed on a massive scale, but that the institutions that had addressed societal ills in the past — government, religion, education, even the family — were no longer trusted. Therefore, brands were the only forces capable of changing human behavior.

The example I gave was BP, now unfortunately an exemplar of failed social responsibility (though still rated well above its industry average on environmental issues). Then-CEO Sir John Browne was the first to publicly commit the oil giant to alternative energy sources. Browne used both promotion — a name change from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum” — and action, moving into solar power in a major and public way to solidify the company’s commitment.

Then BP put its mighty brand to work to convince home-owners to switch from fossil-fuel heat to solar. The company partnered with local utilities to sell and install its solar panels and ran consumer ads that focused on cost savings. This action, made believable to consumers because the company made profits from solar business, convinced consumers of the validity of solar power and moved them to install solar panels in droves. BP added giants like Costco, Home Depot and WalMart to its solar solution distributors and made BP Solar the third largest producer of solar panels in the world.

When I heard that Bill Gates, who has notoriously distanced his foundation from environmental issues, would speak at the Climate Solutions fundraiser last week, I was thrilled. The idea was so enticing: Gates was joining corporate leaders like Jeffery Immelt of GE, Walmart’s Mike Duke, and Bill Ford of Ford Motor, all of whom are creating awareness of climate change by promoting environmental fixes from their own companies. After all, the Microsoft story is just as powerful as GE’s Ecomagination, Walmart’s “Green Power Broker” and Ford’s electric car business.

In fact, Microsoft is pretty far down the curve on its energy conservation technology. Working with local utilities, Microsoft’s Hohm service provides automated feeds to let consumers analyze their energy consumption and track their improvements over time, a proven method of getting consumers to be green. Hohm also manages charging electric cars. It’s exciting stuff, though Microsoft has not really promoted it and consumers have not been quick to adopt.

Picture 12

As I listened to Gates talk, I realized he would continue to distance himself from Microsoft, even though he chairs the company and owns about 8% of the stock. And indeed, he never mentioned it. Instead, he talked about his investments in huge scale energy breakthroughs such as TerraPower, whose reactors promise to run on nuclear waste.

Though I loved what he said, it was sad to watch Gates waste a huge piece of his potential influence by not building awareness for Hohm. It’s not a heroic effort like TerraPower, but it is one that is designed to get citizens to change their behavior vis-à-vis energy use. And once behavior changes, our consumerist values could change too. Even if we don’t stop buying stuff just for kicks, the outcomes are significant: Our cars and homes make up over 50% of the energy used in this country.

That seems like an improved outcome of pretty heroic proportions.


Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.

 

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