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As the world’s elite meet in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum (WEF), albeit without President Cyril Ramaphosa, one might ask what will happen for climate change. A recent forum report points to climate risks being recognised as high on the list of challenges facing businesses worldwide. However, COP27, another gathering of the great and good, was something of a damp squib, with little noticeable progress and hardly a source of optimism for when the rich and powerful get together.

The WEF’s 2023 Risk Perception Report identified risks such as extreme weather events, failure to mitigate climate change, large-scale environmental incidents, failure to adapt to climate change and natural resources crises among the top 10 risks over the next two years. Meanwhile, four of the top five 10-year horizon risks are climate-related — failure to mitigate climate change, failure to adapt to climate change, extreme weather events, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse — with two further climate-related risks appearing in the top 10 of the medium-term risk factors.

A few months after the end of COP27 in Cairo it is hard to feel anything but underwhelmed by the progress made. In fact, underwhelmed may be optimistic given how quickly climate change and climate justice have fallen away from the headlines and the focus of policymakers. Regional conflicts, energy prices and the weak economic outlook are all absorbing the short-term attention of politicians.

At best COP27 may be seen as a defensive event of a COP26 target already regarded as rather modest. Climate experts had called for a ratcheting up of ambitious and new targets, but instead got a 1.5°C target “on life support”, as described by the COP26 president, UK politician Alok Sharma. The prospects for COP28 in an oil-producing region of the world do not inspire much optimism.

Is it a failure of leadership of businesses and politicians? There have been 30 years of COPs, with the consistent story being one of overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming and an inability of leaders to act decisively. There appears to have been no leadership from those who caused most of the damage in the global north, and little meaningful action to support those who will suffer from many of the consequences in the global south. 

Perhaps the reliance on government leaders and politicians offers limited hope for meaningful change in relation to climate change. While (some) business leaders recognise the risks, they are constrained by short-termism and responsibilities to shareholders for quick returns, and not spurred into action by the absence of bold government targets or regulations. It is perhaps time for other actors to step up. Some of the small wins chalked up in Cairo were indeed driven by the not-for-profit sector, for example the recognition of climate justice.

Education and trust

Another key non-governmental actor is education. Research at Harvard Business School, spanning most regions of the world, shows the higher education institutions are the most trusted when it comes to climate change. Next comes environmental experts, the UN and the EU, with governments and business in most regions firmly in the not-trusted category. The gap between trust in higher education and government is particularly stark in SA.

Business schools thus have huge potential leverage, being part of the trusted group but with access to those in business making many of the key decisions. With one in three of undergraduates worldwide intending to graduate with a business, economics or law degree, the influence of many future business leaders is potentially large.

Business schools will be source of many of the key skills needed to address climate change, including specific skills for managing risk, climate change consequences and sustainable innovation. However, their impact may be maximised by raising sustainability awareness though the integration of climate issues across all business disciplines. After all, climate change will touch most aspects of life and business.

At COP27 an alliance of African business schools committed to collaborating to integrate these skills into their curricula and work together on various projects. The alliance included leading schools spanning SA, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt. The initiative follows a similar grouping of leading European business schools in the global north, including London, HEC Paris,  and Oxford.

But there are other ways for business schools and their graduates to have an impact. Those one-in-three undergraduates often go on to managerial positions in business and civil society at all levels. If those alumni can be equipped with the right climate-related skills their impact will be significant throughout the organisations in which they work.

Business schools are also the sources of the research that allow consumers of financial products to judge whether so-called green investments are indeed sustainable. Business schools will also be central to future reporting standards on environmental and social impact. Their research even helps us understand how climate-change awareness diffuses across consumers and other stakeholders.

‘Missing in action’

At a recent event organised by the African chapter of the UN’s Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) business schools were described as being “missing in action” in relation to climate change. Business schools need to step up to their responsibilities, integrate an awareness of climate change, and challenge the status quo as their leverage their unique position.

The PRME event identified the enormous potential for alumni as change agents in their organisations and wider society. Further, business schools can be sources of research, good examples and even role models themselves for possible change, for their varied and influential stakeholders in undergraduate, postgraduate and executive education.

Business schools are just one of the many non-governmental actors that need to step up in the absence of governmental action and leadership, but they are an actor with particularly well-connected friends that could perhaps shift the dial further than the COPs have so far achieved.

• Prof Smith is director of the Stellenbosch Business School.

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