Business Students Hold the Future of Climate Change in Their Hands

The COP21 Agreement was a welcome victory in the long climate change battle. World leaders came together and pledged to do their part to reduce emissions and tackle this complex global problem head on. In 2016, at long last, most of the world seems committed to moving to a low-carbon, renewable energy future. Clearly, the rhetoric stemming from presidential primary circus is not moving us forward. Though climate change denialism is overtly visible among G.O.P. candidates, they are not the only roadblock. Obstructionism pervades our political system and it's going to take more than a Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton to spur innovative climate policy. To bring about a real change, the business sector must step up. COP21 sends a strong message to the business community in the United States. If we are going to leave a more sustainable earth for generations to come, business leaders must be able to translate scientific understanding into action.

For its part, higher education must prepare our current business students to become these leaders. Providing the intellectual background that employers need - such as systems thinking that connects disciplines and an understanding of core science concepts within the context of business decision-making - should be a key curricular goal at both the undergraduate and graduate degree levels.

Educators should consider preparing students for the distinctive challenges of sustainability to be a pressing, critical opportunity. Students in the classroom today will be the ones required to solve the complex problems. Inevitably, they will be tasked with reducing emissions, upping our use of renewable energy, and creating sustainable solutions across business functions in order to increase bottom lines and keep supply chains moving.

Granted, as a university professor it's tough to feel anything other than cautious optimism when we find out that many U.S. middle and high school science teachers are either uncertain or unable to convey what climate scientists have confirmed (National Center for Science Education). We simply have no time to lose.

Maybe the business-related implications of climate change will shake things up. According to a recent study published in Nature, unmitigated climate change is likely to reduce the income of an average person on Earth by roughly 23 percent in 2100. The study also estimated that climate change will reduce global economic production by 23 percent in 2100. Through that lens, the future of the global economy looks stark, yet I believe it will also be possible for college graduates to help companies adapt quickly.

Students will also need the opportunity - during a time in life when it's safer to make mistakes -- to think beyond the confines of individual business disciplines. For example, as part of an environmental policy class that I teach, our students collaborate with a policy-focused, Washington DC-based nonprofit and act as consultants to enhance the nonprofit's business strategies. In addition to learning the basics of environmental science in the classroom, students learn what it takes to solve real business and policy problems using their scientific understanding. We meet with policymakers in Washington, and make recommendations based on the business project. The students are always energized by the overall experience and it is this multi-disciplinary approach that leads to the kind of well-rounded college graduate that our economy needs.

There is no doubt about the vast, costly implications of climate change. And we do need to spread that word about business implications. Educators should do their part, preparing the next generation by showing them that sustainability equals smart business. You can improve the planet while still making a great living.