Campus & Community

Former VP calls for change in thinking

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Gore says business needs environmental attitude adjustment

There’s money to be made in responding to rising global temperatures, former Vice President and environmental activist Al Gore told an auditorium packed with future business leaders Monday (Dec. 11) at Harvard Business School (HBS).

Gore, in an hour-long talk to Business School students, faculty, and staff in Burden Hall, said that responding to climate change is a moral imperative, but it is also good business.

Though it may require a painful rethinking of how we do business in a host of industries, Gore said rethinking manufacturing processes to make them more environmentally friendly can save money, and steps to reduce pollution and waste will mean greater efficiency in using expensive raw materials.

“It … represents the greatest source of business opportunity in the history of the world,” Gore said.

Gore’s talk, “A Changing Business Climate,” was presented by the Harvard Business School Leadership and Values Committee. The former vice president and democratic presidential candidate was greeted with a standing ovation when he entered the hall.

Gore began his talk with several self-deprecating references and stories about adjusting to life as an ordinary citizen, remarking that after eight years of flying on Air Force Two, he now has to take off his shoes to board a plane. Though several jokes referred to his near-miss in the 2000 presidential campaign, Gore also said he has no plans to run again for president.

The climate crisis, Gore said, is a symbol of a deeper clash between modern civilization and the natural processes of planet Earth. He divided the problem into three main areas: population growth, the revolution in science and technology, and the way we think about the environment.

The population issue, he said, appears heading toward resolution. Population trends show we are shifting from high birthrates and high death rates to low birthrates and low death rates, heading toward a leveling off of the planetary human population at about 9 billion. Though the leveling off is good news, before that happens the population will have quadrupled in roughly 100 years, enormously increasing the impact of humanity on the environment.

Coupled with that has been the scientific and technical revolution, whose demands for energy and resources have “vastly magnified” the impact of each of us on the planet, Gore said.

But perhaps the most important factor in the current crisis is our philosophy toward the Earth, Gore said.

Our attitudes are dominated by short-term thinking and striving for near-term goals, Gore said. This is characterized in the business community by the demand to meet quarterly profit expectations, even if that comes at the expense of long-term investments and goals.

“Taking a longer-term view of business … is part of the solution,” Gore said. “This frothy, frenetic short-term investing pattern is harming the environment.”

Gore blamed the short-term focus of business at least partly on accounting practices that were born at the end of the colonial period, when raw materials and natural resources from colonies around the world were so plentiful there was no cost applied to using them up.

“If the only tool we use to measure what is valuable is a price tag, then those things without a price tag appear to have no value,” Gore said.

But there are many values without a price that are important to business success, Gore said, including ethical leadership, good relations with the community, treating employees fairly, and easing a company’s environmental impact.

“The fact that business doesn’t factor these things in keeps them from doing what society needs it to do with the environment,” Gore said.

One solution, Gore said, would be to tax carbon emissions, giving a value to an important factor driving global warming. He also supported – though he admitted such a reform wouldn’t pass – shifting the business taxes from those based on employment to those based on pollution. The change, he said, would reduce the burden of companies competing with low-wage competitors overseas while taxing more heavily those companies that are damaging the environment.

Gore cautioned against putting too much faith in technology to bail us out by finding ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, saying, “There’s no silver bullet” to solve the problem.

Gore struck an optimistic note, however, saying that the debate about climate change is over everywhere but in the United States, where the overwhelming scientific consensus is clouded by a small number of dissenting scientists. Eventually, he said, the United States will join the world community and the fight against global warming. He predicted that the successor to the Kyoto treaty on climate change would be tougher, and that the United States would sign it.

“I believe the political system and the business system, like the climate system, are nonlinear. They appear to do nothing then hit a tipping point and shift into high gear,” Gore said. “We have to decide to say, ‘Yes, we are going to do this.’ This is not a political issue. It is a moral issue.”

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