Articles

Muma prof: Businesses Rather than Government Will Save Us from Climate Change

By Keith Morelli

Sharon Hanna-West

TAMPA (Feb. 27, 2017) -- In the face of global climate change, which brings with it the threat of catastrophic rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns and perhaps a crunch on water resources, there may be some hope: A proliferation of businesses poised to lead the world out of what some predict is the end of days.

A swath of new, innovative enterprises aiming to alleviate whatever hardships come with climate change could be on the rise, sweeping in like a knight in pin-striped armor to protect coastal cities from surging tides, provide sparkling clean water to drink and, basically, save us from ourselves.

The landscape will become a place of new opportunities for entrepreneurs to get out there and do what they do best: Carve out a niche in a changing world.

"I firmly believe that business is the solution to climate change," said Sharon Hanna-West, who teaches graduate courses in the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business and who is affiliated with the Patel College of Global Sustainability. "Much of our environmental harm can be traced to economic activity so it stands to reason that it has to be business, by changing fundamental business models that will turn this ship around."

Relying on governments to respond is not the answer, she said. Governments are too slow.

"Only the power of business is big enough and fast enough to do it," she said, "and the movement is well underway."

Hanna-West, the former USF Exide Distinguished Lecturer in Ethics and Sustainability, teaches graduate courses that include business ethics, environmental law and sustainable business practices in a course referred to as the S-Lab.

The secret to success in a climate-changing world, she said, is adjusting some business models and methods of sustainability, which in simple terms is defined as this: Businesses must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

In other words, don't deplete resources for a quick buck.

Water resources fall under that model as well, Hanna-West said. Business will play a huge role in the availability of clean water. The technical solutions needed to solve this problem don't get implemented in isolation, she said. They are developed through research in universities or in the private sector or through partnerships of both; but more often than not, they are brought about by business. One thing is for sure, clean water is needed for humankind to survive.

"I don't understand how on a planet that is 75 percent water, we have not developed more ways to convert seawater to meet the needs of our growing population" she said. "Instead, access to fresh water is increasingly becoming a source of conflict."

Whether the conversation is climate change or the availability of water resources, the answer is sustainability, Hanna-West said. And, while the concept is catching on, much more needs to be done. Business, after all, stands to benefit from this focus. She said Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, said it best:

"Sustainability is a worthy and profitable journey and the journey is the destination and we will do well – very well – by doing good. That's the mission."

Nearly all of the Fortune 500 companies today publish sustainability reports. They have sustainability staff and consultants, Hanna-West said. The 500 group is more important to the economy than ever before, as some have annual corporate revenues that surpass the GDP of entire countries. The influence of those corporations can be a powerful force of positive change.

But the rest of the business world needs to get on board.

"Many people have no literacy in this area," she said, "and that's why we developed these applied college business courses where we give students the opportunity to help real companies get started."

Saving the environment, she said, will be the next big wave in innovation and job creation, as steel, railways, plastics and IT were for previous generations.

What's the motivation for corporate world?

Profit is one, she said, and improving image with shareholders is another. Plus, an innovative corporation tends to draw a wider diversity of talent.

"The whole idea that profits must be sacrificed to achieve sustainability goals is a myth," she said. "Companies are dispelling it every day."

There will be plenty of discouraging moments ahead, she said.

"Climate scientists tell us it's too late to change what's already in the pipeline – volatile weather will continue and sea levels will rise – but we can keep it from being catastrophic if we take significant action now," Hanna-West said. "Climate change has been called nature's interest only loan. I tell my students that Mother Nature has always run by a simple pay-back rule when our activities cause damage: 'Pay me and fix it now – or pay me a whole lot more later.'

"That's because our natural environment – which we depend upon for our very existence – is a complex interconnected system in which damage has a domino effect."

In the end, she predicted that business, pushed by the profit motive and a newly instilled sense of global stewardship, will solve this problem and walk the world back from the ledge.

"Many say we are at the cusp of the next industrial revolution," she said. "Will we recognize it and embrace it, or will we pretend it is not happening and cling to the old days? Will we be part of the problem, or part of the solution?

"I think we are opting to solve this problem," she said.