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The extreme heat waves, wildfires and storms that engulf communities across the globe shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, climate scientists have predicted such scenarios for decades.

Internationally, there is scientific consensus that human activities – specifically the burning of fossil fuels – are responsible for global warming. At least 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree on this, according to NASA. Fortunately, most of them also agree that there’s still a small window of opportunity to avert the existential threat that such warming poses. But the alarm bells are ringing that urgent action is required to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to meet the Paris Agreement on Climate Change

Business schools should play a central role in getting this uncomfortable message across and inspiring action through climate leadership, because business leaders still lag woefully behind scientists in terms of reaching a consensus on the scale and urgency of the problem. A focus on educating climate-aware, responsible business leaders is particularly crucial for Africa – which is heating up at twice the average global rate and will bear the brunt of the climate emergency. By 2050, the crisis may have forced up to 113 million people to disruptively relocate within Africa. 

Therefore, the race is on for the continent’s highest GHG emitter, South Africa, to wean itself off fossil fuels. The country’s Just Energy Transition plan has attracted $8.5-billion in international climate finance to implement a socially-responsible shift from coal to renewable energy, but more is needed. ‘Our job as a business school is to help business leaders and social actors to urgently find innovative ways to reconcile the climate dilemmas in a smoother, less bumpy energy transition,’ says Morris Mthombeni, Dean at Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). Communicating this call to action is a balancing act, as it must be motivational instead of gloomy and defeatist, he warns. ‘If our approach gives people the impression that there’s nothing they can do individually as leaders, doing nothing will become a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ he says. ‘But if we convey that there are still sustainable paths possible for a Just Transition, we will create space for business leaders to innovate and transform their organisations, manufacturing and service processes to make a net-positive contribution to their communities and the environment – and in doing so, become net positive leaders.’

Quest for justice

Climate leadership, however, goes far beyond concern for the environment; it also requires humane leadership that strives to solve existing injustices, according to Prof Mthombeni. ‘Justice isn’t typically at the top of the business agenda, but I believe it’s the foundation for climate leadership,’ he says. ‘The three justices we focus on at GIBS are digital justice, as captured by the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9; climate justice, as captured by SDG 13; and then social justice, as captured by SDG 16 in the main and amplified through SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 4 (quality education).’

‘We’ll never achieve climate leadership without restoring these three justices, starting with social justice,’ he says. ‘In our view, South Africa’s biggest challenge is corruption. If we as a country were to address corruption and its consequences on institutions, we would solve the key social injustice, which would in turn catalyse the SDG 4 and 5. Therefore, solutions to many of the other problems would be in reach. But without restoring social justice, people won’t feel a sense of belonging and take ownership of the country and their future.’ 

No climate justice without digital justice 

Globally, the Covid pandemic widened existing inequalities, including the digital divide. Mthombeni laments how people who could afford being digitally connected were able to navigate the pandemic-related challenges more easily, because their work, education and relationships could continue online. Whereas those without access to the internet often lost two to three years of education, with the resulting widening of income-earning inequality. Consequently, many learners, workers and entire organisations still aren’t as productive as they should be. 

This digital injustice is linked to climate injustice: Africa accounts for a fifth of the world population but contributes only 3% to the causes of global warming, according to the International Energy Agency. Worryingly, the continent is the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, but those causing most of the damage don’t include Africa in finding solutions. ‘Research shows that only 3.4% of the global finance for climate research focuses on Africa-related climate risks, mitigation and adaptation,’ says Mthombeni. ‘Of this already tiny amount, less than 14% of research funding is directed to fund African scientists. You can see that Africans are being robbed of the funding to research their own problems.’ 

This underrepresentation of Africans in solving climate problems is also reflected in Reuters’ 2021 list of the world’s 1000 most influential climate scientists, where only five scientists out of the 1000 were based in Africa, none of them black Africans. “To include our perspective, we need to solve digital injustice and connect Africa’s researchers, practitioners and communities to the knowledge, as well as the challenges and opportunities of climate change,” says Mthombeni. ‘For us, social, digital and climate justice are therefore interconnected.’ 

Business Schools as climate leaders 

GIBS was among six leading African business schools that launched Business Schools for Climate Leadership Africa (BS4CL Africa) in November 2022 to provide African experts and business leaders with a stronger voice and a framework for climate action. The initiative by deans from African business schools was inspired by the European BS4CL group that was founded by eight of Europe’s leading business schools the previous year. Despite traditionally being keen competitors, these schools decided to unite to accelerate action towards the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Their cross-sectoral collaboration is experimenting with new ways to bring business leaders and scientists together to forge strategies to bring about the systems change needed in fighting the climate catastrophe.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, the BS4CL dean explained that business schools are only taking the lead now, because climate change used to be considered outside their typical areas of expertise. ‘Also, there are deep competitive challenges demanding the attention of business professors and students, notably digital transformation and AI, which represent more comfortable territory for management scholars,’ say the deans. ‘But these are not excuses. As organisations with missions to improve the practice of management, business schools must do much more to raise awareness of climate change in the business community and to show how business and management can address the challenges climate change presents.’ And the business schools are well positioned to do so, being ‘experts in organisational transformation, performance measurement, operations, marketing, leadership, and governance’.

Through an African lens  

‘Our mission as a business school is underpinned by responsible business management, which is built on climate leadership and the three pillars of justice,’ says Mthombeni. ‘We use digital technologies to bring people along with us – not because we are environmental ideologies but because we are pragmatic leaders of the business domain, who are committed to humane leadership and social justice.’ 

GIBS articulates these principles throughout its programmes. As a Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) Champion, the school has been integrating the SDGs into its strategy for many years, and is developing new programmes with a sustainability or climate focus. The current offering includes a boot camp to introduce business professionals to sustainable finance and the fundamentals of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance); and a short course on new strategic growth opportunities through ESG and sustainability, aimed at business leaders, entrepreneurs, senior managers and sustainability teams. There is also the launch of a new ‘climate leadership’ focus area for the prestigious MBA, and an MPhil in Leading New Economies, which addresses the green economy amongst others. These programmes incorporate strong partnerships with international business schools that share a common vision for business and society.

While it’s crucial to prepare business leaders to solve climate dilemmas and bring an African perspective to the global crisis, Mthombeni suggests that other countries can learn from Africa’s experiences with issues such as managing drought, loadshedding, or service delivery protests. He has addressed these issues in-depth in a co-authored academic article, which is about to be published in the prestigious international journal Business and Society. Mthombeni says, ‘If you’re interested in not just theorising about climate leadership, but actually learning from the practice, and then using that to create frameworks and tools for your own environment, the African business environment provides a fertile learning ground.’ DM


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