Uncertain Climate at Harvard Business School

Posted by: John Carey on August 8, 2007

Doug Koplow got a nasty surprise at his last Harvard Business School reunion. He’d missed the Saturday speakers because of family duties, but at the dinner that evening, he got an earful. “I was the token environmentalist in my class,” he recalls, “so everyone came up to tell me that there had been a great speaker on climate change—and that it was just not a big deal for business.” Why not? The speaker told the high-powered alumni that recent warming is mostly just

part of a natural cycle, so there's little need to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that enhance the Earth's natural greenhouse effect.

Koplow, the founder of a organization that analyzes energy subsidies called Earth Track, was upset. He poked around and learned that the speaker had been Sallie Baliunas, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Baliunas is a notorious figure to many scientists, a central player in the climate change denial movement. She has been trotted out as an expert by virtually all of the front groups funded by ExxonMobil in that company's long campaign to oppose both the idea of global warming, and any policies to combat it.

In the mid-1990s, she appeared frequently in news stories and on editorial pages, arguing that the Earth is warming only because the Sun is putting out more heat. Therefore, reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be futile.

Those claims have now been thoroughly disproved. "We've been precisely measuring the variations in the sun for 30 years now, and have telescope evaluations going back centuries," explains Princeton University scientist Michael Oppenheimer. "Both pieces of evidence show that, since the pre-industrial era (i.e. 1750), less than 10% of the warming is attributable to solar variations."

As the science has become more certain, reporters have stopped quoting Baliunas. But that hasn't stopped her from continuing to make the same argument.

What especially angered Koplow was that she was the only speaker on climate at the HBS alumni reunion--and that her talk clearly raised doubts in people's minds about the science of global warming. "It’s huge," he says. The school's alumni include "so many investment bankers, tons of hedge funds managers, and people running significant corporations. I don’t have a problem with letting her speak, but the problem comes when there is no context."

Plus, Baliunas had become almost a regular at the event. She had been invited the two previous years by the alumni reunion committee. Each time, her talk got very good reviews, says HBS spokesman Jim Aisner. So this year, the school's alumni relations office invited her to speak.

Aisner downplays the tiff. "I don’t see any controversy writ large," he says. "The only person who raised the issue is an alumnus with a strong point of view." Besides, he says, HBS alumni "are pretty smart and obviously familiar with the other point of view as well."

Koplow will be given a chance to recommend a speaker at next year's reunion, he adds.

 

About

BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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