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As COVID-19 rages around the world and antiracists agitate against police brutality, climate change remains the existential threat in the background. It may not always be the breaking news story or the latest viral video, as has been the case with the recent series of devastating wildfires on the West Coast, but its disastrous impacts are pervasive and disproportionately harming the poor and people of color.

Social inequity and climate change impact are intertwined

There is no climate justice without racial and economic justice. People who are socially and economically disadvantaged have higher exposure to climate events; they are more vulnerable to harm and are less resilient for adaptation because government policies for allocating resources are stacked against them. As a result, solutions for building resilience and adapting to climate threats as well as strategies for mitigating climate threats favor those who are in advantageous positions in society—the wealthy and white.

For example, in 2017, Hurricane Maria, the deadliest hurricane in recent US history, devastated Puerto Rico, hitting poor families the hardest. While many wealthy people left the island or rebuilt after the disaster, poor families have waited months or years for government assistance.

The solutions that build resilience to climate change threats and blunt further harm have much in common with those for social injustice. They all require systemic changes in our economic, legal, and social institutions. These essential changes for holistic and enduring solutions are the opportunities and moral imperatives of our time, and this is our focus here at Presidio Graduate School.

Humans need holistic solutions now

Pope Francis has called the global failure to act on climate change “a brutal act of injustice toward the poor.” However, rapid reduction of climate threat is no small task. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of 2018 concludes that “…limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.” The IPCC report concludes that, “populations at disproportionately higher risk of adverse consequences with global warming of 1.5°C and beyond include disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, some indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods. There are limits to adaptation and adaptive capacity for some human and natural systems at global warming of 1.5°C, with associated losses.” In other words, we need rapid and far-reaching transition away from the prevalent economic and social practices, and we need imaginative leaders to chart the course.

presidio-graduate-school-students-classroomOur DNA at Presidio Graduate School

At Presidio Graduate School (PGS), we educate our students to become the business and social leaders who create change for human well-being, serve the common good, and build the foundations that enable people to flourish in the future. Climate change and social injustice are central topics in every course we teach.

PGS students learn business and leadership skills, and they apply systems-thinking principles to explore holistic solutions to social injustice and environmental sustainability challenges including climate change.

Fundamentals of sustainability and social justice in the first term courses

In our Systems, Sustainability, and Social Justice course, students learn the links between economic activities, resource consumption, and the sources and sinks of the ecosystem. They explore global systems through the lens of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG).

The Economy, Society, Business and Governance course teaches the fundamentals of political economy. It explores existing unjust social systems as the outgrowth of racism and practices of capitalism through the modern history of industrialization. They learn the ways our current economic system incentivizes global warming and climate change, who benefits, the differential effects on communities, and why making the necessary systemic changes is met with resistance.

In Accounting, students learn how to change the pervasive business and financial methodologies to account for (i.e., internalize) the harm of economic activities that are traditionally externalized at a disproportionate cost to communities of color and the poor. Students also learn to assess the materiality of business practices and implications in terms of how they are (or not) incorporated in corporate reporting.

Tools and methodologies for effective management in the second and third terms

In our Finance course, students explore the importance of climate change risks and uncertainty in altering the financial environment. They explore how private finance and investment markets can be leveraged to help address climate change and why regulatory and policy levers are important to helping facilitate financial markets’ transition toward sustainable finance and finance-for-sustainability.

Our Marketing Engagement course teaches the ethical implications of marketing and how it relates to customer behavior and consumption, as well as its impact on climate change, social justice, and human rights exploitation. Students ask how marketing plans could be designed to inform users about the climate change impacts of products and services and educate consumers to make better choices.

The Operations and Supply Chain Management course teaches students how to apply principles of triple-bottom-line sustainable operations in the workplace. The lifecycle analysis methodologies we teach help our students learn how to assess the climate impact of alternate supply chain choices. The students also learn how to develop operations plans that both optimize operations and incorporate industrial ecology and social justice principles and tools.

Innovation and leadership education are hallmarks of the PGS experience

At PGS, students have the opportunity to become the innovative, transformational leaders who will avert the climate change crisis and create a just and equitable future.

I teach our entrepreneurship course for inventing new products and services. It is holistically focused on treating solutions to climate change and social injustice problems as business opportunities.

The Civic Leadership, Decision Making, and Systems Thinking course explores the ways that frontline communities, primarily of color and low-income populations, experience the “first and worst” consequences of climate change. Students examine climate change through a perspective of labor by examining a framework for a just transition, learning from the indigenous people’s perspective.

Our leadership education also examines leadership acumen with a climate change lens, recognizing the critical importance of behavioral change for successfully adapting to climate change and mitigating social injustice. Students also learn—through the lenses of environmental, social, and governance issues—how organizational leaders recognize that responsible corporate governance increasingly demands adopting proactive environmental and social impact strategies. They learn about materiality assessment and how to recognize and report on material environmental and social issues, using various standards such as ISO 14001 and the Global Reporting Initiative.

People who enroll in our master’s degree and certificate programs are trained to find imaginative, effective solutions to the ongoing, intertwined threats of climate change and social injustice not found in traditional graduate schools. I’m proud to be part of an academic institution that equips emerging leaders in all industries and sectors with the skills to address the urgency of climate change and social justice challenges. I hope I’ll see you in an upcoming cohort!

About the Author / Dariush Rafinejad

Dariush Rafinejad, Ph.D., is a full professor and former provost at Presidio Graduate School. Dariush teaches courses on innovation and energy systems. Currently, he is teaching a course on Entrepreneurship - New Ventures and Products. Dariush has publish two books, authored several book chapters, and published papers and case studies on innovation and sustainability. His most recent book, published in 2017, is "Sustainable Product Innovation – Entrepreneurship for Human Well-Being."

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