Climate Change, The B-School Way

ESADE is the only Spanish B-school that offers the CEMS Global Alliance’s Master in International Management. ESADE photo

The “American” delegate is on his feet, insisting that despite pulling out of the Paris Agreement, his country is still committed to finding solutions to climate change — as long as they “benefit all parties.” The “Vietnamese” delegate follows this with a heartfelt plea that rich countries not forget vulnerable, developing nations. Then comes a representative of Friends of the Earth, insisting that everybody remember how urgently we need to find solutions. “The time for theoretical debates is over; we need action!” he declares, a finger in the air. 

Just the kind of thing that you might expect to hear in the halls of the UN — except that these speeches are being made not in New York but in a debating chamber belonging to Barcelona’s ESADE business school. And the delegates are not hard-nosed diplomats but fresh-faced participants of the CEMS Master in International Management program, taking part in a simulation of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The students clearly take it seriously. The women representing Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries are wearing headscarves. While there are some signs that this is a game — the World Wildlife Fund delegates wear polar bear and panda onesies — the informed discussions over deficit reduction targets and the rights and responsibilities of rich versus developing countries are quite believable. Anyone who tells you that business schools are full of people aiming only to enrich themselves should see these young people engaging seriously about the nuts and bolts of climate change policy. 


Stefano Pogutz of SDA Bocconi.

CEMS, once known as the Community of European Management Schools and International Companies but now named the Global Alliance in Management Education, began 30 years ago as a collaboration between four business schools and several corporate partners with the aim of “promoting global citizenship,” with an emphasis on “the pursuit of excellence with high standards of performance and ethical conduct,” “understanding and drawing upon cultural diversity with respect and empathy,” and “professional responsibility and accountability in relation to society as a whole.” Last year, 1,279 students of 72 nationalities took part in the CEMS MIM in 31 business schools, with a 50-50 male-female ratio in the most recent cohort. These students are high-fliers; only those with high academic achievement and ability in three languages need apply. Currently no U.S. school takes part, but there are whispers that one might join soon. 

Arguably the jewel in the crown of the CEMS program is the UNFCCC simulation, which is now 10 years old. “We decided to train students on how to reach consensus in a specific topic related to responsibility, and chose climate change,” says Eugenia Bieto, director general of ESADE, one of CEMS’ founding schools. “The program has been very popular among the students. They feel as if they were doing the real negotiation, they become so involved in all the process tht at the end of the program they realize how important these things are, not only for the world but also for them as future managers.” A decade ago, the simulation involved just 17 students from one school, but this year there were over 150, from nine European schools.  

“The negotiation is a simulation, but it is one of the most credible ones I’ve seen,” says Stefano Pogutz of SDA Bocconi School of Management, who is chair of the CEMS Faculty Group. “There is a level of emotional engagement that it much higher than usual.” He is right. In the bar the night before the negotiation began, students representing countries with common cause could be seen forging strategic alliances over red wine. While I was interviewing one student, the delegate from Cambodia hurried over and they engaged in an urgent, whispered conversation, before Mr. Cambodia hurried off again.


Watching the students passionately — and competently — haggle over renewable energy targets, it’s hard not to be impressed by their grasp of complex issues. But is climate change something that business schools should be interested in? Shouldn’t they stick to teaching students about supply chain management and microeconomics? Aren’t these issues for governments, rather than businesses? 

There is no doubt in students’ minds. “In the short term, it might be possible to profit if you don’t care about these issues, but our generation looks to the long-term and for us there is no alternative to being sustainable. If we are not, there will be no business at all,” says Alwin Schmid, from St. Galen University, over coffee and sandwiches grabbed between sessions. His friend, Andrin Monstein, adds: “Policymakers and business have to work together. Businesses are pushing policymakers to create a framework which ensures they won’t be in a worse situation than their competitors if they do the right thing.” 

What do students who participate in the CEMS UNFCCC learn? Firstly, there is a deep-dive into the facts and figures around climate change. While many have taken courses on the subject before, with CEMS they see it from unfamiliar perspectives, learning about the history, economy, and aims of countries they might not have considered before. It seems that this is a real eye-opener. Bartlomej Bojski of SGH Warsaw School of Economics found representing Vietnam “insightful, but tough. When we are studying in the Western culture about different countries and especially about less-developed countries, we think about them from our rich perspective, but doing this you mentally become not just the representative but a citizen of the country, and you really start to understand positions they take in negotiations.” Fellow SGH student Lizaveta Myshko said that even representing Sweden had its challenges. “It leads global policy change, but it is hard to make others feel the same and comply and take the initiative. It was surprising that other countries could be stubborn on things like definitions,” she said.  


Johanna Bocklet, University of Cologne

Intriguingly, one of the main angles that interests many of the students is the way businesses and government can collaborate to solve climate change. “I am interested in getting into the field of social business and social enterprise, and the course addresses policy, which is something I believe business schools haven’t addressed at all,” says Kristina Medow, from the Technical University of Berlin. “Being able to understand and navigate the policy side of things can help student and future entrepreneurs better establish their businesses. Having a global perspective on policy can help you make better informed decisions about the sorts of businesses you might want to establish.” Bocconi’s Pogutz adds that the top-down governmental approach isn’t working, and a bottom-up one might be more effective, with businesses pushing for change.

The range of international perspectives mean that students become aware that problems have to be addressed differently in different places. “In some countries it is best to incentivize people with price,” says Norwegian student Inge Kristina Godo. “But in Norway, it might be better to put stickers on products to tell consumers which are the least polluting, because we are driven by self-image.” As well as learning facts, the FCCC involves honing negotiating skills. Students said that they had learned about the importance of building trust with partners, of choosing words very carefully, and how important it is to offer something valuable to a partner, and not look out only for yourself. The simulation also embeds the values of respect, openness and internationalism that are core to the CEMS project. 

Unlike some business school modules, the climate change course clearly affected the students. At their request, all the food on offer during the three days of the simulation was vegetarian, an acknowledgement that the meat industry damages the environment. All the students I spoke to had reduced their meat consumption, and some agonized about the difficulties of becoming vegan. Many came to Barcelona by train, and two who had to fly told me they had offset the carbon those flights produced. Students are also pushing CEMS to partner with smaller NGOs as well as the corporates who support the course, and its current “social partners”. Students power has also accelerated ESADE’s drive to reduce its use of plastic, and it is quickly phasing out plastic bottles in its cafes and restaurants.

Obviously, this course is self-selecting, and only those with a pre-existing passion for the issues around climate change apply. Even so, the simulation can have a serious effect on them. “Some of them are devastated about climate change by the end,” says Johanna Bocklet, coordinator of the CEMS climate change course at the University of Cologne. “They start optimistic, they have hopes and dreams and can’t understand why it is so hard to save the planet, but then they see that it is not so simple.” The million-dollar question is, even if their passion can survive the inevitable compromises and failures of the mock negotiation, will they vanish once these bright young people start to work for corporations, earning good money where pushing the sustainability agenda might rock the boat? “I don’t know, that takes a strong personality,” says Bocklet. “Can an event like this make a difference? I think it teaches them that it is worth fighting for. You see how motivated they are right now. It’s worth a try.” 


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