Competent Leaders Need to Understand the Science of Sustainability

07/07/2014 09:24 am ET | Updated Sep 06, 2014

In speaking about climate policy last week, President Obama chided senators who are trying to dodge the climate issue by claiming they were not scientists. The president went on to claim that he was not a scientist either, but that "I've got this guy, John Holdren. He's a scientist." What President Obama didn't say was that Dr. Holdren's job is specifically to communicate climate science to the president and that the president has made it his job to learn it. Leaders need to make an effort to learn from scientists and scientists have a responsibility to communicate with leaders.

In the modern, complex, technology-laden world we live in, there is no excuse for scientific illiteracy. People who run our institutions -- those with law degrees, social science and humanities PhDs, public policy, as well as business and management degrees -- all need to make a real effort to understand the science, engineering, and architecture of our planet and the built environment we have constructed. You would be surprised if a CEO told you that since they weren't accountants, they didn't need to learn how to read financial statements. Why would anyone -- CEO or senator -- advertise their inability to understand science? The physical and technological elements of organizational life have become too important for leaders to ignore. The costs of water, energy, materials, buildings, communication, production and information technology are key elements of an organization's cost structure. So too are the impacts of production and products on waste streams and on the planet.

Very few business, law or public policy graduate programs require future leaders to learn how to understand science or integrate scientific understanding into organizational or public decision-making. At Columbia's Earth Institute, I direct and teach in two management programs that require course work in science. The first, which is in its twelfth year, is the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy, a collaboration with Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. The second, entering its fourth year, is the Master of Science in Sustainability Management, a partnership with Columbia's School of Continuing Education. Earth Institute researchers teach as adjunct faculty in these programs and have worked hard to design courses that enable future decision makers to understand science without becoming full-time scientists.

Both programs have typical requirements in management, finance, public policy, economics and quantitative analysis. However, our sustainability faculty requires that our students study science as well as management. The Sustainability Management program requires three courses in the "physical dimensions of sustainability". These can be courses in ecology, environmental science, or engineering, but can also be courses in energy efficiency, climate change, green architecture, or environmental toxicology. The Environmental Science and Policy program is more prescriptive and requires six two-credit science courses in a single semester, including environmental chemistry, toxicology and risk assessment, climate science, hydrology, principles of ecology and urban ecology. These students also engage in a workshop course where they simulate the implementation of a piece of proposed but not yet enacted environmental legislation. During the "science semester," our public policy students spend their time learning to understand and communicate the science of the environmental problem their bill is attempting to address. They also seek to understand and communicate the science of the bill's proposed solution to the environmental problem at hand.

Half of these public policy students have undergraduate science backgrounds; half do not. Our students work together, in teams, to develop the understanding and messaging needed to explain environmental science to decision makers. In a world that is increasingly vulnerable to disruption of the technology needed for daily life, the ability to understand and communicate scientific complexity is vital for contemporary leadership. It is not simply our home entertainment system that requires technological infrastructure to function, but our food, water, energy, transportation, waste management, and health care systems as well. Our high-tech world does not function by magic. Our economy is technology-based and requires expertise and managers who understand enough of what the experts know to be capable of leading an organization's work.

I am not advocating that everyone disappear into a lab and into a life of endless geekdom. While it is true that we need more people to become scientists, not everyone has the talent or interest to be a scientist. I certainly don't. But it is essential that we develop a profession of managers who are not scientists, but understand science and technology well enough to integrate scientific fact into organizational decision-making. At the very start of my career in the federal Environmental Protection Agency, I learned that environmental policy and management required an understanding of the basics of environmental science. I had to learn that science on the job, but it never occurred to me that I could skate by without it.

The goal of sustainability management is to maximize the productive use of our planet without destroying its capacity for continued use. To do this we need to understand the impacts of the technologies we rely on for daily life. I know we are stuck with fossil fuels even though they damage the planet when we extract them from the earth and when we burn them for energy. The cost of turning off or even slowing down our economic machine is far greater than the benefits. But the idea that a significant number of America's elected leaders either question or profess ignorance about climate science is shocking. It is one thing to say it will take a while to correct past mistakes and transition of off fossil fuels. It is quite different to say that we have made no mistakes -- to say, "There is no climate crisis; global warming is a myth."

It is important to develop consensus around facts and reality. A person shot dead on the street is not in suspended animation. A glass of water may look like vodka, but it doesn't pack the same punch. The environmental impact of the settlements, machines, food and water of seven billion people is far greater than the impacts of a planet of three billion people. Earth's human population was three billion in the 1960s and is over seven billion today. If you don't think our use of energy causes heat, stand next to an idling truck during a mid-August heat wave. Feel the heat? Where do you think all the waste heat from our power plants, homes and cars ends up? We can argue about what to do about homicides, alcoholism, or climate change, but our view of reality must be based on the same facts. And in a high-tech, globally interconnected economy our survival depends on scientific fact being researched, debated, accepted, understood and acted on.

We need to invest in more advanced science and technology, and in understanding and managing the technology we use. Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous and, in the case of our nation's public and private leaders, more than a little pathetic. The definition of competent leadership must begin to include the ability to understand and manage complexity: complex organizational networks, multi-dimensional communications processes, complex production technologies, and the complex science that makes all of these complex systems possible.