Understanding private sector risk to climate change and designing guidance for engagement

Client Organization: 
World Wildlife Fund
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives: 

This project seeks to map the landscape for climate change resilience thinking for private sector actors, and produce material that can be used by WWF to work with companies to address climate change in supply chains.  Climate change is impacting agricultural production systems, and the ecosystems services on which they rely.  In turn, companies who source agricultural goods are seeing an impact on the communities on which they depend and supply security.  WWF seeks to use the best available scientific information to address issues and critically evaluate its strategy for working with the private sector.  By conducting an analysis of the landscape of climate change thinking and response, by conducting interviews with select companies with global operations and agricultural sourcing in vulnerable areas to identify what climate resilience means to the private sector, this project aims to identify how sustainability commitments are at risk due to climate change and the strategies employed by companies for climate change impacts and severe weather events in a scientific manner.  This includes identifying companies with sustainability commitments that have potentially been affected by extreme weather events and/or are at risk from future changes in climate, and compiling case studies of how companies responded to disruptions or their level of preparedness.  This project seeks to identify and understand the processes and strategies that lead to effective implementation of resilience building.  This information will then be used to provide guidance to WWF on how companies are affected by and responding to climate change as well as how to best engage with companies to address the effects of climate change on agroecosystems while maintaining their corporate social responsibility commitments, especially those related to natural resource use and biodiversity.  Additionally, this project will help deliver outreach material for use by WWF in engaging the private sector.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance: 

Agriculture represents the biggest threat to the environment globally.  Conversely, the ecosystem services on which agriculture depends are being affected by climate change, while at the same time being diminished by unsustainable agriculture practices.  There is an opportunity to work within agricultural supply chains to influence the valuation of ecosystem services and sustainability of the sector.  Whether through direct operations or supply chains, business depends on natural resources.  WWF works directly with companies and through industry-specific roundtables and platforms to reduce the ecological footprint of doing business, and to help the private sector be better stewards of shared natural assets.  In order to reduce the impacts of agriculture on the environment and enhance ecosystem services, the private sector must be engaged in the problem-solving process.

Companies often understand climate risk as the exposure of operations to a physical hazard (such as an extreme weather event, flood, drought, or sea-level rise).  As a result, their strategies for resilience have typically focused on building infrastructure to withstand physical hazards and protect core operations.  Similarly, companies have focused on their own operations when determining material risks, which means they have underestimated risks across the supply chain.  Furthermore, companies may underestimate their capacity to build resilience through their innovations, products, and services and are therefore missing out on opportunities to demonstrate leadership, gain reputational value, and have a positive environmental impact.

Resilience to climate change of agroecosystems is a priority focus for WWF’s work.  This research will help WWF engage with the private sector and develop a strategy for engraining resilience thinking in private sector engagement.  By gathering information on effective and ineffective sustainability strategies in the face of climate change employed by the private sector, it will also help WWF engage with the private sector to achieve its core mission of stopping the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and building a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.  Ultimately, this work will help WWF compel companies to better their sustainability goals and seek out solutions to resilience to climate change.

This project will produce information and literature to be used by WWF and its partners to plan for action to build resilience to climate change.  This project aims to deliver a useful product to WWF, and provide career advantages for students— allowing them to gain or apply marketable skills, and connect with key leaders in the field.  This project will connect students with private sector actors and leaders in sustainability and conservation.

Specific Activities & Duration: 

Activities include identification of private sector actors with global supply chains that have been affected by extreme weather events and/or are at risk from future changes in climate and an analysis of select company strategy and response to climate change that goes beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  From this research, further interviews will be designed to engage with companies and gain knowledge into the private sector response to climate change and effects on sustainability goals.  Interviews with companies identified will then be conducted to fill in knowledge gaps and analyze the state of play in the private sector currently.  (Duration – 10 months)

Findings from research and interviews will be used in producing a report for WWF that can be used to conceptualize and create outreach material appropriate to WWF’s private sector engagement strategy and, more broadly, goal of stopping the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and building a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.  This product will be used in developing guidance for WWF on how to communicate the importance of resilience thinking and how to engage with the private sector on resilience to climate change.  (Duration – 6 months)

Integrative Approach: 

This project will require varying skills and talents to accomplish.  The concept of resilience inherently requires holistic and multi-dimensional thinking.  In analyzing the current state of private sector thinking, strategy and action on climate change, students will need to be able to employ systems thinking, problem-solving, interpersonal skills, business acumen, and analytics to produce a meaningful and useful product that captures the state of play in the space.  This project will investigate how climate change has affected, is affecting, and will affect multiple actors and systems and will require the ability to effectively communicate a message to select audiences.  

SEAS Program Areas: 
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Sustainable Systems
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Kimberley Irby
  • Kaitlyn Klingensmith
  • Caroline Lucas
  • Edwin Willig
Project Status: 
Past Project