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Climate Expertise on Corporate Boards

Study shows how few corporate board members of the Fortune 100 have a background in environmental, social, and/or governance subjects.

Research by Tensie Whelan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, shows that 5 percent of the nearly 1,200 board members of Fortune 100 companies had experience with workplace diversity, and 2.6 percent had experience with accounting oversight, reports Bloomberg. Barely 1 percent had any experience with energy or conservation. A paltry 0.3 percent of the Fortune 100’s board members had experience with ESG investing; 0.2 percent had experience with climate.

The recent shake-up of Exxon Mobil Corp.’s board involving the appointment of two board members with climate expertise will change those numbers quite a bit. Then again, the fact that appointing two board members to one company measurably changes the number of climate-qualified board members is a sign of paucity in and of itself. Here are the figures:

Clearly there needs to be significantly more climate fluency at board level and this will require a major cultural shift for the world’s corporate giants. Partly because it will almost certainly mean bringing in new board members and/or replacing existing grandees. The new cohort will very likely be younger, more academic, more entrepreneurial, and more experienced with what did and did not work in the last wave of early-stage climate technology. That's probably going to rattle the semi-retired business leaders or otherwise noteworthy senior figures that pack today’s boardrooms.

That’s going to be a challenge. Boards don’t generally include 40-year-old climate scientists because they don’t generally include many 40 year-olds. Or many scientists, for that matter.

But if companies are going to make climate a priority - which they must, as evidenced by the good news about the activist shake up at ExxonMobil - they will need to be bold about it. Changing to meet new imperatives starts with changing leadership. Steven Sinofsky, a veteran technology executive and thoughtful observer of its biggest companies, says: “This is what disruption looks like,” he said. “It happens slowly at first, then very quickly. It seems impossible to imagine a different way to do things, then we’re doing things in a different way. Stay tuned for a whole new way to work.”

Climate change issues are an imperative; so too is incorporating it into the highest levels of global business. That means the boardroom. Boards should be ready not just for a whole new way to work, but a whole new cohort to join them at the table.


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