Bankers learn climate science

By Carrie Madren
Monday, January 31, 2011

At the woods' edge, small groups of HSBC technology managers, armed with clipboards and measuring tapes, meticulously determine the circumference of specially tagged trees down to a tenth of an inch. They're wearing bright orange vests because it's deer-hunting season, and though field science isn't in their job descriptions, their employer, HSBC bank, wants them to understand climate change.

HSBC joined with Earthwatch Institute in 2007 in a $100 million partnership to train 2,000 bank employees in climate change science and conduct the largest-ever field experiment looking at the long-term effects of climate change on forests. In five climate centers on four continents, bank workers -- from cashiers to staff in marketing, human resources, technology services and call centers -- become so-called "Climate Champions" through two-week trainings, during which they meet with scientists, learn about sustainability and contribute to the international study.

"Everyone comes in with a different background," says Anna Janovicz, a learning and communications manager at Earthwatch, "and the light bulb that goes off is different for everybody."

For Wa'il Ashshowwaf, from HSBC's D.C. office, the light bulb was realizing that rising sea levels may change our global landscape within our lifetimes.

But before he went through the program last spring at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, in Edgewater, Md., he rarely thought about sustainability. "The whole climate change issue was a footnote, not at the forefront of my mind," says the senior relationship manager. "After I went, it [climate change] went from being a footnote to a headline," says Ashshowwaf, now co-chairman of the branch's green committee.

To help participants have a bigger impact at their offices, a second program trains those in charge of information technology systems, data centers, purchasing and real estate to find ways to reduce the bank's carbon footprint and energy usage.

HSBC is not alone in its quest to teach its workers -- other large, international corporations are greening their grass roots, too, in the belief that engaging employees boosts retention and offers corporations insight into how to save resources or energy and money.

At HSBC, a Climate Champion-inspired program that automatically shuts down PCs at night saved the bank's North American offices more than $300,000 in the 2010 fiscal year.

For Tom Higgins, a D.C.-based HSBC banker with green-oriented nonprofit clients, having a fluency in environmental issues makes him more attuned to their perspectives. He also initiated a partnership program between the bank and the National Environmental Education Foundation that taught D.C. students about rainwater and runoff.

Higgins, who attended the training in 2008, now informally trains his colleagues on how to make small changes -- recycling, using the revolving doors instead of the electric door -- that add up when everyone does them. "A lot of it is awareness," he says.

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