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A sabbatical to shape the climate debate

McKinsey director Jeremy Oppenheim

– Encouraging people to follow their passions is one of the things that makes McKinsey special. Jeremy Oppenheim, a director in our London office, spent 2014 on sabbatical, serving as program director for the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The year-long assignment culminated in September with the publication of Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report, a report that sets out to answer one of the biggest questions facing the world today: Is it possible to combine growing the economy with tackling climate change? The report received widespread media attention—and a shout-out on Twitter from Barack Obama.

In many ways, the project perfectly united Jeremy's interests and experience. As one of the founders of McKinsey's Sustainability and Resource Productivity Practice, he understands and cares deeply about the issues. Plus, the commission's mandate was to develop an independent, evidence-based perspective—very much in tune with McKinsey's tradition of intellectual independence and fact-based analysis. "Climate change is one of those classic arenas where ideology, on all sides, has a bad habit of trumping the facts," says Jeremy. "Even bringing a few salient facts into the debate can be transformative."

As he found out, however, shaping the debate on the public stage is very different from serving clients behind the scenes as a consultant. "The skills and disciplines you develop inside McKinsey are incredibly valuable—good up-front problem structuring, prioritizing against the big numbers, knowing when 80/20 is good enough, and most importantly, how to build high-performing teams. But the experience was a healthy reminder that so much more is needed beyond expertise or insight. There are other frames of reference—for example, how political deals get done, how the rules of the game get set, how media creates stories, how to use the language of ethics and morality—that matter in profound ways."

"At one point I found myself on the radio with Naomi Klein, of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine fame. Her world view starts from the need for greater equity and a deep concern for the least privileged members of society. It's enriching to engage with people like her and explore how the market system is more likely to deliver the social and environmental goods which she rightly values."

Would Jeremy do it again?

Yes, he would. "It was an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to create a platform that, within a year, built enough legitimacy to influence and help reframe the global debate. And it's not every day that you work simultaneously with the leaders of Unilever, the IMF, the Chinese Development Bank, and the International Trade Union Confederation!"