Climate Leaders Join Haas: Kate Gordon and Libby Schaaf Bring Real-World Expertise to the Classroom

By Kaya Ten-Pow, July 2024

The UC Berkeley Haas School of Business is thrilled to announce the addition of two distinguished climate leaders to its faculty: Kate Gordon, newly appointed CEO of CA Forward, and Libby Schaaf, former Mayor of Oakland. Both will be a teaching a new course focused on the critical intersection of climate, politics, finance, and infrastructure, bringing their wealth of experience from local, state, and federal levels to students.

Spotlight on Kate Gordon

Kate Gordon brings a wealth of experience from federal and state levels. Gordon’s background spans advocacy, climate impact assessment, and finance, positioning her to offer students a comprehensive understanding of how climate-related decisions move from policy to implementation. Gordon’s recent appointment as the CEO of CA Forward, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving government in California, adds another layer to her already impressive credentials. In addition to being a Visiting Scholar at Haas, Gordon also serves as an advisor for the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC).

What sets Gordon apart is her ability to demonstrate that climate issues are not confined to the realm of sustainability officers but are integral to virtually every aspect of modern business and policy. Her course will challenge students to think beyond traditional boundaries and consider the far-reaching implications of climate change across various sectors.

“The industrialized economy in which humans have lived since the 1700s was built almost entirely on the back of fossil fuels…We are now in a moment when those generations of carbon emissions are having real and measurable impacts on our current economy…extreme weather events are taking out capital stock and supply chains, not to mention creating entire new communities needing basic safety net support…we [also] face the urgent need to move all our infrastructure and industrial systems to alternatives that look radically different: distributed, renewable energy in place of centralized power plants, for instance. There is no career or sector or investment portfolio that can escape the reality of the need to transition toward a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive industrial economy.”

As a formally trained lawyer, Gordon brings a sharp analytical mind to the complex legal and policy frameworks surrounding climate issues. This legal background, combined with her practical experience, will enable her to guide students through the intricate landscape of climate legislation, policy implementation, and financial mechanisms for supporting climate initiatives.

“I believe that climate change is truly an interdisciplinary issue..I have a liberal arts undergraduate background, a joint graduate degree in law and regional planning, and significant professional experience working with investors and CEOs on the actual impacts of climate change on capital investments and supply chains. All of this combined gives me a perspective on the myriad ways climate change — both in its physical impacts and in the need to transition infrastructure and whole sectors toward lower-carbon alternatives — affects the financial world.”

Spotlight on Libby Schaaf

Complementing Gordon’s federal and state expertise, Libby Schaaf, Oakland’s 50th Mayor, brings a unique perspective shaped by her hands-on experience in local government. Her involvement extends beyond city limits, having been a delegate at COP27 and active in the Paris Accords. The course will delve into the complex relationships between climate action, political realities, and infrastructure challenges.

“I find the intensifying clash between traditional local control of land use on one hand, with tougher state mandated climate and housing goals on the other, particularly interesting and increasingly relevant. I hope our class will inspire this next generation of leaders to resolve these conflicts and increase support for reaching our climate goals.” 

Schaaf’s teaching approach promises to be both theoretical and practical. Students can expect to engage with current events and even debate both sides of issues from recent ballots. Topics will include the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375), funding for Climate Action Plans, and the sometimes conflicting goals of achieving climate targets while working in local government. Her course will involve readings on current events, lively in-class discussions and visits from special guests. These guest appearances will offer students invaluable networking opportunities and bring classroom concepts to life. One such guest will be Adam Wanderwater from the Transbay Authority, who will discuss the capital stack he has assembled.

“There is growing recognition that national policies alone will not save the planet. There was so much interest in local climate action at COP27 in 2022, I ended up giving 16 talks there on everything from food waste, to nature-based solutions, to racial equity — all in just four exhausting days! Today, I want my students to understand how these lofty goals and policies are being implemented right now in their own communities — from courageous voluntary actions by cities, to the role our lesser-known regional bodies are playing in implementing California’s environmental mandates.”

Real-world application

Both Schaaf and Gordon emphasize the importance of flexibility and real-world application in their teaching. Schaaf encourages students to choose subjects that interest them and apply the tools and concepts taught in class to these areas. Similarly, Gordon’s approach underscores the ubiquity of climate considerations in modern business and policy decisions, preparing students for a future where climate literacy is not a niche skill but a fundamental competency for leaders across all sectors.

The addition of these two climate leaders to the UC Berkeley faculty represents a significant opportunity for students to learn from individuals who have been at the forefront of climate policy, finance, and implementation. The new course Climate: Politics, Finance & Infrastructure, will be dually listed between the Haas School of Business and the Goldman school of public policy. The course promises to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the increasingly complex intersection of business, policy, and climate action. With Schaaf’s local government experience and Gordon’s state and federal expertise, Haas students will gain a comprehensive understanding of climate issues from various perspectives. This holistic approach will undoubtedly prepare them to tackle the complex climate challenges that await them in their future careers, regardless of the sector they choose to enter.