Opinion: Climate-change reality versus corporate myth-making

Protesters demonstrate against companies who profit from climate change in San Francisco’s financial district last month. Photo credit: Peg Hunter via Flickr.

By Professor Christopher Wright and Professor Daniel Wright

It has long been fashionable for every major conference on climate change to be preceded by talk of game-changers, defining moments and even paradigm shifts, but no longer is the anticipation couched exclusively in the positive. Hope and pessimism now have equal status. It is widely accepted that we are just as likely to reach the point of no return as we are to achieve a spectacular breakthrough.

It does not inspire confidence that the forthcoming COP21 talks in Paris have received significant funding from fossil-fuel companies and carbon emitters. French officials have described this situation as financially unavoidable, but in many ways it symbolises the persistent disconnect between business and climate action.

There has long been a suspicion that the corporate world has two faces when it comes to confronting the greatest threat of our time – one to parade before the public, the other to keep well and truly hidden from view. We have seen plenty of both of late, and the Janus-like effect has been profoundly discomforting.

Consider, for example, the recent gathering of big-brand executives at the White House, where the latest high-profile signatories to President Obama’s American Business Act on Climate pledge were announced with the sort of resounding fanfare traditionally reserved for Roman emperors and Oscar winners. And then contrast that with the “dieselgate” scandal, which saw the dark side of the corporate response to global warming spectacularly laid bare in the form of Volkswagen’s sweeping bid to cheat emissions tests.

We are entitled to ask which of these events better reflects the corporate sphere’s attitude to climate change. Although the answer is likely to lie somewhere between the two, our research suggests the latter is the more accurate.

As we explain in our new book, there appears to be almost no genuine will within the corporate world to abandon policies that generate profits at the environment’s expense. In light of this ethos, the long-term future of our planet is to be sacrificed on the altar of short-term gain.

We do not make these claims lightly. They are based on several years of research centred around 25 major corporations in the resources, energy, manufacturing, transport, finance and retail sectors – the vast majority boasting thousands of employees and global interests.

Our analysis involved interviews with senior and operational managers, many of whom – on the condition of anonymity – offered brutally frank insights and admissions. To further inform our conclusions, we also carried out an in-depth examination of sustainability assessments, annual reports, submissions to governments, shareholder briefings, climate-change presentations and policy documents.

Many of the themes that emerged from this work might be described as myths. Each obscures the longstanding relationship between the accumulation of capital and the erosion of natural resources. Like Plato’s original Noble Lie, their chief function is to maintain the status quo

The first myth is corporate environmentalism. This depicts corporations as the saviours of the environment, stressing their willingness to reduce emissions, produce green products and services and adapt and refine their policies. It champions transparency and accountability and implies that corporations are best placed to respond to climate change, with alternative solutions – government regulation chief among them – innately inferior by implication. It can be summed up in a time-honoured mantra: business as usual.

The second myth is corporate citizenship. This dead metaphor cements corporations’ moral role in leading us to promised salvation. It portrays corporations as legitimate entities in public debate and paints them as representatives of “the people”. This is how corporations grant us a voice – albeit one derived from the self-righteous conceit that what is good for corporations is good for all citizens.

The third and the arguably most powerful myth of all is corporate omnipotence. This renders corporations as god-like prophets whose efficiency and rationality can tame nature itself. With the state no more than a mere co-creator or supporter of initiatives that prize profitability above everything else, only the “business case” matters. Thus, corporate responses are the only responses.

It is the potency of these myths that has left us somehow content to accept climate change as a largely mundane issue of corporate rationalisation. And it is the enduring persuasiveness of these myths that is leading us ever further down the path of what we call “creative self-destruction”.

We are destroying ourselves. It is as straightforward as that. With the corporate world finding ever more innovative and ingenious means of exhausting the Earth’s life-support systems in the pursuit of gain, the links between progress and devastation have never been so strong – and there is an increasingly little reason to believe they will ever be broken. As one CEO interviewed in the course of our research confessed: “We’re not doing this to save the planet – that’s not the driver. We’re industrialists.”

The success or otherwise of COP21 remains to be seen. Some good may well come of it, and we have to believe this will be the case. But the unpalatable fact is that even the most conspicuous, wildly acclaimed, PR-savvy “triumph” is unlikely to challenge the fundamental dynamics that underlie the climate crisis.

Dramatic decarbonisation based around limits on consumption, economic growth and, perhaps above all, corporate influence is simply not up for discussion. This is the terrible and almost incredible reality of the situation – one that we need to acknowledge, absorb and then urgently and collectively overturn.

Christopher Wright is a Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney. Professor Daniel Wright is a Professor of Management at the University of Newcastle. They are the co-authors of Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction, published by Cambridge University Press.
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