Climate change and corporate power

Kirsty Schneeberger | 10 years ago

Most businesses now get climate change. And if they say they don’t they’re fooling themselves; either because it doesn’t quite square with their business model to acknowledge that they might have to change or adapt, or because they don’t want their business to fail when they are in charge.

In the latest attempts to get it, the narrative is being framed in terms of how climate change and the corporate system are inextricably linked. It was an inference that we had all instinctively drawn but now it is taking prominence as the cornerstone of the debate.

A well-known message from SumofUS – the online movement of citizen empowerment – is that climate change and corporate power are two faces of the same coin. It fits with their theory of change to acknowledge that as long as the corporate powers are continuing on a resource driven growth trajectory this will exacerbate not only emissions released into the atmosphere as well as other environmental issues.  Their approach is to deal with the root cause of climate change as they see it: unfettered corporate power.

Likewise the latest publication by Naomi Klein ‘This Changes Everything‘, espouses the view that we have to “forget everything you think you know about global warming. It’s not about carbon – it’s about capitalism. The good news is that we can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”

The prominent thinker, George Monbiot, chimes on the anti-corporation debate in his latest offering on ‘bullying corporations’ where, he argues, “the corporate consensus is enforced not only by the lack of political choice, but by an assault on democracy itself.”  His conclusion is that we need to take democracy back, to wrest it from the hands of the powerful corporate elites and return it to the people.  Further, he posits that “it’s because of this power that, in the midst of a crisis so severe that the world has lost over 50% of its vertebrate wildlife in just 40 years, the government is organising a bonfire of environmental protection.”

These powerful voices within the movement are pairing capitalism with climate change, concluding that the only way to deal with the latter is to radically rethink the former.  They argue that our democratic system is stymied and corrupted not by itself, but by the external influences of the corporates.  That the only way to ‘win back democracy’ in order to deal with the environmental and climate change crisis is to win the fight against the corporate power, to stop unfettered growth and revolutionize the economic system so that it cannot continue to be the problem.

This analysis is both valuable and necessary and is essentially what the problem boils down to.  But there is more to it than simply pitting the climate against corporates; this puts the debate in binary terms that are at best, unhelpful and at worse unresolvedly divisive.  It forces us to continue to fight the ideological battle that has been raging since the late 80s about growth vs the planet; about capitalism vs environmental issues; about – essentially – left vs right.  With its focus on winning minds, this framing doesn’t show how we can focus on winning hearts; specifically, the hearts of those people who run the corporations.

In so doing, we must now acknowledge that business and corporate power are actually an intrinsic part of our emerging modern democratic process, not a bolt-on optional extra that we can discard if we try hard enough.  They operate in our democracies and citizens tacitly legitimize their existence through purchasing their goods and services.

Rather than focusing on trying to fight against them to win some ideological victory that will result in them – what? Going on garden leave? Magically disappearing? –  oughtn’t we focus our attention on how to engage them on participating meaningfully in our democratic system?  Shouldn’t we demonstrate that in order for them to earn a social licence to operate they need to step up to the plate to understand both the responsibilities as well as benefits of participating in the new social contract?

To date, it is true that the corporate powers have run rough-shod over the democratic process by lobbying against progressive and necessary environmental and climate legislation. Yes it has influenced the system based on its own profit chasing needs; and yes, it has paid no heed to the responsibilities it owes to the system that it operates within.

But now is the chance for us to de-politicize this issue, to move away from winning arguments based on ideology, an approach that creates more divisions than connections. Now is the time to transform the capitalist system so that the power and influence of the corporates can be harnessed for good.

Already we are seeing steps being taken towards achieving this with the likes of big corporate players such as Microsoft and Google leaving lobbying group ALEC on environmental grounds; or Unilever leaving Business Europe over the lobby group’s activities attacking environmental legislation.

Additionally, the likes of the B4E Summits, as well as recent players in this space Coca Cola Enterprises and the Financial Times convening a ‘Future for Sustainability Summit’ bring together global players to better understand why and how it is imperative for them to align profit with purpose, and to meaningfully shift their Modus Operandi away from greed-induced, profit-mongering, exponential growth towards sustainable models.

We now need to build on the enthusiasm for change shown by those corporations that get it. They know what lies ahead for them. They know that they need to re-purpose, and they are paving the way to show others how it can be done. They will be rewarded with that social licence to operate and they will benefit from take responsibility for their actions.  They know that those who don’t will face extinction.

About the author

Kirsty Schneeberger

Kirsty is an environmental advocate and campaigner. She is Climate Change Manager at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. Her interest includes climate change and the environmental inheritance we leave to future generations.