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Climate change activism: target the money!

February 27, 2010

I’ve been wondering for a while how important public opinion really is in respect to climate change mitigation. When institutions deal with subjects this big, this complex, very few of us are equipped to deal with the subjects in an informed way. If you follow the Guardian forum climate change threads, for example, one of the most prevalent problems is that of over-simplification. The science is reduced to the kind of soundbites we are so comfortable with – a few emails, a wrong date in a report, some tree rings and a climate anomaly that may have occurred in part of the world 8 centuries ago. The politics is reduced to tax issues or ideological anachronism, accusations of conspiracy and fraud, none of which makes much sense or has evidence to support the many allegations thrown about with such gay abandon.

While we would all like to think our vote matters, when it comes to running our countries, the electorate have little real say. In the UK, a million of us turned out to protest against the Iraq war – and were resolutely ignored. So much for democracy then. In the US, democracy is in thrall to money, where lobby groups and vociferous minority-population states exploit their own constitution, emasculating the senate and house by holding individual representatives hostage to their future electoral fortunes and the finance needed to assure their personal futures.

Once we elect a government, they will do whatever is expedient,especially where money is concerned. I saw somebody in the Guardian the other day lamenting the failure of labour to honour campaign promises. How naive is that, exactly? Do any of us really think the promises made are realistic, or really expect them to be honoured? That in the corridors of power, good political intentions lead anywhere but to the traditional destination? Is anyone really that dumb?


Now, the object of the game here is to get something done. Climate change, for those of us not in the grip of rampant anxiety, contrarian fevers and reactionary back-stabbing, is just one of numerous changes that are going to be forced on us whether we like it or not – peak oil and gas, energy security, rising population and the concomitant pressure on the earth’s resources, water shortages, economic instability, rising seas, increasingly bitter and confrontational competition for whatever is left of the cake. When we step back from single-issue over-simplicity, there are too many signs of impending collapse to ignore. Something has to give, and one could say that the greatest collateral damage will be measured in terms of loss of profit.

Extreme sceptics like to offer advice they rarely heed. How often do we hear that the science isn’t settled, followed by the paradoxical claim that AGW is dead? Another little cliché regularly trotted out is this: follow the money. OK – let’s do just that, for the trail takes us remorselessly towards where all power is vested: big business. Governments do not generate profit, they exist on a slice of it from Corporation tax and income tax on those employed. Science doesn’t generate profit: the money made from science is generated by businesses who exploit what science discovers. And money talks, drowning out the voice of public opinion, which never made a penny in it’s entire life.

So we follow the money, and end up in the board room. I’ve habituated these rooms, sat with these people, and I can tell you something: board officers put aside all political ideology when they get a spreadsheet in front of them. There is one over-arching imperative in the world of business, and that is to make money. They count today’s profits, all the while looking nervously at tomorrow’s projections, and it is here we discover where the real action is regarding climate change.

They are not fooled by extreme sceptics, by Fox News or Sarah Palin, by Delingpole or Griffin, by Plimer or Inhofe. Nor will their shareholders be fooled, once they see their investments floating about in the big toilet bowl that climate change installs. Big business has plenty of smart people on board, and they can understand the science perfectly well. And they understand probabilities. They have a duty to their shareholders, to institutional investors like pension funds, to themselves and their enormous bonuses, and when climate change threatens their livelihoods they will not spare the whip, but nor will they apply that whip to the public. (As an ironic aside, it is notable that so many extreme sceptics – the ‘deniers’ are an older demographic. I wonder quite how vociferous they will be in their utter certainty when whatever remains of their pensions is sunk by the rising tides of climate change?)

The action now is in commerce, not the electorate. All governments listen first to business, so let’s make sure that industry puts on the pressure required to get some action. When politicians find themselves at odds with those who finance every single thing governments aspire to do, they will bow to the inevitable demands of the piper, and the tune will be mitigation. Don’t believe me? Have a look at the CBI website on climate change. Still not convinced? Take a look at the defections from the US Chamber of Commerce whose members are deserting because the chamber is viewed as ‘obstructionist’ by it’s members – the ones who aren’t part of the fossil fuel industry, that is. Study the pension fund managers, the insurance industry, manufacturing, distribution chains, shipping, aviation. They get it, and they don’t give a stuff what the public think. Big business may, paradoxically, save us from ourselves, and all in the name of profit.

Let’s ensure our efforts are targeted where it matters. Let’s target the money.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2010 6:02 pm

    Hi Graham,

    Let me reciprocate the mutual appreciation (if that makes any sense). What was it like playing bass with Nik Turner then?

    As for this essay, I fear you are a tad more optimistic than me about how business will change.

    I spent a chunk of the 1990s infiltrating AGMs of oil and construction companies. I usually left the storming the stage and climbing on the roof to others and generally did my best to enjoy the free hospitality and rub shoulders with the bosses. They were generally nice enough people and certainly not stupid, but all claimed to be equally powerless to do anything about the company’s policies.

    The problem was generally the short-termism of how the firms worked. Chasing the next contract was what mattered and whilst many said they would love it if the government banned all new road construction and put the money into something else, nobody would dare to quit building bypasses and risk doing something else.

    I met John (now Lord Browne) of BP and Malcolm Walker of Iceland. The former talked a good talk but did nothing whilst the latter put his money where his mouth was on organic food and nearly sank the company as a result.

    Add to this the anecdotal evidence (from people such as Jared Diamond, so it’s not to be ignored) that the CEOs of several major US mining concerns are actually young earth creationists and it doesn’t look good.

    I suspect that at the very least we’ll need a hefty dose Keynesian intervention to change anything, if not an outright Storming of the Bastille.

    I could be wrong though.



  2. gpwayne permalink*
    February 28, 2010 6:44 pm

    Hey Martin – glad you dropped by…

    Playing with NiK – hilarious good fun. We all travelled together in an enormous old Ford Estate hand-painted in black hammerite all over. It was the best natured band I ever worked with – we all enjoyed each other’s company, got on well with Pursey’s crew, and ran around the country making the most extraordinary racket. These really were the good old days.

    As for the post, well – optimism is probably right, but if there’s any lever that might shake the complacent businessman from his padded chair, it might be a sudden but entirely predictable drop in profits. The more we hammer this home to people like the pension fund managers – who exert an extraordinary amount of influence – the sooner business may get on board. That’s the theory, anyway… 🙂

  3. mark hb permalink
    March 8, 2010 8:59 am

    Reasonable theory Graham, and I partly agree. Of course there are plenty of business leaders who can see the increased risks climate change will bring to their business. Insurance companies are the most obvious ones who have been on the case for a while. In general the newer virtual money of technology & the web is sympathetic, while the old money of cars and energy and mines has been doing all it can to obstruct progress. However others are more conflicted. Branson for example can see peak oil as a threat to his business but is probably not too thrilled by the prospect of carbon tax. Its probably fairly evenly balanced at the moment, the warmist entrepreneurs just need the playing fields tilted a little more to accelerate the natural process a little. I guess one of the theories behind Emissions Trading was that it would offer profits to business. Shame it has more than a whiff of appeasement & exploitation about it. Any kind of price on greenhouse gasses will do it.

  4. gpwayne permalink*
    March 8, 2010 4:02 pm

    Yeah – emissions trading is bloody suspect, isn’t it?

    In general though, I can’t help noticing the way the tide is turning within the business community – in five years the CBI seems to have more or less reversed its position. Keep your fingers crossed, that’s my best hope (pathetic as it is).

  5. March 24, 2010 2:32 pm

    The question is one of timeframes and collaboration. Regarding the latter, no one in business (or government, for that matter) wants to be first into expensive extra costs not carried by competitors. So we have endless games of “I’ll jump when you do”. Regarding the former, if a business can continue making healthy profits for the next ten years by continuing as usual or can risk cutting into those profits now for a better outcome in thirty, fifty years’ time (which is unsure and depends on the actions of competitors and on many more agents in other fields), then once again there is a large disincentive for meaningful change.

  6. gpwayne permalink*
    March 24, 2010 3:46 pm

    Your points are well made Byron. On their own, most business would indeed jump after the event, as it were (and on the larger scale, I think that the current impasse between the US and China is much the same thing). However, it is the shareholders that may be the key to this – pension funds weild enormous influence, as do insurance companies. Both are becoming increasingly concerned.

    I would also make the point that this isn’t business versus business, but business versus government, where the ‘you jump first’ paradigm applies rather less.

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