To what extent is business a positive force for good in a world undergoing potentially devastating human-induced climate change? In the week that government leaders met in Bonn to discuss the rapidly-crumbling Kyoto Protocol, The Guardian took a look at the climate debate (‘Melt Down’, July 18, 2001). Environment correspondent Paul Brown did a fine job of marshalling the evidence and reiterating the conclusion of authoritative climate scientists that ‘we should cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 80% by the middle of the century to stabilise the climate before things get out of hand.’ But, without supporting evidence, he then praised big business for an ‘extraordinary turnaround’ in responding to the threat of global warming.
Paul Brown made the remarkable statement that ‘perhaps the brightest spot in a gloomy picture has been the extraordinary turnaround in the views of big business.’ Brown continued, ‘With the exception of some US oil companies with Exxon/ Mobil (Esso in Europe) top of the list, the business community is reacting rapidly to the threat of global warming.’ The supporting statement for this rapid reaction and ‘extraordinary turnaround’ is the following: ‘In the last five years companies like Ford, oil companies like BP and Shell have begun to pour billions into research in new technologies.’ This is a partial picture, at best, of what has been happening.
Simply put, oil company green rhetoric is not matched by green actions. BP – now merged with Amoco and Arco – aims to increase the sales of its solar energy technology to $1 billion a year by 2010. Shell International – in an attempt to catch up with BP’s solar power initiatives – finally made a significant move into the market for renewable energy sources in October 1997. The Anglo-Dutch group announced that it would be investing $500 million over the following 5 years with the aim of capturing at least 10 per cent of the world market for solar and photovoltaic cells by 2005.
However, these initiatives from corporate giants wishing to capitalise on potential future market winners in renewables barely dent the ‘business as usual’ motorcade. Shell’s investment in renewables is only 10 per cent of the oil giant’s spending on hydrocarbon exploration ($1 billion annually), 0.8 per cent of its global investment ($12 billion) and only 0.06 per cent of its global sales ($171 billion) – a drop in the barrel, in other words. In 1999, Shell’s renewable division and BP Solar closed down headquarter operations in the UK and moved abroad, highlighting their lack of commitment to job creation in Britain’s renewable energy sector.
The US subsidiaries of BP and Shell were members of the Global Climate Coalition, the infamous fossil fuel lobby group that denies the reality of global warming, until October 1996 and April 1998, respectively. They withdrew from the GCC only following massive public pressure on them to do so. However, both BP and Shell remain members of the American Petroleum Institute, which has lobbied the US government not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), comprising much of mainstream US industry, is forthright in its opposition: ‘The NAM strongly opposes the accord. Heeding NAM advice, in 1997 the Senate approved a Byrd (D-WV)/Hagel (R-NE) resolution opposing any global climate accord that excludes developing nations and/or threatens serious damage to the U.S. economy. The Kyoto Protocol fails on both counts. President Bush also opposes Kyoto and is now pursuing a more reasonable approach to climate change that is based on sound science, research and technology’ ( www.nam.org , 19 July, 2001).
The other great voice of US business, the US Chamber of Commerce, is similarly bent on the destruction of the Kyoto Protocol. In a letter to the new US president, the US Chamber wrote: ‘Global warming is an important issue that must be addressed – but the Kyoto Protocol is a flawed treaty that is not in the U.S. interest. The U.S. Chamber agrees with your Administration’s assessment – greater scientific understanding of global warming is necessary to resolve uncertainty concerning the potential affect of human activity on this phenomenon. Further research is needed to develop the best strategies to tackle this problem’ (www.uschamber.org 19 July, 2001).On its website, the U.S. Chamber proudly declares that it is the world’s largest business federation representing more than three million businesses and organisations of every size, sector and region. So much for environment correspondent Paul Brown’s ‘brightest spot in a gloomy picture’!
The election of George W. Bush, himself an oilman by trade, was achieved through the application of massive big business financial power. Bush’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol merely reflects the interests of his backers. Julian Borger of the Guardian writes, ‘In the Bush administration, business is the only voice… This is as close as it is possible to get in a democracy to a government of business, by business and for business.’ (Borger, ‘All the president’s businessmen’, The Guardian, 27 April, 2001) Robert Reich, Clinton’s former labour secretary adds, ‘There’s no longer any countervailing power in Washington. Business is in complete control of the machinery of government.’ (ibid)
In reality big business is passionately committed to obstructing even trivial action to combat global warming – the short-term costs are simply perceived to be too high. The spending of $100 billion on the National Missile Defence system is favoured for related reasons – responding to the ‘threat’ of ‘rogue states’ involves pouring billions of tax dollars into the bank accounts of high-tech big business. Likewise, the entire business-driven globalisation project is an attempt to generate ever-increasing sales and profits – restraint and responsibility are not on the agenda.
Last year, BP had a brand relaunch as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ featuring its new ‘Helios’ sunburst logo. Critics retorted that BP really should stand for ‘Burning the Planet’. BP has portrayed itself as an environmentally responsible energy company, but this is deceptive. As Greenpeace UK reported last year, ‘BP’s increase in oil production is wiping out its commitment to carbon savings many times over. It may claim to be the leading solar company, but it has the least ambitious investment plans of the top six solar companies. BP not only has no strategy for getting out of oil, it is actually speeding up its search for fossil fuels.’ (Frontier News, Volume 2 Issue 9, email bulletin, 20 April, 2000).
As Andrew Rowell revealed in ‘Green Backlash’ (Routledge, London, 1996) and Sharon Beder in ‘Global Spin’ (Green Books, Totnes, 1997), it has become the norm for business to adopt a green veneer, courtesy of expensive public relations, without actually replacing damaging business practices with ecologically sustainable activities. US business spends an estimated $500 million every year in greenwashing. Shell and BP ‘spend seven times more on advertising their green credentials than they spend on environmental projects’ (Alasdair Clayre of the Oxford-based lobby group Millennium Energy Debate, quoted in The Guardian, 12 November, 1999).
The respected London-based Global Commons Institute estimates that there will be more than two million deaths from climate change-related disasters worldwide over the next ten years. Damage to property will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars (Global Commons Institute, letter to The Guardian, 14 March, 2000. Full text of letter available at www.gci.org.uk/guardlet.html). As Andrew Rowell concludes, ‘The only moral and rational reaction to global warming is disinvestment in the processing of all fossil fuels. (The Big Issue, 15-21 February, 1999).
David Cromwell and David Edwards are Associate Directors of Media Lens (www.MediaLens.org).
David Cromwell is the author of Private Planet (www.private-planet.com), published by Jon Carpenter. David Edwards is the author of Free To Be Human (Burning All Illusions in the U.S.) and The Compassionate Revolution (both Green Books).