Climate needs real business leadership

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Photo by woodleywonderworks

Climate change is real, happening. It is human caused – mostly through our use of fossil fuels, and could be catastrophic, could be a tragic end to our present evolution. Without effective mitigation.

But we’ve gone three decades of failure to even slow the increase in burning coal, oil and natural gas, with consequential greenhouse gases (GHGs) increasing in the atmosphere, with a consequential rise in global temperatures, which in turn leads to more extreme weather, sea level rise, drought and forest fires, etc. Climate change damage is accelerating and becoming increasingly costly; devastating weather is already a growing threat multiplier in our tightly linked global society.

There are also latent positive feedbacks like melting permafrost or the drying Amazon. Human induced warming is predicted to accelerate these positive feedbacks and the most worrying earth systems climate science strongly suggests we are near a threshold beyond which a cascade of such feedbacks is triggered that is irreversible – nothing then we could do about it – leading to a 5-7C rise in temperature to Hothouse Earth and the certain collapse of civilization and maybe even human extinction.

Fossil fuels have been the lifeblood of our meteoric ascent to our very fortunate global civilization of wealth and opportunity today, but burning fossil fuels had an unanticipated side-effect and now adds unacceptable GHG emissions which are a potentially fatal toxin for all we know and love.

Transitioning out of fossil fuels to a new, post-carbon economy and society was never going to be easy but three decades of denial, procrastination and failure must mean urgent, emergency action is required if the society we are so intimately coevolved with is to survive and keep on evolving.

The main reason for this failure to effectively mitigate has been the success of global business at creating a business friendly global governance that protects long term investment (downsized governments wearing their golden straitjackets). While successfully boosting economic activity, wealth creation and lifestyle innovation, this ‘neoliberal’ governance has not allowed mitigation policies that could have restricted fossil fuel use or helped speed up the needed transition.

Humankind’s greatest crisis coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address. By the late 1980s, when it became clear that man-made climate change endangered the living planet and its people, the world was in the grip of an extreme political doctrine whose tenets forbid the kind of intervention required to arrest it.   George Monbiot

” (W)e haven’t even started to talk about what might be ‘possible’ and are still mostly arguing about what is ‘feasible without compromising economic growth.’ These are of course extremely different things, and the latter will not get us anywhere near the 1.5 degrees C target.” Damon Matthews

Under neoliberalism, climate change is extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

The options that do not violate the neoliberal worldview are few, which explains why so many governments resort to little more than mild carbon pricing that stops well short of what is needed, the Trudeau government’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change being a stellar example of this. Even when facing the end of the world, neoliberal governments would at most tinker only marginally with already low levels of industry and trade regulation, taxation, public investment, economic planning, and so on. Anything more would risk interfering with a society maintained for the wealthy in the name of market liberty and efficiency.   Arron Saad

It was our bad luck that this idea that markets solve all problems and that government should be left to wither away crested just at the moment when it could do the most damage.  Bill McKibben

The primary commitment of the international community is to maintain the current social and economic system….The reality is that Nation States and international corporations are engaged in an unremitting and ongoing expansion of fossil fuel energy exploration, extraction and combustion, and the construction of related infrastructure for production and consumption.  Clive Spash

Every barrel of oil produced and burned is wealth creation not easily forgone. You want a booming economy – ask Trump – you do whatever you can to increase fossil fuel supply. And in our now neolib societies governments dare not introduce any policies that negatively effect the economy, effect GDP, by even minor percentage points. It’s the economy, stupid is the all encompassing religion of our times.

So fossil fuel production and use, and GHGs, continue to increase even though the consequences are acknowledged (by those not in denial) as increasingly existential.

Presently we are like somebody with a potentially fatal disease that has ignored the doctors insistent advice for lifestyle change, for deep systemic change, to the point where effective treatment is now problematic and needed change is becoming just too hard to even contemplate.

This is our predicament and all of us – especially those most effected globally today and future generations – could lose big time for not making the transition we have to make. Is eliminating civilization going to be a side-effect of the neolib goal of making a better world for business?

There is now no hope of effective mitigation in time without business. Global business – especially American business –  must consciously roll back the neoliberal capture of government so that ‘transforming system change’ becomes possible, so that governments can organize and fund ‘big government plans’ like the Green New Deal (GND) and, more importantly if more heretically, so that governments can effectively regulate a managed decline of fossil fuel production and use.

If business doesn’t organize itself to back off so that deep systemic change is possible urgently than we are all going to lose big time. If business doesn’t agree to and help form wartime-style coalition governments and fossil fuel proliferation treaties across trade groups, and agree to government intervention, regulation and even triage support for markets in the transition to a hopeful post-carbon society, such a transformation will not happen (at least not in the timeframe dictated by the science).

It is still possible that we could make the needed transition – renewables and dematerializing technologies have tremendous promise. There still is hope that we could conduct an emergency operation to save our very fortunate societies and come out the other side into a much more secure and even wealthier market-based governance. Even the present fossil fuel companies could survive and thrive.

But the need for effective mitigation is urgent (it is even possible that it is already too late but we must try). And business must lead instead of continuing to be the main impediment, the main villain threatening all of our futures.

It is far too late to still try and shoehorn climate mitigation into business as usual. Decarbonization where renewables out compete fossil fuels in existing markets is now just pretend mitigation. It might have succeeded if initiated with business support in the 90s but now the illusion of 100% renewables is just being used as predatory delay. Even leading decarbonization jurisdictions like California or the UK are restricted to mitigation plans to fail and won’t make even their limited emission reduction targets.

We need revolutionary change – deep systemic change. But not socialism, not anti-capitalism, because we need business innovation within markets (stabilized by government for the transition like in previous wartime examples) with creative destruction and new safe growth.

Most people think that building renewable 100% capacity is the key to needed emission reduction. Hence plans like the GND. But if you read and understand expert commentators like Smil, MacKay, Cox and Rees you have to get far more sophisticated: mitigation planning must facilitate hyper creative destruction within continued opportunity for investment so that capital is not lost and the transition can be made as rapidly as possible.

This is why we need emergency government to not only allow systemic change but to protect and stabilize continuing markets (like during WW2) so that this hyper creative destruction is possible, so that we get a kind of controlled collapse that is fast but not fatal because there is a viable opportunity for new growth.

If we can make such a transition the vast majority of citizens in our western democracies want to live in market-based economies because of the wealth and opportunity they produce, albiet with government freed from capture and with improved equity of wealth distribution and with certainly more precautionary regulatory powers for governments.

So how does business lead now in getting to this hopeful transition?

Business must accept the need for deep systemic change. Business leaders must speak out and must convince those now opposed within business and their present political supporters to get on board. Business leadership must affirm that climate change is a battle that must be fought and won, if only to protect the continuing evolution of business.

Then business must empower government by consciously stepping back. Governments must be freed from the golden straitjacket and encouraged to regulate, even where the immediate consequences are negative for business.

If business returns to government the power to introduce needed ‘transformative system change’, effective climate mitigation finally becomes possible. Then our kids – the world’s kids – can hopefully enjoy opportunity and wealth creation in a future with a safe climate for our continuing evolution.

Bill Henderson is a climate change activist




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