Changing Climate

Once the preserve almost exclusively of environmentalists and scientists, 2007 was the year when climate change went big business. But this corporate volte-face raises some serious problems about† whether we should accept this overture or steer clear of what still looks like industry greenwashing.

Once the preserve almost exclusively of environmentalists and scientists, 2007 was the year when climate change went big business. After years of being public enemy number one to green campaigners, business seems to have decided that it too needs to work within a habitable climate. But this volte-face raises some serious problems. In recognition of the global emergency that is climate change should we accept the corporate overture or steer clear of what might be industry greenwashing?

Bringing businesses on board the environmental movement has certainly created some strange bedfellows. Long a voice of climate change contrarianism, Rupert Murdoch has declared that he wants his News Corp. media empire to beam out climate messaging to its entire global audience. But capitalism is nothing if not flexible, and other businesses are spotting new opportunities in rebranding themselves as low-carbon options.

Exxon-Mobil, the greatest corporate denier of them all, now claims to be following a climate-friendly agenda, and its donations to far-right front groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute are beginning to look embarrassing. But Exxon is still a long way from putting its money where its mouth is. The company refuses to make significant investments in renewable resources, and declares quite brazenly that its major focus will continue to be fossil fuels for decades to come – whatever the risks to the world's climate.

Perhaps a greater challenge to the environmentalist worldview came with the sudden and unexpected conversion of Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, from a very big bad guy into apparently a very big good guy. Wal-Mart's efforts are less easy to dismiss than Exxon's: the company has already sold 100 million low-energy light bulbs (meeting a self-set target three months early), opened two "high-efficiency" stores, brought solar power for 22 more stores and has even started to demand that its suppliers sign up to the climate-friendly agenda.

But Wal-Mart? Isn't this the same corporation whose big-box approach to retail has hollowed-out communities up and down the United States, and whose aggressive stack-'em-high sales philosophy has brought mindless consumerism to new depths of extravagant wastefulness? You can't shop in Wal-Mart without a car, and you can't buy anything local there, so its entire business model helps raise transport emissions throughout the economy. If the company is serious about signing a peace agreement with the planet, it is going to have to do a lot more than shift a few light bulbs.

With capitalism shifting to accommodate the green agenda, free-market politicians (as most are these days) have also begun to shift their policies and rhetoric. In Germany, Angela Merkel has laid out a surprisingly progressive equal-rights plan for future climate negotiations. In the UK, the government has outlined a climate change bill which would actually set carbon budgets for the entire country – a colossal step forward. With the corporate world's about-face, George Bush has found himself without significant allies and even his administration has been forced to change its focus from questioning the science to getting other countries to leave the UN process and accept climate negotiations on America's terms.

But the Earth is now setting the pace on climate change, not Bush. With scientists telling us we need to stabilize global emissions by 2015 in order to keep rising temperatures within relatively tolerable boundaries, there is a pressing need to shift the energy direction of the entire global economy, not tinker at the margins. Massive public pressure now needs to be put on world governments to negotiate a successor treaty to Kyoto which dramatically reduces emissions within a 20-30 year timescale. And that is something that big business still has a hard time contemplating.