Private sector can't be relied on for climate action

Researchers at the University of Sydney have found that the ambitions of corporations to take actions to improve their impacts on climate change are “systematically degraded by criticism from shareholders, media, governments, other corporations and managers,' and that in the current political climate the private sector cannot be relied on to take leadership in climate action.

Professor Christopher Wright and Honorary Professor Daniel Nyberg have published a paper that highlights the conflicts faced by managers in attempting to tackle climate change while also maximising profit and shareholder value.

The research examined five major Australian corporations in different industries - banking, media, insurance, manufacturing and energy - over a ten year period from 2005 to 2015, during which period climate chnage became an increasingly prominent political and economic issue. It found that over this time the initial statements of climate leadership degenerated into more mundane business concerns.

The researchers identified three phases in this process:

  1. Climate change as a business opportunity, in which managers associated climate change with words such as “innovation”, “opportunity”, “leadership” and “win-win outcomes” and avoided negative associations such as “regulation” or “sacrifice”.

  2. Localising climate engagement, in which managers sought to make their proposals more concrete through eco-efficiency practices (such as reducing energy consumption, retrofitting lighting, and using renewable energy), “green” products and services, and promoting the need for climate action.

  3. Normalisation and business as usual, in which climate initiatives attracted renewed criticism from other business groups, shareholders, the media, and politicians. During this stage climate change initiatives were wound back and market concerns prioritised.

The researchers concluded that the study demonstrates why “corporations are particularly unsuited to tackling a challenge like climate change.”

“In an era in which neoliberalism still dominates political imaginations around the world, our research shows the folly of depending on corporations and markets to address climate change.”

The research paper, An Inconvenient Truth: How Organizations Translate Climate Change into Business as Usual, was published in the Academy of Management Journal, and an article first published in The Conversation is here.

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