IPCC 2013 and Creative Self Destruction Redux

Image: Christopher Wright
Image: Christopher Wright

Well the IPCC‘s latest scientific report has come out confirming what many of us have suspected – that anthropogenic climate change is on track with previous worst-case scenarios and the future prognosis is bleak. Given the IPCC is by its nature a conservative organisation, it seems likely that as before, the current report may well underestimate some climate impacts. Be that as it may, this is startling and confronting  to read given the import of its conclusions.

The implications could not be more profound. Basically if we are to have a chance of averting the changes that will undo our way of life and threaten our physical well-being, we need to stop the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves in short order. That is 80 to 90 per cent of oil, gas and coal needs to be left in the ground. This at a time, when governments in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US are expanding fossil fuel production. So as Kevin Anderson so neatly describes, we will in all likelihood not respond in time or at sufficient scale and the future for most people on this planet will be disastrous.

For many observers the question then becomes why have we failed to respond? Some focus on the role of the ‘climate denial industry’ which have so efficiently undermined global government action on the greatest challenge we have faced as a species. Corporate funded and politically motivated climate denial has indeed played a key role in preventing the sort of political and economic mobilisation we need on climate change. However, I’d argue there is a deeper and more systemic reason for our collective ‘shrug of the shoulders’ to the threat of climate change; the social imaginary of  never-ending economic growth and the sanctity of consumer capitalism.

As Daniel Nyberg and I have argued in a recent paper, anthropogenic climate change brings forward the contradictory logic of capitalism as an economic system reliant on the destruction of nature for its development. The current climate crisis reveals a process of ‘creative self-destruction’ in which capital accumulation has resulted in the cannibalistic consumption of Earth’s life-support systems. However, within this end-game of human hubris we are also witnessing an ever more imaginative exploitation of nature as corporations seek competitive advantage within an environmentally-compromised world.

Just as humanity, in facing imminent collapse, should rise up and question this charade, so the myths generated by our consumer-driven society compel us to even greater fealty. While climate change exposes the contradictions of endless economic growth and resource exploitation, it also demonstrates the dynamism or ‘spirit’ of capitalism – how the economic system incorporates criticism and justifies the unjustifiable.  In responding to criticism of environmental degradation, our economic system has proven remarkably resilient in responding discursively to these challenges, absorbing critique by arguing that we can deal with climate change through more profit seeking, newer technologies, and greater consumption.

Through an analysis of the different ways in which corporations have responded to climate change, we suggest there are three key political myths which ground the current paradoxical phenomena of creative self-destruction and reinforce the role of corporate capitalism in addressing a climate changed future. These are:

  1. the myth of corporate environmentalism, in which corporations are presented as the lead players in mitigating environmental damage and helping us to adapt to our new climate through technological innovation and the production and consumption of ‘green’ products and services;
  2. the myth of corporate citizenship, which further develops the expansion of corporate capitalism by presenting the corporation as a civil actor best placed to determine political agendas and deliver social and environmental needs; and
  3. the myth of corporate omnipotence, which portrays corporate capitalism as the superior form of economic organisation in which the climate crisis can be ‘resolved’ via market mechanisms and the further commodification of nature.

Taken together, these myths work to justify certain forms of ‘action’ in dealing with climate change and also critically, ruling out other responses. Issues of regulatory oversight or the mandatory prohibition of fossil fuel extraction and use are excluded from current debate (despite the evident scientific need for a rapid decarbonisation of economic activity). This is an appealing imaginary of human progress and technological advance in which corporations and markets are couched as saviours from the threats of nature. By contrast, we argue this social imaginary should be more aptly be viewed as a tragedy of grand proportions which aims to make our planetary suicide a ‘rational’ project.

6 thoughts on “IPCC 2013 and Creative Self Destruction Redux”

  1. Interesting post Chris.

    Can I ask a question: when do you think the effects of climate change will begin to impact on businesses ability to make a profit? I ask because this is one bit I don’t understand…aren’t businesses looking at the impacts on their bottom line and hence being motivated to act? Or is the worst of it all to far away?

    Thanks

    Chris

    1. Chris,

      This is a great question.

      We have encountered corporations which have suffered financially from the physical effects of extreme weather events here in Australia. For example, the massive floods in Queensland in 2010-11 had a big impact on open cut coal mines and shook insurance companies like Suncorp and QBE. Ironically QBE’s Chairman publicly stated she didn’t believe in climate change and rejected the idea that this was behind the floods (http://www.businessday.com.au/business/qbe-blames-la-nina-for-disasters-20110419-1dng1.html). Financial analysts argued the resulting halving of the company’s profits in 2011 and failure to investigate the business implications of climate change constituted a major shortcoming (http://abacus-financialviews.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/qbe-shocker.html).

      By contrast others insurers, like IAG became quite focused on climate change following losses they experienced after the 1999 Sydney hailstorm and the 2003 Canberra bushfires. This involved establishing internal capabilities to research climate science and better price climate risk, building collaborations with University researchers and advocating for carbon pricing.

      Much of the business discourse around climate change is framed within the language of ‘risk minimisation’, and less commonly ‘opportunity’. However, for most businesses paradoxically as the uncertainty and risk increases there seems to be less, not more, planning and strategizing (something I’m writing on at the moment).

      So I think the answer is partly captured in your last sentence. Businesses take a short-term view driven by financial and performance indicators. Climate change is for many businesses too big an issue to cope with – this is one reason why relying on businesses and markets is insufficient – we need systemic change driven by governments which will likely involve significant regulation of social and economic activity (think of war-time style mobilisation – http://grist.org/climate-energy/what-would-wartime-mobilization-to-fight-climate-change-look-like/#.UYbW1ZZRQyo.twitter).

  2. Hi Chris,
    thank you. Interesting links too. That the Chair of QBE should be in denial strikes me as very odd. Surely they employ all sorts of fancy and well informed advisers to understand risk? Is this indicative of how deep “denial” runs?

    In summary, what you seem to be saying is that the problem is too big for business to think about and so they choose to act as if it’s not going to happen?

    If so, I can empathise with that.

    I hesitate to use the word “hopeless”, but…

    Cheers

    Chris

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