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Profits of doom: a key driver of climate chaos

26 August 2022

The earth is under threat as never before, argues Martin Dominic, but the money-makers don’t seem to have noticed

TWO things have occurred in recent months that have focused public attention on scientific achievement: the launching and commissioning of the James Webb telescope, and this year’s round of climate-induced forest fires in the UK, mainland Europe, and around the world.

The James Webb telescope has been met with wonder at the audacity of its inception and the technical accomplishment. The record-breaking temperatures, prolonged drought, and widespread wildfires have finally galvanised greater public acknowledgement of the realities of climate change.

The issue of time lies at the heart of both developments. The telescope reveals the vast period of time it has taken for light to travel from galaxies formed soon after the Big Bang to our home planet. But life on earth is likely to be measured in a few centuries, if immediate action is not taken to mitigate global warming.

Large teams of scientists have been working for decades to design, manufacture, and launch the James Webb telescope. Over the same period, climate scientists have been subjected to orchestrated criticism and obstruction from organisations with short-term vested interests in the sale of fossil fuels and those that depend on them. Having wasted at least three decades since the Rio Earth Conference in 1992, we now have a mountain to climb if we are to safeguard our children’s future.

IF WE are looking for a culprit for this delay, we need look no further than global corporations and their sophisticated public misinformation programme. Joint-stock companies now dominate the global economy and are frequently described as being psychopathic by design. They have great power over governments, and strong influence in shaping economic and regulatory policies.

Why pick on corporations? They are the biggest economic driver in the world’s economy and are a supranational power. Unlike their human founders, shareholders, and customers, they have no evolved ethical or moral codes to regulate their ambitions. They have no emotions or conscience. Corporation policy decisions are made by the boards of management, whose legal imperative is to make money for the shareholders. Boards of management are almost always appointed from a relatively small group of people and are self-perpetuating. The influence of individual shareholders to affect policy is almost non-existent.

Managing a corporation is a catch-22 situation. The management’s prime responsibility is to maximise profit. If they fail to do so, the shareholders can sue them. Corporate profit is achieved at a cost to others — environmental damage, loss of employment as a result of advancing technology, relocation of manufacturing production to a country with lower wages and working conditions, pressure on dependent suppliers.

Consider the Thalidomide tragedy, in which a product caused life-changing birth defects in humans. The legal process for compensation lasted for years. It is perfectly possible that the individual managers involved would have preferred to acknowledge the fault and pay up — but their legal responsibility was to mitigate the company’s loss by fighting claims for compensation as rigorously as possible.

Even worse was the Bhopal catastrophe in India in 1984, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of life-changing injuries. Union Carbide, the majority shareholders, avoided prosecution in the United States, and only a handful of local employees were prosecuted, many years later.

THE conflict of interest between the public good and corporate profit is now of global concern. It requires a reset of corporate law to change the emphasis from maximising profit at any cost to taking account of social responsibility and environmental impact. This would result in lower profits — but it would release boards of management from fear of vexatious litigation. It would also enhance the success of any global negotiations aimed at mitigating climate change.

Around the world, there remain remnants of indigenous cultures still clinging to sustainable ways of life, pursued in harmony with the natural world. Most lack legal protection and are in constant danger of displacement as their homelands are reallocated for commercial purposes. Large multinational corporations control vast swaths of former equatorial rainforest, now turned into degraded grassland, and farmed to grow cereals sold for animal feed or to raise beef cattle for export.

In 1950, the value of global gross domestic product (GDP) was $4081 billion. By 2000, it had increased to $41,016 billion, and, by 2010, to $62,220 billion. By 2019, it had reached $87,752 billion. This massive growth has been achieved as undeveloped countries have become industrialised and developed countries have increased their own production. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects that global GDP will quadruple between 2011 and 2060.

Earth is a finite planet, and already its natural world is in a state of acute distress, owing to our economic activity. The above projections, if realised, could push the planet’s ecosystems beyond sustainability. If so, our time will run out within a couple of centuries.

Martin Dominic is an engineer who spent most of his career in operational management in the energy industry. He is retired and attends Halesworth United Reformed Church.

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