- Exxon loses two (maybe three) board seats to activist hedge fund (May 27th)
- Shell ordered to deepen carbon cuts (May 26th)
- Investors chide Toyota’s Toyoda for questioning combustion car ban (May 10th)
See the pattern?
The force to be reckoned with in the current phase of the Climate battle is not increased regulation, or legislative changes or fiscal policy. All these are well-known to the O&G industry who has unparalleled mastery in pre-empting or turning to their advantage the institutional framework; I recently paid homage to these skills in telling the story of the 45Q Tax Credit.
Instead, it’s their very shareholders who are doing an about-face and demanding quick, incisive action on the climate front, not in small part due to the selfish worry that the business they own might be in for a rough ride as customers’ preferences shift away from a fossil-based economy in favour of a more sustainable future.
This is a more difficult threat to deal with: while the institutional framework has a small number of decision-making nodes to convince and influence, the very basic capitalistic concept of people being the ultimate owners of businesses is, from that perspective, unwieldy. Especially when the large concentrators of shareholders power put sustainability front & center in their investment strategies.
But we have seen calls for business fairness before and, frankly, they haven’t gone far; why is Climate different?
Climate is a laser
I believe that the main reason is that the Climate issue behaves exactly as a laser(1) does: when you shoot photons of the appropriate wavelength in a medium in a state of population inversion, the medium responds with even more light of exactly the same frequency.
Resonance causes amplification.
Certainly Climate is an universally resonant issue: it does not matter how rich or privileged you are, you breathe the same foul air as the peasant in India. It does not matter how much you pay to export your plastic garbage to keep your rivers clean, sooner or later it resurfaces in a giant patch in the middle of the Pacific.
Not so, for example, for all things related to workers rights, which only matter to you if you’re one of the workers affected by a plant closure or denied a wage increase; in fact unions were born exactly with that purpose in mind, i.e. to turn the problem of a small minority of workers into the problem of ALL workers.
Shooting climate-related pellets at almost anybody results in even more climate pellets flying around because, ss it turns out, real-world capitalists often do not resemble their dickensian representation and do not live in the cold isolation of their patrician mansion, endlessly counting their gold: they have families, they grow kids and wish the best for them.
This wish transfers to the people managing their money, and up again to the people managing the sophisticated instruments used to leverage money. Every one of these people, while they might not give a rat’s ass about the business itself, have families and children and so that input resonates and amplifies before being passed on to the next stage.
All of these people want to make money, but all have a little voice in the back of their heads asking:
“Dad, what did you do today to improve MY world?”
Luckily, Scrooge has children, after all.
(1) for the technically-minded, the word L.A.S.E.R. is an acronym which means Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. At University I picked Nuclear Engineering, whose academic program was literally stuffed of Physics, Mathematics and Electronics, leaving very little leeway to the student. As one of my very few optional subjects I chose then nascent Optoelectronics because lasers sounded a lot like sci-fi. Neither my professor or I had anticipated that the most common applications would not be death-rays, but more down-to-earth tasks like scanning groceries, playing music and movies or printing.
Oh, and the Jedi’s weapon of choice, of course!