Science vs. Business?

By David Levy, UMass Boston.* 

The fossil fuel industry’s campoil refineryaign to deny climate change and oppose the regulation of greenhouse gases is a well-researched and publicized story. Much less is known, however, about the role of corporate scientists in shaping the internal perspectives on climate change in these companies, and the impact on corporate response strategies. Recent revelations by InsideClimate News show that from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, Exxon funded its own scientists to engage in a serious research program, which pointed to conclusions that broadly matched those of the broader climate science community. Indeed, during the 1980s, Exxon put plans on hold to develop the massive Natuna gas field off the coast of Indonesia, because of concerns that nearly two-thirds of the gas was carbon dioxide, and there was no economically viable way to capture and dispose of it.

The role of private actors in climate governance is of critical importance. I’ve remarked before that “large companies are already, de facto, highly engaged in the fabric of global environmental governance in their roles as polluters, investors, innovators, lobbyists, and marketers. Private decisions over products and processes, technologies and research, and distribution and sourcing have vast environmental consequences with wide societal ramifications and broad geographic reach.”

Clearly, companies are very sensitive to their economic interests, at least, as they perceive them. The recent scandal at VW, discussed by Stephan Manning in the prior OSC blog post, demonstrates how pressures for profitability and market share can permeate the organization and lead to widespread misconduct by managers. During the 1990s, many carbon-intense sectors became very concerned at the potential business impact of regulation of greenhouse gases. However shocking and cynical the industry’s efforts to oppose climate action might appear, at least there was a simple explanation.

Yet there is a more complex organizational and institutional story about the role of corporate climate scientists in shaping business perspectives and strategy – as well as how business concerns might also exert pressure on the scientists. In a recent article in The Conversation with my colleague Sandra Rothenberg, we explore this further, and connect our earlier research on the auto sector with the recent findings on Exxon.

* David Levy is Full Professor at the UMass Boston College of Management and Director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness.

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