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Saving Humanity From Climate Chaos Means Saying No to Business as Usual

Part of an industrial oven creating coal coke in Turkey in 2013. (Photo: Kefca / Shutterstock)

For more than 20 years, delegates from all over the world have met annually to discuss ways to mitigate the devastating impacts of a changing climate. This December, the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) will be held in Paris. Given how seriously we have already damaged the earth’s atmosphere, it is not hyperbolic to suggest that the fate of the human race rests on a robust global treaty to severely curb greenhouse gas emissions.

But there are already alarm bells ringing over the influence that corporations will be allowed to wield at COP21. Our global capitalist system has enabled businesses to extract ever-greater resources and generate relentless pollution. Now, many of the same companies that are guilty of destroying our climate are being lauded as “partners” and “stakeholders” in the climate talks.

Earlier this year, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that corporate sponsors would foot a fifth of the bill for the December gathering. In an interview with The Guardian, a French official defended the financing decision as “not a perfect choice” but a “pragmatic choice.” Among COP21s corporate sponsors are Air France, a company that has lobbied against reducing air travel emissions, and BNP Paribas, a huge financier of coal companies.

Corporations seem to love the annual U.N. climate talks for the massive advertising opportunities that allow them to target country representatives, global nongovernmental organizations and activists. In addition to being highly visible sponsors of COP21, there are two major business-centered side events coinciding with the conference. 

The first such event, the Sustainable Innovation Forum, is being organized in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Program to help companies to “generate profitable business opportunities and partnerships, provide top-level access to emerging markets and reinforce their commitment to, and their position as leaders within, the global sustainability industry.” The event bills itself as “the largest business event on the sidelines of the COP.” Last year’s event in Lima, Peru, boasted hundreds of attendees from industry and governments and was sponsored by investment banks, agribusinesses and the International Chamber of Commerce, among others.

The second corporate event during COP21 is Solutions 21, whose positive-sounding online literature sports slick messaging—“Live the Climate Experience,” its website announces. The gathering will include a free exhibition of technology as well as “concerts, films, parties and incredible events.” The business-centered coalition declares: “Solutions COP21 offers a new perspective and a unique experience. Because climate solutions do exist, because the subject is a fascinating one.” Never mind that climate change is a horribly frightening existential crisis—for businesses, it is merely “fascinating.” Like the Sustainable Innovation Forum, Solutions 21 also has a long list of corporate backers, with varying levels of sponsorship.

Although the United Nations and the French government both seem unconcerned about the undue influence of corporations on the climate talks, activist groups have been very vocal about their opposition to it. Corporate Europe Observatory detailed in a new report how Solutions 21 is simply “a chance for big business to promote its pie-in-the-sky market-based techno-fixes to climate change.” The organization also exposed how the various levels of corporate sponsorship of the event offer “privileged access to climate policy-makers.”

The group put it bluntly: “The more money you have, the better you can buy your way to being seen and heard by our political leaders, and the more effectively you’ll be associated with solutions to the climate crisis.” Meanwhile, “civil society struggles to be heard even when hundreds of thousands take to the streets, highlighting the undemocratic nature of this kind of luxurious corporate lobbying show.”

The last round of talks before COP21 just wrapped up in October in Bonn, Germany, where delegates from various countries attempted to whittle down a draft agreement before the Paris talks begin. Activist groups used the Bonn meeting as a launching pad for a new campaign called “Kick Big Polluters Out,” which calls on world leaders to ban corporate interests from the climate negotiations.

The campaign, organized by Corporate Accountability International, explains:

For two decades, the world’s biggest polluters delayed, weakened, and blocked climate policy at every level. From the World Coal Association hosting a summit on “clean coal” around the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) to Shell aggressively lobbying in the European Union for weak renewable energy goals while promoting gas, these big polluters are peddling false solutions to protect their profits while driving the climate crisis closer to the brink.

“Kick Big Polluters Out” was built on the findings of Influence Map, a United Kingdom-based organization that tracks corporate influence on climate policies through detailed score cards. A new Influence Map report issued last month described how fossil fuel companies specifically damage climate agreements. According to the report, “The energy majors’ slogan leading up to Paris 2015 is to call for a price on carbon. Behind the scenes, however, they are systematically obstructing the very laws that would enable a meaningful price.”

Rather than endow them with a central role in climate negotiations, corporations need to be sidelined and even derided and ridiculed for leading us into the climate mess we are in. To that end, Corporate Europe Observatory has set an appropriate tone by launching its “Pinocchio Awards,” a campaign that “highlights, and denounces, the negative impacts of multinational companies” who use deception to “greenwash” themselves.

While it is true that corporations will most certainly have to change the way they do business in order to adapt to a changing climate, it is clear that their goals do not coincide with ours. Corporate entities exist to make profits—the larger the profits, the better. They do not exist to lead us to a more just, more equitable and safer world—unless that hypothetical world just happened to be the most financially lucrative one.

As commentators such as Naomi Klein have suggested, capitalism is actually incompatible with saving our species from the ills of climate change. Corporations cannot and will not lead us to climate-friendly policies. They have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to make their profit-based models subservient to the well-being of ordinary people. Such subservience is only achieved through strong regulations. This December, as the most important global regulations in the history of the human species will be decided in Paris, corporations must not be given a seat at the table.

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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