Beyond the Pale – capitalism and the environment

Pete Dickenson

In the UK’s general election, environment and climate change are issues the establishment parties want to downplay, if not try to forget about entirely.

Global warming dangers haven’t gone away, as shown by the devastating cyclone in the South Pacific in March, but the corporate agenda that the main parties really represent has moved on. In the age of austerity there is no longer any room for even small expenditure to tackle climate change that could hit profits in any way at all.

This is shown most clearly by the case of BP, one of Britain’s biggest oil multinationals. In 2003 it re-branded itself with the slogan ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and adopted a new green logo, with the main aim of benefiting from some favourable public relations (PR).

An objective was also to test diversification from oil production, a major driver of global warming, into renewable energy. This would act as insurance in the (unlikely) event that action was forced on them by governments, as the environmental crisis deepened. Another factor was the lure of state subsidies for technologies like solar power, which promised an easy return on investment.

Everything changed in the years after 2008 as the financial crisis was followed by austerity. Pressure from multinational companies, who refused to pay anything significant to prevent environmental breakdown, resulted in governments dropping even token policies to stop climate change, including subsidies for renewables.

BP then cynically dropped its ‘green’ agenda. In 2009 the firm closed down BP Alternative Energy as a separate business, and BP Solar was closed in 2011. All work on carbon capture and storage was abandoned.

At the same time the company stepped up investment in tar sands extraction in Canada, an extremely polluting source of energy.

Most shockingly the BP archive on renewables’ research, held at Warwick University, is only open to the public for research done before 1976. All the extensive work done since then, which is by far the most useful, is banned from view.

BP shareholders are worried about the bad PR the company is generating, particularly on the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst oil spill in history, caused by a BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

A shareholders’ meeting last week called on the firm to have increased transparency on climate issues. This won’t result though in any basic change in policy, just an attempt at more effective spin.

BP and other multinationals set the real political agenda for all the main parties and they will continue to block any effective action on global warming or other environmental issues that threaten their earnings.

The first step in changing this must be the bringing into democratic public ownership of these corporations, so that the needs of people and the planet come before profit.