There is a back and forth that I have with my good friend Dave Hampton about the role of oil companies in climate change and in our climate change free future. The time has come to share the subject more widely. I know that there will be readers who cannot agree with this point of view – and that is OK, we don’t have to agree about everything. Whatever your take on it – please feel free to comment on the blog by following the link at the end.
Authentic purpose has very much been the core of my study of authentic business over the last ten years. If the purpose (the why?) of an individual or organisation is essentially selfish, there is no reason for anyone else to support it, unless they too are in on the gain.
To engage people with your purpose it has to be effectively unselfish. That does not mean unprofitable, but unselfish. For an authentic business profit becomes a byproduct of pursuing something that people in the business feel passionate about, which creates value for the wider community.
If you take a renewable energy company. It is pursuing a profitable business, but offers other benefits to stakeholders. Lower carbon emissions, lower electricity bills (if they install solar PV or wind turbines), cleaner air and so on. Actually oil and gas businesses also provide value to the wider community too – but very few see it this way.
Although we may be reluctant to admit it, much of the wealth in our society, and most of the lifestyle, is more closely based on our ability to burn our inheritance in the form of the stored energy of ancient sunlight (gas and oil), than it is on our brilliance or hard work. If we appreciate our affluence and our lifestyle then much of that value is still delivered by oil and gas companies. Oil and gas companies can legitimately claim to be profiting from providing energy to our society. Whether it is authentic or not depends on whether they are passionate enough about what they do that they would do it anyway – even with far less of the profits and whether they truly believe that the effect of their work is positive for all of their stakeholders.
In 1988 the United Nations set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to analyse and report on scientific findings. The IPCC warned that only strong measures to stop greenhouse gas emissions would prevent serious global warming. You could argue that it has been clear since then that the provision of that energy comes at a very significant cost – to our climate and ultimately to our lifestyle. Oil and gas companies can no longer claim the above legitimacy if they are not also using that wealth and those profits to transition to a way of providing for our lifestyle that does not ultimately cost us our lifestyle.
That may mean finding a way to provide energy (or the things that energy provides – heat, light and transport) in a way that does not damage or risk damaging the climate. It could mean not letting the carbon from burning hydrocarbons into the atmosphere or it could mean providing alternative types of non polluting energy.
Just stopping the production of oil and gas is not an option. Stopping would lead to effects on our lifestyle just as catastrophic as climate change. And we have to be honest here – it is principally our lifestyle we are worried about. If it we were genuinely more worried about the environment than our lifestyle we could simply go back to an agrarian way of living and the shortened life spans and smaller population that would go with it.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the causal part of the climate change chain is the burning of the hydrocarbons – not their extraction. It is largely we as consumers who burn the hydrocarbons, not the oil and gas companies.
We, individually, need to make the choices to use alternatives to oil and gas – renewable energy, electric cars, sustainably grown bio fuels and so on. If we do that it will only be the most innovative and agile of the oil and gas companies who survive to continue to supply us, and those would be the kind of company that we could all feel proud of.
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