McGee, J. (2016), Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction, by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, published by Cambridge University Press, 2015, 243 pp., £21.99, paperback. Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, 25: 395–397. doi:10.1111/reel.12180

Law is not an autonomous system of social ordering. In order to understand the law we have, we need to understand the wider political economy in which such law was created and operates. It is this political economy which both enables and sets limits upon what law can achieve.

The last 30 years have seen the rise of neoliberalism, a particular set of ideas that has become the background condition for much public policy discourse in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.1 Neoliberalism is a political philosophy that seeks to maximize the role of markets in society.2 According to neoliberal theory, markets are largely self-regulating and are fundamentally based upon the dispersed decisions of a multitude of individual actors, including privately owned actors such as corporations. From the neoliberal perspective, it is this dispersed decision making of individual actors, including civil society and corporations, that is best suited to creating knowledge to coordinate human interaction, maximize individual freedom and guard against the potentially tyrannical power of the State.3

A strong critique has been made of the influence of neoliberalism on environmental law and policy in the areas of pollution control, biodiversity management and natural resource management.4 Critics of neoliberalism point out that ‘neoliberalization’ in practice has not always involved a retreat in the role of the State. In many cases, State activity has instead been redirected to the purpose of creating and extending the role of markets and market proxies within society, such as in the creation of artificial markets for emissions trading, biodiversity offsets and resource extraction rights.5 Neoliberalism is even more supportive of voluntary self-regulation that maximizes freedom of individual actors and minimizes State intervention. As a result, traditional forms of environmental law involving a more interventionist role for the State, such as legislation placing restrictions on the activities of individuals and corporations, have been attacked as outdated, blunt, economically inefficient, ‘command-and-control’ responses to environmental problems.6 Climate change emerged on both the international and domestic policy agenda during the early 1990s at just the time that this neoliberal turn in environmental law and policy was gathering strength.

This book by Australian business academics Wright and Nyberg focuses on the role of corporations (and corporate leaders) in the causation of human-induced climate change and their suitability in contributing to a solution. The promise of corporations as actors who might be charged with a key role in responding to climate change has become much more prominent with the rise of neoliberal thinking in environmental policy. As the State has struggled to pass laws with sufficient strength to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, politicians and policy analysts have looked to corporations as a possible set of actors who might provide a response. The corporate social responsibility agenda has placed significant trust in the capacity of corporations to act as leaders in responding to the climate challenge.7 At the extreme edges of this literature are hopes that clean technology projects driven by corporate elites will ‘solve’ the problem of climate change without the need for any significant State restrictions upon individual action.8 Wright and Nyberg also tackle the political role of business in shaping climate change law and policy so as to serve its own interests. Both these issues are important for climate change lawyers interested in the shape and pattern of the (inadequate) response of law to climate change.

The first chapter examines the connections between the exponential growth dynamic of the capitalist economic model, corporate profit expectations and the problem of climate change. This chapter also introduces corporate environmental programmes established by many corporations for the ostensible purpose of responding to climate change (and other environmental problems). This chapter sets up the purpose of the book which is to critically analyse the purpose and scope of these corporate environmental programmes and the wider political role of corporations in shaping the public policy response to climate change.

Chapter 2 provocatively argues that the last 20–30 years of fossil fuel-based capitalism has been an ‘age of creative self-destruction’ (at 29). Wright and Nyberg mean that notwithstanding scientific knowledge of climate change and the planet entering a new geological epoch of the ‘Anthropocene’, environmentally destructive behaviour by corporations has continued and has indeed been central in the failure to develop an effective human response. Corporations have been important political players in shaping the human response to global environmental problems by advocating that the solution for environmental problems within corporate capitalism is more (and increasingly vigorous) corporate capitalism. Echoing Polanyi’s critique,9 Wright and Nyberg suggest that climate change reveals an underlying paradox of corporate capitalism, that is, through addiction to material exponential growth and the consumption of nature, it undermines the conditions necessary for its own development.

Chapter 3 provides an in-depth analysis of corporate framing of the risks of climate change and the various responses that have emerged within the corporate sector relating to market risk, reputational risk and others. Wright and Nyberg document a corporate response that has sought to make levels of scientific uncertainty surrounding climate change appear manageable and a basis for opportunity and profit, thereby reinforcing a vision of human mastery of nature. They argue that this corporate framing of climate risks has been an innately political activity which has helped forestall the significant emissions reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change. Wright and Nyberg conclude that corporate risk framings of climate change are essentially wedded to a ‘business as usual’ pathway that is locking in potentially devastating impacts.

Chapter 4 details corporate political activity, particularly by fossil fuel and heavy industrial corporations, in forming coalitions and networks to contest and avoid ambitious emissions reduction. These coalitions and networks are formed between corporate fossil fuel interests, free market and libertarian think tanks and conservative media organizations. Wright and Nyberg suggest that through these networks corporations have sought to establish a hegemonic position in framing climate change as a risk that can be managed in accordance with a business as usual strategy for corporate capitalism. This hegemonic position is supportive of a neoliberal approach to climate change policy that favours individual actor freedom, marketized social relations and limited coercive intervention by the State. This has involved programmes to persuade governments and citizens of the correctness of this corporate position while also convincing the wider citizenry that corporate and societal interests are similar, thereby shielding corporate interests from serious challenge.

Wright and Nyberg suggest this hegemonic corporate position on climate change is under pressure, as the impacts of climate change become more obvious. They acknowledge that some corporations, such as those in the insurance and renewable energy sectors, have been more supportive of stronger government action. However, they suggest that corporations generally have a common identity, or in Gramscian terms, display the characteristics of a ‘historic bloc’, around a neoliberal response to climate change. Wright and Nyberg comment ‘there is rarely any questioning of the neoliberal project, and when groups do speak up for the environment they are inevitably demonized for wanting to destroy the economy’ (at 97).

Chapter 5 provides a more in-depth critique of corporate environmentalism as a strategy for co-opting government and citizens into the belief that climate change can be addressed without any major restructuring of fossil fuel-based capitalism. This chapter introduces the results of interviews carried out with environment and sustainability managers within large corporations to gather their attitudes to climate change. These interviews showed managers were generally supportive of environmental goals being subsumed within the core demands of profitability and shareholder value. However, these managers also showed awareness of the compromises made in attempting to deal with environmental problems (such as climate change) as a business opportunity.

Chapter 6 examines the managerial identity and self-understanding of corporate managers involved in environmental issues. This chapter identifies narratives of the ‘rational manager’, ‘green change agent’ and ‘committed activist’ that shape managerial identity on environmental issues.

Chapter 7 examines the role of emotion within corporate responses to climate change, both in corporate public relations efforts in selling a positive green marketing image, as well as at an individual level amongst managers themselves, who acknowledge their own emotional concerns at the future that is being crafted.

Chapter 8 moves beyond the critique of neoliberal capitalism advanced in the first seven chapters to provide visions of a more sustainable and climate-responsible future. The chapter describes three societal myths that have bolstered neoliberal capitalism in its response to climate change. These myths are described as ‘corporate environmentalism’, ‘corporate citizenship’ and ‘corporate omnipotence’. Wright and Nyberg suggest these three myths support a particular neoliberal capitalist imaginary that has played a large part in preventing a significant response to climate change. In response, they outline four alternative narratives that are currently emerging within climate change discourse. These new narratives are described as ‘renewable reinvention’, ‘regulatory and legal intervention’, ‘steady-state economics and collapse’ and ‘social mobilization and divestment’. These alternative narratives challenge the dominant neoliberal framing of climate change and business relations. They require a significantly more activist State and legal intervention that can shape society towards a low-carbon emission future and/or significant social action by civil society and/or citizenry to moderate the influence of corporations on the political process. Wright and Nyberg suggest these alternative narratives hold significant promise for reinvigorating democratic control over a neoliberal capitalist economy and will thereby allow greater action in responding to the climate challenge.

Wright and Nyberg provide a convincing account of why political will for a stronger legal response to climate change has been lacking within the Anglosphere and the role that corporations and neoliberal capitalism have played in this regard. The book describes the current practical barriers to deeper emission reduction activities but also charts alternative narratives that might be strengthened for democratic control to be reasserted in favour of stronger climate law and action. This book will be particularly interesting to both lawyers and interested citizens. The book serves both audiences well. It is clear and well written. It takes on the big questions and provides clear and compelling answers.


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  1. Block and M.R. Somers, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique(Harvard University Press, 2014).
  2. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom(University of Chicago Press, 1976).
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  5. Godden and J. Peel, Environmental Law: Scientific, Policy and Regulatory Dimensions(Oxford University Press, 2010).
  6. B.J. Richardson, ‘Climate Finance and its Governance: Moving to a Low Carbon Economy through Socially Responsible Financing?’, 58:3 International and Comparative Law Quarterly (2009), 597.
  1. Prudham, ‘Pimping Climate Change: Richard Branson, Global Warming, and the Performance of Green Capitalism’, 41:7 Environment and Planning A (2009), 1594; M. Shellenberger and T. Nordhaus, Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
  2. Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time(Beacon Press, 1944).

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