Do companies and countries have an ethical responsibility to care for the planet?
Companies have a legal obligation to obey the environmental laws of the countries where they do business. Anything they do beyond that is an individual choice—and perhaps a laudable choice—but not an ethical responsibility. As for countries, if an individual country harms the environment in ways that impact other countries, the other countries can negotiate restrictions multilaterally or impose restrictions unilaterally. There isn’t a world government, and the regions and peoples of the world are too diverse for such a government to be desirable or practicable. So we’re left with individual countries—or supranational entities like the EU—enacting environmental laws and monitoring companies’ compliance with them.
What are the intellectual origins of the climate movement?
The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, obviously. The inaugural Earth Day was in 1970, and Greenpeace was founded in 1971. Influential books of the period include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973). But I suspect the climate movement has cultural and, indeed, psychological origins as well. The late British historian Eric Hobsbawm correctly argued that the advent of the global economy eliminated old senses of community and left people in search of a new common good. Many people have found this common good in climate protection. Also, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the anxiety about nuclear annihilation faded and was succeeded by anxiety about another doomsday scenario: irreversible climate change. I suspect that’s not a coincidence.
You believe that the techno-industrial system—which you call the technological project (TP)—transforms nature for human benefit. What would you say to detractors who contend that the TP is, on balance, harmful to people and the planet?
In 1997, the American economist Julian Simon issued a long-term prediction: “The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely… I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.” I think he’s still right on both counts. The TP has dramatically reduced infant mortality, lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and given 3.2 billion people a piece of technology—the cellphone—whose capabilities were unavailable to even the very wealthiest individuals just 25 years ago. I have no doubt that the TP will continue to deliver improvements in the quality of life. I believe that Locke, Hegel, and many other thinkers have understood the TP—which isn’t just about consumer goods but also the freedom and resources to express oneself—as the spiritual quest of modernity. Yet, as Simon predicted, some people will continue to interpret human progress as decline, without giving us a clear idea of what a post-TP world would look like.
Europe’s approach to climate protection differs from America’s—why?
There are many reasons, but the most important are historical. The American Revolution replaced colonial rule with home rule and, crucially, with a federal system in which the individual states have a large degree of autonomy and are a focal point of allegiance. When Thomas Jefferson referred to his “country” he meant Virginia, not the United States. Similarly, many present-day Californians are proud that their state’s climate policies are more ambitious than the Trump administration’s. The French Revolution, by contrast, replaced one highly centralized government with another highly centralized government. Centralization of political power, a rationalist legal system (Justinian’s Code, the Napoleonic Code), and a long tradition of intricate regulation of social and economic affairs have given Europe a different political history and thus a different approach to policymaking. One result of this difference is that, for example, California’s climate policy is largely set in Sacramento, not Washington D.C., whereas, say, Bavaria’s climate policy is largely set in Berlin and Brussels, not Munich.
What principles do you think should guide climate policies?
One of your earlier interviewees, Professor Marcella Corsi, pointed out that Europe’s energy transition is a centrally organized, top-down project. She believes that to succeed it needs to become a grassroots project that involves people from all walks of life. I agree. The focus should shift from corporate social responsibility and centralized approaches to individual consumer responsibility. Millions of individual purchasing and lifestyle decisions will, in the aggregate, have much more impact than governments’ ambitious-sounding roadmaps to climate neutrality. Also, climate policies should be based on real science, not ideological science. We’re told that 97% of scientists agree that global warming is real and caused by human activity. Presumably a similar percentage of physicists agreed on Newtonian mechanics—until Einstein came along. I’m not at all saying that, as of today, the 97% are demonstrably wrong. I’m saying that the history of science strongly suggests that we’ll eventually discover that they were only partly right. A healthy degree of skepticism toward the prevailing consensus is essential for innovation in every branch of science—indeed, in every facet of life. Climate science should be no exception.
Nicholas Capaldi is the Legendre-Soule Distinguished Chair of Business Ethics at Loyola University New Orleans. He also serves as President of the Global Corporate Governance Institute (gcg-csr.org). His latest book is The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law (London: Palgrave McMillan, 2019). His next article is entitled “CSR in the U.S./UK vs. CSR in the EU and Asia.”