Beware of geeks bearing warnings II

September 19th, 2007
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A blog or two ago I wrote about the positioning of companies on public policy and the benign or malign consequences of same. I specifically referred to Shell Canada, because their outgoing CEO made public remarks jumping enthusiastically on the Gore and Stern Report bandwagons.

In a tone similar to Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex” comments, Clive Mather – after 38 years in the oil and gas industry – concludes that his career may have helped destroy the planet. He talks of “sustainable development”, “taking responsibility for our own carbon footprint” and apparently swallows other fashionable climate hypotheses whole. “(There may be) … enough sunshine in my native England to grow grapes … unthinkable in my childhood”; he quickly lapses into catastrophism. He emphasizes the greater downsides to warming: “remorseless desertification, wilder weather patterns, water shortages … floods … melting ice caps, loss of biodiversity.”

Let’s pause for a moment to mention that there is compelling evidence that warming will not produce wilder weather and that evidence for melting ice caps is varied. But perhaps we shouldn’t get bogged down in inconvenient facts.

There are other disturbing aspects of Mather’s remarks. He advocates determining “a real cost of carbon and the opportunity to build up substantial funds able to support the cost of carbon capture and other game-changing technologies.” He favours government regulation to ensure “carbon management (is) captured in the design phase of any new operation, building, or process…”. This he terms “sound public policy”. There are also convoluted speculations about how companies can gain competitive advantage by playing themselves and their peers off against the regulatory regime. (He also refers to the U.S. president as “Bush”, which I think quite inappropriate).

His technocratic Big Brotherism comes out even more strongly when he wonders why people buy internationally-shipped bottled water or demand strawberries be available for purchase 12 months of the year. What should we do, ban these?

The only silver lining in his hyper-interventionist program is his belief that improved “techniques and technologies” will be part of the solution. Amen. I believe that they’ll be so much of the solution that most of the state regulation he proposes will be unnecessary.

What all this shows is that whoever’s under the impression that the captains of industry are mercenary free-marketers should think again. My experience has been that they are predominantly technocrats who want to negotiate sweetheart deals with government. They are also people easily swayed by the fashions and foibles of their times. May Mr. Mather have a healthy and happy retirement.

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