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Why should HR care about climate change?

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Why HR professionals are crucial to the climate-change fight.

HR: guardians of culture

Climate change asks difficult questions of everyone. How we choose to react to the issue of global warming, both individually and collectively, is absolutely pivotal to our own futures and to those of the generations that may or may not come after us.

The corporate world’s response has an enormous impact on humanity’s chosen path. Indeed, it could be argued that it represents the single biggest influence on whether we pull back from the abyss or continue to stagger towards it.

This being the case, HR professionals face some of the most invidious questions of all in seeking to address the greatest threat of our time. For it is you, the HR community, that is responsible for shaping and maintaining an organisation’s culture; and if that culture prizes profit above the planet then the battle is all but lost.

Do corporates care about the environment?

We have been carrying out in-depth research into the corporate world’s response to climate change for a number of years. Our studies have involved around 25 major corporations in the resources, energy, manufacturing, transport, finance and retail sectors. We have interviewed senior and operational managers and analysed masses of sustainability assessments, annual reports, submissions to governments, shareholder briefings, climate-change presentations and policy documents.

Our fundamental conclusion, derived from and informed by these extensive studies, is a depressing one. It is that there exists almost no genuine determination within the corporate sphere to abandon policies that boost the bottom line at the environment’s expense.

Understandably, you might find this inference shocking and maybe even offensive; but we believe you might also recognise only too well the impossibility of governing innocently. After all, one of the cruellest ironies of the fight against climate change is that those who are most environmentally attuned are often those who also find themselves engaged in compromising the very thing they yearn to preserve.

How can HR help re-define business practices?

To fully comprehend the roots of the problem we first need to consider the extent to which both the environment and the market are now habitually treated as social goods. Given this, it's inevitable that their respective interests will occasionally compete; and when compromise is required it is almost invariably the market that is favoured.

As a result, you will find yourself confronted by the dilemma of having a duty both to the planet and to their employers and shareholders. This makes for a delicate and often impossible balancing act.

Many of you will have changed careers and even reconsidered your personal values because of your dedication to the green cause. Your desire to safeguard the environment will be an honest one. We know from our research how much members of the HR community care and how desperate they are to make a difference. 

Yet redefining successful business practices that exacerbate ecological degradation is difficult. As nature itself is reconstructed into a commodity and a tool for profit, you may have to get their hands dirty. As one of our interviewees observed: “I would say that most businesses’ efforts, probably with a genuine intent, are more about appearing to be environmental and reducing impact where possible where there’s a business case for doing so... because the best thing a business could do for the environment would be to shut down, and that’s clearly not a viable option.”

Compromise may be inevitable – surrender doesn’t have to be

Compromise is at best a temporary resolution – one at the constant mercy of ongoing criticism and skewed refinement. The next step is likely to be little more than a new and “better” compromise, if not a total shifting of the goalposts. To quote another interviewee: “Most companies are a long way from being sustainable in the true sense, so anything you get through is a win on that path. I think everyone is conscious that it’s a long journey.”

Even so, we do not seek to convey a sense of hopelessness – far from it. Our wish is simply to make clear the sheer scale, urgency and importance of the task. 

As we said at the outset, you face difficult questions. All you can do is keep answering them to the very best of your abilities. Your endeavours may sometimes appear futile, your noble intentions pointless and even corrupted, but the fact remains that you are vital to furthering humanity’s wider determination to muster a meaningful and selfless response to the crisis that is engulfing it. Don’t give up.

Christopher Wright is a professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney.

Professor Daniel Nyberg is a professor of Management at the University of Newcastle.

The professors are the co-authors of Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction, published by Cambridge University Press.

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