“Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits”


There’s an excellent post about this, well worth the read, at Climate Progress


Leonard S. Bernstein was Exxon’s “in-house climate expert” during much of his 30 years of working for the oil industry (including both Exxon and Mobil). In 2014 he sent an email to to the director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University, revealing that the oil giant was aware of the climate impact of CO2 emissions way back in the early 1980s.

According to Bernstein’s email, “Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point.

You can read more about it, including the full text of the email, in The Guardian and Inside Climate News.

22 responses to ““Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits”

  1. I was a mid level technical and operations supervisor for a large multinational, and I saw a mixed bag of attitudes within the company as well as within other oil companies we were partnered with.

    At a high level, most companies worry about their image, the brand. A good image enhances profits. It helps recruit brighter and more educated personnel (oil company employees aren’t subhuman pollution loving monsters, the younger generation in particular likes to go have pizza and not have to hide where they work).

    At lower levels it depends. I saw managers who had to be policed and watched over. This was critical because managers who were willing to cut corners would pollute AND get people killed. When it comes to priorities, getting people hurt has to be avoided, period. So a good indicator of injury risk is the “sloppiness” management can have in the environmental area.

    I see a lot of confused logic in your post. Companies focus on profits. Duh. McDonalds sells French fries, car companies sell large SUVs, Budweiser sells beer, and Hollywood markets violence. And that’s about profits. And there’s nothing really wrong with that. The quest for profits makes the economy works better and keeps civilization moving forward much better than the garbage they had in the Soviet Union or Castroite Cuba. At a higher level society simply has to channel and control the greed with laws and regulations.

    [Response: How utterly twisted that you accuse this post of “confused logic” when it consists of only two things: 1) statements of fact; and 2) a direct quote from a long-time employee of Exxon.

    Of course corporations seek profits. The important point — made by a long-time employee of Exxon and Mobil — is that profit is the only thing that matters to them; risk to others is irrelevant unless it affects their profit expectations.

    Your eagerness to act as an apologist for Exxon isn’t flattering to your ethics.]

    • FL: Please provide examples of where the multinational fossil corporations have initially put the ethical value before their bottom line.

      Note that cases where they were forced by public outrage/court order do not count.

      Thank you.


    • It is saddening that FL can not, despite given 4 days, come up with a single example of what he claims to exist in his initial writing.

      One could draw the conclusion that what he describes and claims in his writings is not based on reality rather than some wishful fantasy.


  2. Your confused logic shows when you highlight in your title a quote from the email.


    Not interested.

  3. metzomagic

    Uh oh. I see Fernando has escaped from his cage at Rabett Run again. But it looks like tamino is well up to the task of cleaning up his little droppings.

  4. The single-minded focus on profits makes corporations easy to control IN THEORY. Just pass laws that make it seriously unprofitable to pollute or do other bad things like breaking labour laws and those behaviours will greatly diminish. The problem is the political power of corporations so that they own the people making the rules.

  5. skeptictmac57

    I am no commie :) , and I have nothing against businesses (big or small) making fair profits for themselves and investors. However, it has to be acknowledged that the conflict behind the discovery that Co2 is driving climate change, and the business model of the fossil fuel industry are in direct conflict, and represents the biggest free market failure ever witnessed.
    When it was realized buy the industry itself that they were creating externalities that would come home to haunt them, they had two choices: 1.Admit that truth, and work with society to find a solution…
    or, 2.Deny what they knew, and try to hide it or spin it, delay action by muddying the science with propaganda, and slander of honest working climate scientists, and deeply corrupting and gaming the political system worldwide for their sociopathic rapacity.
    I think history will make them pay for the choice they made.

    • Horatio Algeranon

      History can’t make people pay. Only the present can do that.

      And even that ain’t likely because there is no political will to hold any of these people accountable any more than there was political will to hold the bankers at JP Morgan Chase and other big banks accountable for fraud.

      besides, the energy company CEO’s and other responsible parties have undoubtedly already made their hundreds of millions and stashed them away in offshore accounts.

      It’s not even clear that this “revelation” (which anyone who was paying any attention at all suspected all along) will have any effect on official policy.

      As Senator Dick Durbin said, “The bankers own the place” and he might just as well have added “and so do the energy CEO’s”

      • skeptictmac57

        Good point Horatio. Probably a better phrasing would be ‘History will judge them harshly’. Assuming there is some ‘history’ left after the full realization of what they have done.

      • Horatio Algeranon

        “Saving History”

        If future is foreshortened
        Then long-term’s really short
        If history is important
        We’ve got to hold the fort

      • skeptictmac57

        That is a pithy verse…in a good way ;)

  6. Corporations clearly have a fiduciary duty to return the maximum return for shareholders. That’s what it all comes down to. Corporations very naturally have very short term goals, in the worst cases almost exclusively targeting quarterly profits and resulting stock price.

    Governments naturally operate on (or at least are supposed to operate on) long time frames. Governments are responsible for laws and regulations that we live under for, potentially, multiple generations.

    When these are balanced they work quite well. We get growth and prosperity along side health and stability. The challenge we face today is the scales have been tipped too far toward growth and prosperity at the expense of health and stability. Corporations have essentially learned how to get a portion of the broader public to doubt that there are threats to their health and stability as a way of increasing profits. Basically, lying has a very high ROI.

    With regards to Bernstein’s comment about future corporate profits, I would hold those are only important as far as they affect current stock prices. Exxon will continue to explore for new recoverable reserves well past where they’ll be able to rationally extract it because they have to show projected earnings to support their P/E ratios. Eventually those will become stranded assets which hold a huge risk for world markets.

    Hopefully Bernstein’s materials lead to legal actions again the FF industry so that government can play its rightful role regarding climate change.

    • “Corporations clearly have a fiduciary duty to return the maximum return for shareholders.”

      This variant of Milton Freidmans dictum is commonly declared as if it is a statement of fact so and rarely gets challenged but is it actually true?

      A fiduciary duty is a legal duty to act solely in another persons interests:


      Corporations do not have a legal duty to maximize shareholder value as this Washington Post article points out:


      The Cornell legal scholar mentioned in the article who has researched this topic discusses her findings in the linked paper ” The Shareholder Value Myth” is worth a look:


      Accepting this as an unquestioned corporate norm or a cultural definition tends to result in acceptance of corporate behavior free of any loyalty to the country or community, to the workers or to the environment. It is one of the cornerstone principles of neo-liberal capitalism of which Friedman is considered one of the founding theorists. This form of capitalism has contributed significantly to a wide range of economic and environmental problems which we witness both locally and globally on a daily basis.
      a daily basis.

  7. > Corporations clearly have a fiduciary duty…
    Not all corporations are so constrained that they are driven by short term profit

    Even those that are so constrained on the books have been able to cooperate to raise the least common denominator to which they’d otherwise be driven by the market — look at the utility transformer litigation, where states, nonprofits, ecologists, and public utilities sued successfully and pushed the Bush Dep’t of Energy to _raise_ standards. Partial success, more low hanging fruit to be picked, but a reminder — some people in corporations know some of what’s wrong with capitalism, and improve on it.

    • I would suggest that the B-Corp idea is merely forcing a longer time horizon on the organization. It’s a way of internally forcing what should be the responsibility of government. It would be great if there were some form of sea change that caused all C-Corps to become B-Corps, but I don’t think that’s in the cards any time too soon.

  8. There’s an excellent post about this, well worth the read, at Climate Progress

  9. Corporations operate under the laws governments enact. We want affordable energy and allow fossil fuel companies to operate as they do because they deliver on their promise (affordable energy for the masses).

    I do not for a second believe that if we wanted to shut down or severely curtail fossil fuel companies we couldn’t. But we don’t, at present, because it would so damage our way of life.

    (This message will now self-destruct and never see the light of day.)


  10. Speaking of environmental impacts, this:

    “… a mean national blood level in U.S. children in the 1970s of nearly 200 ug/L and comparable elevations in children of many other nations. The widespread elevation of blood lead levels was associated with loss of intelligence that extended across entire populations and resulted in a 50% decline in the number of truly gifted children (IQ scores above 130) and a corresponding increase in the number of children with mental retardation (IQ below 70)….”

    — Handbook on the Toxicology of Metals 4th ed. edited by Gunnar F. Nordberg, Bruce A. Fowler, Monica Nordberg
    Academic Press, Aug 7, 2014, , at p. 521

    (read and retyped from the Amazon sample page online)

    Think about how your country would be better off if the population average IQ were two or three percent higher.
    Think about how your country would be better off if there were twice as many truly gifted children being born.

  11. Thanks PJKar, that’s a rich post pointing to a lot worth reading closely.