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Dr Charlotte Hulme Talks Corporate Responses to Climate Change at Book Launch

Dr Hulme Book Talk Event
Dr Charlotte Hulme speaking to Panellist (image courtesy of Kayla Rahaman)

On 26 March, Dr Charlotte Hulme of West Point was invited to speak about her book Corporate Climate Action, Transnational Politics, and World Order. She discussed transnational corporate responses to climate change and their implications for national security.

Hosted by the Department of War Studies’ Centre for Grand Strategy, Dr Hulme filled this humble evening in the tiny Dockrill Room with a giant question: what is the role of today’s global private sector in how states navigate national security concerns?

Climate change has become one of the most pressing national security issues of this generation, but to many it seems governments are not doing enough to meet its challenges. According to Hulme’s findings, drawn from the evolving behaviour of 34 transnational corporations (TNCs) based in the US, India and Germany, some of the world’s most powerful companies are of the same sentiment: in the 2010s, declining assurance that state policies will be strong climate leaders correlated with increased environmental “self-regulation” among corporations.

Dr Hulme began writing her book in 2015, the year of the Paris Climate Agreement. At the time, it was taken for granted that policymakers would urgently mobilise to reduce global carbon emissions. Nearly a decade later, the opposite appears to have happened: rather than the private sector following a low-carbon path charted by state policymakers, many corporations have taken the initiative in preparing for a climate-friendly future. 

The explanation for this behaviour she gives? Cynicism and profit.

In her discussion with industry experts and corporate leaders, Dr Hulme discovered that TNCs perceived a necessity to fill the “leadership vacuum” of state climate policy. She also cited a perception of volatility in state-level environmental regulations which would hinder commercial and investment strategies.

She flagged tech giants, whose data centres demand intense energy consumption and have a collective financial value amounting to 9.3% of 2022 US GDP, as especially interesting cases in this phenomenon.

Take Apple, whose product you might be reading this article on. The company’s market cap reached $3.1 trillion in July 2023, just under only nine times less than 2023 US GDP and greater than the GDP of the UK in 2022. This vast financial power has also enabled Apple to become a growing political giant: while the US House of Representatives approved a bill to ban TikTok and the US Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple’s monopolisation of the smartphone market, CEO Tim Cook continues ahead with ‘critical’ Chinese investment and recently remarked on the country’s role in making Apple products carbon-neutral by 2030. 

In line with these current events, Dr Hulme noted that Apple cited Trump’s removal of the US from the Paris Agreement as a prime motivator in the company’s roll-out of clean energy initiatives in 2017. She also recalled that Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, restricted Starlink from supporting surprise attacks on Russian forces in Crimea and that other TNCs made divestments in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Foreign Policy” is traditionally understood as the exclusive realm of state policymakers, but Dr Hulme argues that transnational corporate responses to climate change signal a significant upheaval of the status quo: non-state actors are increasingly involved and informed, potentially with an upper hand, in the landscape of transnational security. She concludes that this apparent privatisation of security policy has implications for the international system well beyond climate action.

You can view and order Dr Hulme’s book here.

To read more about sustainability at King’s, click here.

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