Are employees responsible for cooperate harms?

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49.6% of Australia’s 2016-7 direct emissions came from just ten companies and their assets. The worst of these was AGL, at 43.3 million tonnes of CO2-e (Latimer 2018). To put this in perspective, the average Australian emits between 3 and 30 tonnes of GHGs per year (Australian Greenhouse Calculator 2018), while Australia itself emitted 550.2 million tonnes of GHGs 2015-6 (Jericho 2018). There’s an argument to be had, obviously, over the quantity of emissions necessary to make a difference to the harms of climate change. On the one hand, you might think difference-making is extremely hard to come by: perhaps only cumulative global emissions make a difference; or only the emissions of large countries make a difference. On the other hand, you might think it’s easy to come by: perhaps even the emissions associated with isolated individual actions can be expected to make a difference (Broome 2013).

Corporate emitters fall somewhere in between these two extremes. We know that increases in emissions correlate with more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. Although we don’t know exactly how the causal relations work, we can assume that it’s not 1:1 between a molecule of extra GHG and a difference in the way an extreme weather event occurs (Lawford-Smith 2016). But corporate emitters aren’t in the business of emitting single molecules; at the volume they emit, we can assume they’re more likely than not to make a difference of the relevant kind.

Still, it’s not enough to be responsible for a harm to simply cause the harm, at least normally. We need it to also be the case that the agent that causes the harm is not morally excused. Different theorists give different accounts of what excuse consists in, such as ‘not being ignorant about the harm’, or ‘not being culpably ignorant about the harm’. That means AGL would only be responsible if it knew that its emissions would cause climate change harms, or didn’t know but should have known. However, this way of thinking about excuse is unlikely to get a corporate emitter like AGL off the hook, because climate change is massively well-publicised, and the link between GHGs and harms is well-established. So it’s likely that AGL is responsible for the harm it does.

But what exactly does this mean? It’s not enough to say “AGL is responsible for climate change harms!” and stop there. In fact, it’s not enough to specify the obligations that we think follow from that, and stop there. I think it’s clear that AGL, and Australia’s other big corporate emitters, have obligations to desist in all GHG emissions (to move away from coal, oil, petrol, and natural gas), and to mitigate their historical GHG emissions to some realistic extent. (And of course, there’s a complicated discussion to be had about exactly what is ‘reasonable’ here: should AGL mitigate only to the extent compatible with remaining profitable? Should it mitigate even if that leads to bankruptcy and closure? Should it mitigate if this would have negative effects on individual energy customers?)

The reason we can’t stop there is that AGL is not currently very likely to be receptive to claims about its climate change obligations. That’s why I think we have to ask further questions, about what AGL is, who its members are, what they owe in virtue of their membership, and more broadly, how to get values into corporate agents so that they are more likely to be receptive to the obligations that they have.

Following Katherine Ritchie, I understand groups to be realizations of structures (Ritchie 2013). This might sound complicated, but it really just means that groups can be modelled in a way that includes ‘nodes’ (something like roles) and ‘relations’ (which connect some roles to others). For example, we might understand ‘Chief Executive Officer’ as a node in a corporate structure, and we might understand the relations between that node and the ‘General Manager’ node to be hierarchical, such that the former gets to tell the latter what to do. AGL had 3,500 employees at the time of its 2017 Annual Report. All of these people occupy nodes in the corporate structure of AGL.

One interesting question to ask about corporations is whether employees are the full story about their membership. Some people think that shareholders ought to be included too. I prefer to think of the relationship between shareholders and corporations as one that holds between two groups. If both groups are agents (which means, they are both highly coordinated and able to make decisions) then it’s a relationship in which one agent commissions another agent to do something, in this case, climate change harm. The shareholders would be like a mafia boss directing a subordinate to carry out a murder. If only one group is an agent (this will be the corporation), then it’s a relationship in which many agents—individual shareholders—contribute to an explanation of why the corporate entity went on to do as it did. This won’t be a commissioning if the shareholders are not coordinated enough for this to be an exercise of their agency.

When we tell the story about corporate responsibility in terms of employees who are co-constituents of the corporation, by way of occupying nodes in its structure (at least, at a time), we have a way to say more about who’s responsible when a corporate agent is responsible. It’s the employees, taken together. They can make it the case—‘from the inside’—that the corporate agent does what it ought to do, by making it the case, through their roles, that the corporation is value-responsive.

I think employees must use their roles (their occupation of nodes in the corporate structure) to try to make it the case that the corporation fulfils its climate obligations. They can do this in lots of different ways. Those who have the opportunity to participate in the corporate decision-making procedure ought to put value considerations forward. Those in positions of power should introduce roles that reliably bring value considerations to the table (like ‘Environmental Responsibility Officer’). Those at the top of such corporations should write or modify corporate charters that explicitly include environmental values. And all employees should work to build an institutional culture that is environmentally responsible, and work against an institutional culture that is environmentally irresponsible.

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