Righting America

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When CEO Ideology Trumps Climate Reality | Righting America

by Christopher Cudworth  

A black and white sketch of a bald eagle's head and neck with the words "Cause and Effect" near the bottom of the picture.
“Cause and Effect” – Artwork by Christopher Cudworth.

Christopher Cudworth is the author of Honest-To-Goodness, Why Christianity Needs A Reality Check and How to Make It Happen, as well as  a memoir titled The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community on his caregiving journey with his late wife. He’s a former editorial writer for the Daily Herald whose work is published in regional and national media. He writes on environmental issues, health and fitness, religion and politics, caregiving, and nature. His next book is titled Nature Is Our Country Club and is scheduled for release in 2024. He works in marketing, communications, and public relations. 

While visiting Florida on a short vacation with relatives, I opened their copy of the Wall Street Journal to find a full-page Opinion story written by Barton Swaim about Peter Huntsman, “A CEO Who Doesn’t Equivocate About Climate.” 

Intrigued by the title and eager to explore the rationale of a man who heads up a petrochemical firm whose products depend upon oil and their byproducts, I dug in. 

The first point of argument cited in the story was a poker tell of Wall Street dimensions: “That public companies exist primarily to make money for their shareholders is now taken to be the conservative or traditional view.” The second paragraph added. “In the age of “stakeholder capitalism” and a collection of multitermed, anodyne-sounding ideologies––ESG (environmental, social and governance), DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) ––the goal is as much to appear righteous as it is to earn money.”

That type of dismissive disclaimer is the red meat of American corporatism in the 21st century. It is the bulwark of conservative ethics to demand that profit must precede social responsibility at all costs. The pages of the Wall Street Journal and other conservative media love celebrating the brand of Right-Wing CEO groupthink that neglects truth in favor of the pet ideologies and tired cliches of business anachronisms. 

In a 40-year career in marketing, communications, and public relations, I’ve had many opportunities to spend time with CEOs in a wide spectrum of industries. Some of them I’ve found to be brilliant and admirable. Others appear to lack a basic curiosity about the world that produces massive blind spots outside their realm of corporate purview. 

For example, I once sat down in a company limousine with the CEO of the marketing agency where I worked as a creative director. He knew that I was a competitive endurance athlete and asked me, “What’s the best running shoe?” 

I began to explain that the answer depends on what type of running one plans to do, but he interrupted me. “No,” he demanded to know. “What’s the most expensive one?” 

That’s no way to look at a problem, but it points out the need to ask a pertinent question. How many CEOs value the apparent measure of money above all else? 

The WSJ article is eager to wring its hands over growing concerns about an issue affecting the entire world–– the impact of climate change. Writer Barton Swaim went looking for a defiant CEO hero to state his case and began its apologetic by praising its subject for having the support and courage to challenge the idea that government legislation confronting climate change is necessary.  It begins: “Peter Huntsman will. He is president, CEO, and chairman of Huntsman Corp., a multinational chemical manufacturing company. He has adopted a policy of brutal honesty about climate alarmism and its destructive potential. Mr. Huntsman, 60, has ample reason to worry about the acquiescence of corporate boardrooms to the mental pathologies of 21st-century American politics.” 

Given that staunch position, one might think that Huntsman was a classic self-made man. Yet this supposed leader of American corporate thought makes an important confession in the Wall Street article. “Mr. Huntsman owes his career to his father,” columnist Swaim shares, quoting his subject who admits, “’nepotism had a huge impact,’ he says with a laugh, but he [Huntsman] doesn’t quite match the son-of-a-rich-guy caricature.” 

Oh really? Huntsman’s history in the corporate world almost defines the son-of-a-rich-guy story. “He dropped out of the University of Utah after two months because he is dyslexic and was bored with the coursework,” we learn. “At 19 and 20 he liked his job driving trucks and hauling petroleum products for a company in which his father was a part owner. “I enjoyed meeting other drivers, meeting people at refineries in particular, meeting people who were making things.”  That sounds much like the plotline to the Chris Farley movie Tommy Boy, where an inept son inherits a company from his dad and fails faster to make a success of himself with an anti-intellectual approach. “I can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking my head up a bull’s ass,” Tommy Boy says, “but I’d rather take a butcher’s word for it.’

Huntsman’s lack of sophistication is celebrated in the WSJ, where columnist Swaim crows, “My hunch is that Mr. Huntsman’s lack of university degree enables him to say things his more credentialed peers can’t.” 

Here’s how that line of homespun logic supposedly evolved in Huntsman. “It wasn’t a sudden “Aha” moment, he says, but he began to think about other dire predictions that had people panicked not long ago. “In the 70s we were going into an ice age. Then we went to acid rain––in six or seven years that was going to destroy all the oak trees and pine trees, and New England would be this deforested area. Then the ozone was going to disappear. And then we got to global warming, and we were all going to fry to death.” 

With this blanket of statements, Huntsman hopes to cover up the fact that it was actions taken by the government that prevented the possible environmental disasters he mentions. Quick action in passing the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon delivered corrective measures to counteract industrial pollution poisoning the air and water in the United States of America. 

We deserve to ask whether Huntsman is either unwilling or incapable of connecting the dots between environmental activism and a healthier world. Instead, he resorts to a reminiscence about a boyhood in California where air pollution was thick yet somehow miraculously disappeared. “I grew up in Los Angeles,” he relates. “I went back many years later, and I could see the San Gabriel Mountains from the home I grew up in. You start thinking. In the early 1970s, I lived in Washington, D.C. The Potomac River stunk; it was disgusting. Now the air is cleaner, the rivers are cleaner.” 

When people refuse to reconcile one reality with another, it is called cognitive dissonance, “the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes.” Peter Huntsman demonstrates the massive levels of cognitive dissonance at work in far too many corporate leaders in the United States and beyond. This is particularly true when it comes to climate change denial. “Mr. Huntsman first began to entertain doubts about climate orthodoxy in the years after he saw Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” His story was so well laid out, so precise,” Mr. Huntsman says. “At certain times certain events would happen, certain measurements would be reached.” They didn’t and weren’t.” 

Picking on Al Gore is code language for climate change denial. And if Peter Huntsman is correct, it is also a favorite deflection tactic of selfishly motivated CEOs fearful for their jobs. Huntsman admits this claim openly. “Most CEOs I work with are so preoccupied doing their jobs. They’re a few years away from retirement; they’ve got two or three years left to go, and they don’t want to go out and cause a big ruckus that might get them fired, risk their pensions.” 

Huntsman is a CEO who by the grace of nepotism feels confident speaking on behalf of other CEOs insisting that they’re too afraid to tell the truth. At the same time, he is spouting ideologies that they’re supposed to abide no matter what reality tells them about climate change. Under Huntsman’s rules, CEOs are supposed to ignore the daily news reports of massive wildfires around the world, the chronicles of ocean acidification and climate-altered currents, extreme weather events, and growing desertification and water shortages popping up all over the globe. Huntsman is ignorant of the fact that America’s military and naval operations are all making plans to deal with the impact of climate change. Even in the face of all that information, men such as Huntsman love to play the ideology game. 

He insists that his fellow CEOs are either clueless about what’s happening, or else they’re lying about it to cover their asses, “I’m not saying that’s bad––that’s human nature. And I think if they were asked and they were put on the spot, they’d say what they honestly believe. But I don’t think most CEOs seek a forum to proudly declare it. They don’t talk about American exceptionalism, American free markets,” he says. “America’s not perfect, we have big problems––I get all that. But the more you travel around the world, you see the progress we’ve made here. No place has come remotely close to what we’ve done in this country, and it seems like people almost want to avoid talking about that.” 

This is another layer of cognitive dissonance on Huntsman’s part. Trade imbalances and the national debt both grew under corporate America’s pet project, ex-President Donald Trump. As reported on Politico.com, “The combined U.S. goods and services trade deficit increased to $679 billion in 2020, compared to $481 billion in 2016, the year before Trump took office. The trade deficit in goods alone hit $916 billion, a record high and an increase of about 21 percent from 2016.” Trump’s tariff wars with China did not force that country to play more fairly. Instead, they cost American farmers billions in lost markets, resulting in American taxpayers paying for farm aid (essentially bribes) to keep mostly large agricultural enterprises afloat. Hundreds of family farmers were driven out of business, while Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue showed no mercy in his statements about small farms. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2019 reported, “Earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visited a dairy expo in Wisconsin, where farmers are hurting badly. When asked about the future of the dairy business, Perdue said, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”

It is perhaps no surprise that Perdue ran to the defense of large farming operations that also happen to be some of the bigger producers of methane and carbon on the planet. As reported on AGreenWorld.com, “The pollution risks from industrial farming systems are not limited to surface and groundwater. The storage of waste effluent in open lagoons, and its frequent spreading on nearby fields, can result in significant air emissions, including toxic gases and particulate dust. Exposed to the elements, the waste lagoons emit toxic gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, as well as methane and nitrous oxide—key greenhouse gases. A report from the U.S. National Research Council (USNRC), for example, states that U.S. intensive agriculture is the nation’s largest contributor of the important greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide and methane.”

Examples such as these conflict with Huntsman’s claims that the United States is superior in its approach to industry and agriculture compared to other parts of the world. That narrative is convenient to his claims that climate change doesn’t require legislation to fix. Instead, he seems to think that these problems fix themselves through innovations that magically crop up through industrial inspiration. “His perplexity over why we don’t “celebrate” the U.S. economy’s capacity to counter whatever threat we face from global warming raises precisely the question I came to Texas to answer,” the columnist Swaim notes in the article. “Surely corporate leaders aren’t stupid…” 

Perhaps CEOs are not stupid in the sense that they are dumb people. But stupidity takes on many forms in this world. One of the primary definitions is “behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment.” Yet he persists. “Do they all fail to understand the basic point that taxing and regulating the American economy into some arbitrary compliance with climate goals is a fast way to kill innovation and ensure we remain reliant on carbon-based energy for a long time to come?” 

Huntsman attempts an answer to that question. “Most of them, the ones who graduated from the STEMS yes, I think they understand.” 

“Why don’t they say so?” Swaim pleads. He replies: “I think there’s such a vociferous branding cancellation attack that if you don’t believe this orthodoxy–– “He interrupts himself to ensure I understand that he isn’t “saying we ought to be emitting endless amounts of CO2. This company is in the business of reducing emissions more than perhaps anyone else.” 

Perhaps that’s a sign of progress from Peter Huntsman. Now if he’d just grasp the fact that environmental regulation is a driver of massive innovation in the United States and around the world, he’ll have learned something. There are thousands of examples of government research funding and fueling private innovation. Despite what Ronald Reagan once said, government is not the problem. We can see the benefits of governmental research and innovation at facilities such as Fermi National Accelerator and Argonne Laboratories, both of which drive practical progress and solutions all the time. As for market success, we need only point to the revolution of LED light bulbs driven by proposed bans on incandescent lights. LEDs quickly evolved from unaffordable clunky experiments to today’s diverse selection of energy-saving products. That change is saving billions in energy costs and long-term capital lighting investment across every industry and municipality in the nation. All because the government said, “Let’s fix this.” 

Clean energy development is an admittedly messy process, yet innovations in the energy grid to handle surges from solar and wind power, and industrial development of fuses that manage and protect energy surges are a leapfrog process. Governments are involved in that evolution as well, with investment and incentives in green energy infrastructure closing innovation gaps just like those seen in the LED industry. That’s surely something a CEO such as Huntsman can grasp unless he’s too ideologically stubborn to admit that even men of his corporate stature don’t know everything. 

The truth is right in front of him if he’s willing to look at it honestly. As we’ve seen throughout history, people either wise up or continue down a path of willing stupidity. And who says that CEOs are the best source of perspective in the first place? The turnover rate among America’s CEOs is high, often nearing 20% with few staying in place for more than five years.  Yet in many cases, America’s CEOs, despite Huntsman’s perspectives on the topic, are indeed wising up and re-tooling their companies for long-term sustainability. That’s a conservative value if you think about it. Even Huntsman’s company is doing that. He’s just too anti-intellectual and dogmatic to admit the fact that his company is doing what it should to be socially responsible. The days of “privatize the profits, socialize the costs” may indeed be over. 

Tellingly, the article concludes with a dog-whistle nod to Huntsman’s “other” conservative credentials. “Mr. Huntsman is articulate, accomplished, and has a populous and beautiful family. His father was staff secretary for President Nixon; his brother served in elective and appointive office.” This snippet of biography tells us Huntsman’s philosophies are likely driven by his religious beliefs. He is Mormon, if you look it up, and his eight kids are a testament to the worldview of “be fruitful and multiply.” Yet you’ll notice that the article doesn’t specify him as a “Christian” as that might well offend the evangelical crowd and raise suspicions as the candidacy of Mitt Romney once did. Instead, the blessings of the corporate patriarchy are enough “coverage” for Huntsman to pass through the security check of the Wall Street Brotherhood.