In an exclusive interview, Global Witness CEO Mike Davis discusses what he sees as the role of corporate power in driving the climate crisis, the importance of government action, and argues that we cannot let the necessary drive for a more rapid energy transition become an excuse for repeating past mistakes on human rights, and the social license to operate.
Global Witness is a leading campaigning NGO with a strong focus on environmental and human rights issues in the natural resource sector.
Please note that the views expressed in this interview are Mike’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Critical Resource.
The misuse of corporate influence is the ‘elephant in the corridors of power’
“The misuse of corporate power and money has not featured prominently in the climate debate. However, it is driving us further along a potentially destructive path, especially as there are very powerful lobby groups attempting to hold up critical action on climate change. Understanding this issue is critical to explaining why the actions of governments and the international community at large have been so timid and slow thus far. Connected to this, we still have large sums of (public and private) money being invested into projects that go against the logic of the situation we are facing. The EU, for instance, allocated around 4 billion euros in subsidies to gas infrastructure projects. Almost 90% of these subsidies went to projects that involved and benefited members of an industry lobby group that had a formalised seat at the table in the decision-making process for the subsidies. This demonstrates how power is used to access public money, with private gain trumping public interest.
This nexus of corporate power, the power of financiers and governments is an area Global Witness is now trying to address. The blend is different in different parts of the world and different aspects of the debate. Nevertheless, there is this somewhat neglected underbelly to the climate debate around what happens when powerful interests are able to influence the policy-making processes that are needed to get us out of this crisis. This is the elephant in the room – or the elephant in the corridors of power.”
Ultimately, regulation is critical to getting us out of the current crisis
“Voluntary actions from companies are a useful part of the process in terms of starting the debate, and can play a critical role in developing norms that lead to legislation. This was the case with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the OECD’s supply chain due diligence framework. But from a pragmatic perspective, and based on previous experience, regulation is needed.
In relation to climate change, this regulation is needed even more urgently. Given the extent of this crisis, we don’t have the time for a voluntary, multi-stakeholder, multi-year approach that gives all companies time to get on the same page. Regulation will also be key to protecting those companies that are making a good faith effort to respond to the situation. It levels the playing field and makes it easier for companies leading on climate action to sustain their momentum and remain profitable. Ultimately, we need governments to get with the programme and make some bold moves this year.”
Awareness is growing, tolerance is declining and a sea change is coming
“Activism has grown for a variety of reasons. The pandemic has meant that people have spent more time at home and online – which, combined with the globalisation of information, has meant they are learning more. This means it is harder for anyone, be that companies or some other kind of entity, to shy away from the impacts they have on a global level.
Growing awareness and greater information flow is also leading to less tolerance and patience for instances in which notionally democratic governments are visibly tied up with corporate interests. There is a sea change coming and I am hopeful that enough companies with influence will recognise this, take the long view and start looking after the planet – and frankly their shareholders too – by being part of this change. You don’t want to be the company that is being dragged kicking and screaming into change.”
The human rights debate is coming further into focus
“There is a growing recognition of the disturbingly tight relationship between the decisions made by companies and creditors, and the situation for people on the ground – particularly those affected by land use or natural resource ventures. Global Witness has investigated multiple attacks on and murders of environmental defenders over the past decade. They are not a series of isolated cases – but reflect a global phenomenon. Many of these attacks also occur in the context of predatory activities by companies engaged in natural resources, agribusiness and logging. Companies need to get to grips with this.
The evidence base is mounting and people are becoming more aware of the relationship between the products they buy and human rights abuses. We can also see the mood changing in the minds of legislators, with discussions around mandatory human rights due diligence gaining pace. Lawmakers are starting to realise that addressing these issues on a sector-by-sector basis is not enough. We need a holistic response to these issues. Although voluntary initiatives have made some progress, they are not addressing the wider issues. One of the most fundamental things that companies need to do – and their financiers should insist on – is apply an engagement approach based on Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).”
Different sectors have different impacts – but big tech is a growing area of concern
“Big tech poses a new challenge. It is a sector that wields enormous influence and is pervasive in all of our lives, but one where a clear standard of good behavior is yet to develop. We have started looking into the relationship between tech companies and the toxification of public debate around a whole range of issues, including elections and climate change. In Myanmar for instance, the misuse of social media has taken on a particularly heinous form, such as the use of Facebook as a platform to disseminate propaganda and enable the targeting of certain groups. Big tech will continue to have a significant role in ensuring there is genuine democracy, open civic space and preserving the ability to have free open debates about the biggest issues of the day.”
The mistakes of the past should not be repeated in the name of the energy transition
“Human rights and corruption issues should not be sidelined in the name of climate change and the energy transition. Crucially, we must ensure that the mistakes of the recent past are not repeated in the rush to get the metals that are required for climate-friendly clean tech. Take the south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for instance, there are mines that have massive global significance in terms of the supply of cobalt, and yet they are attracting controversy because of child labour and weak supply chain controls, among other things.
There is a big risk that history will repeat itself in the form of hidden deals, human rights abuses and child/forced labour in an effort to do the ‘right thing’ and mine the ‘right materials’. This is something that companies will need to keep a very careful eye on. Companies cannot hide behind the simple argument that they’re doing the right thing because they’re mining clean tech-critical minerals. There are some lessons that there is no excuse for not learning from the past couple of decades.”
Mike Davis has been CEO of Global Witness since 2020, having previously served as Director of Campaigns, Planning and Evaluation. Mike has overseen the development of a new Global Witness strategy, which has a strong emphasis on the abuses of power driving the climate crisis.