The Guardian reported yesterday that “heads of some of Britain’s biggest companies are meeting Tony Blair today to demand tougher targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.”

What’s this? Industry demanding that government set tougher targets? Has the metric system created a different economic system where business likes regulation?

The folks in this coalition (including Shell, Vodafone, Tesco, and Standard Chartered Bank) are no slackers when it comes to corporate behavior, but their position is that “stronger government action would encourage industry to develop the technology needed to tackle climate change, as well as giving a lead to countries in the developing world.” (And no doubt create new opportunities for the companies.)

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These companies have the same shareholder interests and strong profit motives that corporations over here have, so what’s the difference? The public rhetoric over here treats corporations as immutable economic forces. The economic model is so deeply ingrained that many actually believe it’s in our best interests to allow corporations to do what they want. Government regulations can only burden growth and by extension our well-being.

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But that’s a smokescreen. In reality there is a more fluid relationship between business and government. There are countless ways business wants regulation, for example to stabilize markets, maintain infrastructure, etc. The true relationship between government and business is complicated, nuanced. In this country we have a tendency to be so black and white, to polarize our dialogue so much, that we can’t appreciate that complexity and give each side a little more slack in how they approach each other.

The article describe the balancing act regarding emissions regulations nicely:

Last year the group said there was a “catch 22” situation where governments were refraining from new policies to cut emissions because they feared business resistance. At the same time, companies were finding it difficult to invest in low-carbon technology because there were no long-term climate policies.

That seems to be particularly clear-headed assessment of our situation, the kind of honesty you don’t hear too much over here. What business wants is predictability, which is not the same thing as freedom from regulation. At times, particularly when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world, business may want more regulation to give them solid ground to make strategic decisions.

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When you have a more sane discussion of the role of regulation in business and society, you can have corporations taking more proactive stances towards society as a whole:

One member of today’s delegation, James Smith, chairman of Shell UK, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think climate change is a challenge that we all have to step up to and that requires significant measures deploying the technologies that are going to make a difference. We believe that the technological solutions are within our grasp, although they are at various stages of their development. What we need to do is muster the common will to put these solutions in place.”

Please, can we talk about climate change like this?