Peter Huntsman Is a CEO Who Doesn’t Equivocate About Climate
Why do so many corporate leaders accept the false premises of global warming catastrophism?
The Woodlands, Texas
If it’s an exaggeration to say that the political left has captured corporate America, it’s not much of one. Employees of Fortune 500 companies give money to Republicans and Democrats in roughly equal measure, but corporate support for nonprofits and causes tilts overwhelmingly to the left. Major asset managers push publicly traded companies to support progressive aims on race, sex and “reproductive rights” in their internal policies. And the companies are mostly happy to celebrate every fashion of left-liberal popular culture—Black Lives Matter, transgenderism and so on.
That public companies exist primarily to make money for their shareholders is now taken to be the conservative or traditional view. 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.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the issue on which almost everybody purports to agree: climate. The average letter to shareholders contains obligatory references to the climate “crisis,” claiming the company is doing all it can to stave off doom. Products appear with labels boasting—falsely—that they were made without adding CO2 to the atmosphere. Nearly every company you’ve ever heard of includes a section on its website devoted to “sustainability” or “carbon neutrality.”
That last phrase, also known as “net zero,” refers to the goal of reducing global fossil-fuel emissions to the point at which they no longer surpass the rate at which carbon is removed from the atmosphere. The stated aim of the Biden administration is for the U.S. economy to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Many cities, states and foreign governments have made the same pledge.
The problem—whether or not you accept the premise that climate change threatens civilization—is that carbon-removal technologies are ineffective, and solar and wind power are nowhere near able to replace fossil fuel-based energy. The only way to achieve net-zero is by dramatically reducing carbon emissions, which would punish the American economy and destroy the capacity to develop technologies that might reduce the need for fossil fuels.
Almost all the governments and corporations of North America and Europe cheerfully endorse some version of the net-zero-by-2050 commitment. Even companies for which that would mean emasculation by governments—ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical—have joined the club.
Two questions seem pertinent. First, why do corporate managers and their spokesmen praise objectives they know to be impossible and, if followed in earnest, deadly to their industries? Second, will anyone in corporate America stand against this crowd?
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.
Huntsman Corp.—one of those Fortune 500 companies, with around $8 billion in annual revenue—turns hydrocarbons into usable products. It makes composite resins used in Boeing 787s, the seating and acoustic foam in U.S.-produced BMWs, and many other things. The company was founded in 1970 by Mr. Huntsman’s father, Jon Huntsman Sr. (1937-2018), whose more famous son, Jon Huntsman Jr., has served as governor of Utah and ambassador to China and Russia and sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
In July I met Peter Huntsman in his corner office, atop the company’s headquarters in The Woodlands, north of Houston. The only way to bring about the cleaner, greener, low-carbon world our educated elites claim to want, he argues, is to keep pursuing what those same elites’ policies seem designed to frustrate: innovation.
“Think about the year 1970,” Mr. Huntsman says. “That’s the year we hit a trillion-dollar GDP, and the year Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote that great song ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ A great year, right? Well today we’re emitting roughly 6,500 million metric tons of CO2. Same thing we were emitting in 1970. And look how much more electricity we’re using, and look how many more transportation and miles we’re driving. We’ve expanded the economy 30 times over, nearly, and core CO2 has stayed flat. We should be celebrating this achievement, shouldn’t we?”
Before I can answer, he reifies the point. “There’s not a single product I’m aware of in [Huntsman Corp.’s] entire portfolio of products that today consumes more energy, more raw materials to make the same product we made five years ago. Not 50 years—five years ago. Because if there’s such a product, our competition would’ve replaced it by now. That iPhone,” he says, pointing to the device with which I’m recording our conversation, “it’s going to have to be lighter and stronger, it’s going to have to have better memory, in the next five years. We’ve got to come up with the materials, the insulation, the durability, lightness and design, the capabilities.” (Huntsman Corp.’s website has a section on sustainability, too, but its content has almost exclusively to do with innovation and doesn’t flirt with net-zero rhetoric.)
Mr. Huntsman holds up a plastic water bottle: “We can make 10 of these for the amount of plastic we used in one of them a decade ago. . . . I don’t know why we don’t celebrate these accomplishments.”
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. Surely corporate leaders aren’t stupid. Do they really 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? “Most of them, the ones who’ve graduated from the STEMs, yes, I think they understand,” Mr. Huntsman says.
Then why don’t they say so? “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 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 anybody else is.” Then he offers a separate reason for the insouciance with which his counterparts in other large corporations accept the premises of climate catastrophism: “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.”
He softens it a little. “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.”
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.
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.”
None of that jibed with the real world: “I grew up in Los Angeles. I went back many years later, and I could see the San Gabriel Mountains from the home I grew up in. I don’t remember ever seeing mountains in 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.”
Mr. Huntsman owes his career to his father—“nepotism had a huge impact,” he says with a laugh—but he doesn’t quite match the son-of-a-rich-guy caricature. He dropped out of the University of Utah after two months because he is dyslexic and was bored with the course work. 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.”
My hunch is that Mr. Huntsman’s lack of university degree enables him to say things his more-credentialed peers can’t. On the subject of renewable energy, America’s cultural VIPs speak in tones of hushed reverence. He doesn’t. “I keep hearing people say we’re in an energy ‘transition’ and our trucks, airplanes, ships, homes and factories will be powered by renewable energy,” he says. “Wind and solar provide 4% of the world’s energy. Nuclear and hydro another 10%. Fossil fuels the rest. Have you heard of anybody in the green movement clamoring to build more dams or nuclear plants?” He answers for me: “No. In fact, we’re looking at tearing down dams in most states out in the West. If people truly believed climate change was existential, we’d see nuclear power plants popping up everywhere. That’s not happening.”
Last year Michael Bloomberg announced an $85 million campaign, Beyond Petrochemicals, to stymie the chemical manufacturing industry. What does Mr. Huntsman think?
“Well,” he says with a wry smile, “he’s a great customer.” I can’t help laughing.
“I never like to speak ill of a customer,” Mr. Huntsman continues. “How many private jets does he have? How many homes? I assume he uses a lot of our materials.”
He raises an excellent point. The speciousness of attacks on the hydrocarbon economy goes beyond celebrities protesting the oil industry while jetting around the globe. Hydrocarbons produce more than fuel.
“I speak from time to time in colleges,” Mr. Huntsman says. “I occasionally get students who say to me, ‘We’re boycotting your industry.’ I tell them, ‘Well, everything from your skateboard to your iPhone, to your clothes, to all those earrings, the makeup you’re wearing, everything—you are a customer. Thank you.’ They think the chemical industry is just plastic bags.”
Mr. Huntsman gestures around the office. “Everything—from the lighting to the paint to the glass, the furniture, the ink on this paper—everything in here comes from petroleum or is tempered by petroleum or powered by it. And look, I’m anxious to get beyond petroleum, but how are we going to do it? What’s the game plan? And how do we do it without screwing the bottom 80% of the world, who just try to make it day to day?”
For many Americans, one of the dispiriting facts of life is that the companies on which they rely most heavily—Amazon, Apple, Target—fund causes they find objectionable or loathsome. Mr. Huntsman and his family give lavishly to philanthropy, particularly to cancer research—the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is a massive campus—and mental health. But that’s done through private foundations.
“When the company was private, my dad used it as a vehicle to give money away,” Mr. Huntsman says. “When we went public, one of the things we talked about was the responsibility we have to make other people money, and we hoped they would give it away. But for the company to take shareholder money, to take your pension and just give that away to one of our causes? We stay away from that.”
Mr. Huntsman is articulate, accomplished, has a populous and beautiful family. His father was staff secretary for President Nixon; his brother served in elective and appointive office.
So I have to ask: Does Peter want to run? Experience has taught me not to expect a direct answer. But, again, I get one. “No,” he says. “That’s horrifying.”