Financialization impedes climate change mitigation: Evidence from the early American solar industry

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Science Advances  29 Mar 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 3, e1601861
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601861

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The article investigates how financialization impedes climate change mitigation by examining its effects on the early history of one low-carbon industry, solar photovoltaics in the United States. The industry grew rapidly in the 1970s, as large financial conglomerates acquired independent firms. While providing needed financial support, conglomerates changed the focus from existing markets in consumer applications toward a future utility market that never materialized. Concentration of the industry also left it vulnerable to the corporate restructuring of the 1980s, when the conglomerates were dismantled and solar divisions were pared back or sold off to foreign firms. Both the move toward conglomeration, when corporations became managed as stock portfolios, and its subsequent reversal were the result of increased financial dominance over corporate governance. The American case is contrasted with the more successful case of Japan, where these changes to corporate governance did not occur. Insulated from shareholder pressure and financial turbulence, Japanese photovoltaics manufacturers continued to expand investment throughout the 1980s when their American rivals were cutting back. The study is informed by Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction and Hyman Minsky’s theory of financialization, along with economic sociology. By highlighting the tenuous and conflicting relation between finance and production that shaped the early history of the photovoltaics industry, the article raises doubts about the prevailing approach to mitigate climate change through carbon pricing. Given the uncertainty of innovation and the ease of speculation, it will do little to spur low-carbon technology development without financial structures supporting patient capital.

  • climate change
  • financialization
  • carbon pricing
  • economic sociology
  • Schumpeter
  • Minsky
  • industrial organization
  • innovation
  • technological change

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