ESG Heresy Triggers Shock & Horror... And About Time!

 Authored by Bill Blain via,

“Life always finds a way…”

HSBC is being pilloried for comments made by its’ ESG head, but what he said is worthy of consideration. Overly emotional ESG is a distortion that may be as dangerous as climate change denial.

ESG Heresy Triggers Shock & Horror... And About Time!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Stuart King, the “global head of responsible investing” at HSBC, is that’s he a bloke with a grey beard… Kirk and his ilk are a critically endangered species in The City these days.. and about to become even more so after his inflammatory comments to an FT conference last week.…

Kirk is was an HSBC executive until being suspended for daring to suggest the whole ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) debate has become a tad over-emotional and vulnerable to distortion and hyperbole. Naturally, the ESG industry has kicked into high gear moral indignation, shocked and horrified at his comments. I will be surprised if he isn’t sued for the emotional hurt, pain, distress and damage he’s inflicted on ESG professionals.

Yet, Kirk is a smart guy – he’s the former editor of the FT’s Lex column and had responsibility at HSCB for ESG and new green product development.

Let me stress: I wasn’t there but I have watched his speech on the FT website. Its actually very interesting, thought-provoking, and well worth a listen no matter how much you might disagree with what you’ve read in the press about it.

It will make you think – and its about time we did more of that when it comes to preparing for the consequences of climate change.

Most of Kirk’s speech was pushing against overly-emotional doom-mongers, like a lady from Deloitte called Sharon. Kirk noted that when she told the audience climate change meant everyone in the room was dead,  most didn’t even look up from their mobile phones. He also criticised some chap called Mark, a former central banker who is making a fairly good living jetting round the world to spread climate hyperbole. Kirk got a decent clap at the end of his 15 minute pre-coffee conference slot.

For some reason I can’t quite fathom, I tend not to get invited to ESG and sustainability conferences.  It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I say I absolutely agree with the science of global warming, or environmental damage must be addressed, but apparently the BBC has me down as a climate change denier because I suggested wind-farms ain’t all they are presented to be when it comes to reliability and power to the grid.

The quotes that have appeared on Kirk’s slot have been selective and contextualised. The media has been delighted by the shocked hysterical comments from the ESG high church of woke. Having watched Kirk on the Video, I doubt he will do the usual banker-caught-with-finger-in-till thing by stepping up later today, making a cringe-worthy apology for his comments.. and resigning in shame. He will, of course, be sacked… for putting his employer at risk by daring to question the hyperbole around ESG.

Naturally, HSBC’s leadership cadre has reacted with horror and shock – even though the speech was approved 2 months ago and has been sitting (unread?) on the company website..

Although Kirk's comments have proved remarkably ill-judged in terms of his career longevity.. they are worth thinking about…  The most hyped quote is “who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years time”, before he explained Amsterdam copes rather well with being below sea-level. He argued that solutions will be found because mankind adapts.  He then talked about “nut-jobs telling me about the end of the world.”

And that’s a critical thing. Mankind is inventive and we adapt. We cope. Coping with change is why we thrive. He was quite scathing about climate doomsters and those who have made climate change the core of lucrative careers in finance. Former BoE governor Mark Carney was quoted in a slide entitled “Unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings as ALWAYS wrong.” Spot on, or as I say: “things are never as bad as you fear, but seldom as good as you hope.”

Kirk’s focus was on how we adapt. He said:

One of the tragedies of this whole debate, which we obsess about at HSBC, is that we spend way too much on mitigation and financing and not enough on adaption financing.” 

Spot on. Agree with himI have written too many times in the Morning Porridge about the lack of joined up thinking; like trying to make wind farms without steel (which requires metallurgical coal), or how tidal is a much more reliable, but more expensive solution than wind.

But, what was Kirk’s crime..?

He has caused a massive problem for his employer. HSBC might make big profits and have plenty of capital, but its desperately short of banking credibility. The fact it’s being taken to the UK advertising authority for Greenwashing is revealing. Analysts have questioned its ESG culture, governance, ambition and stewardship in the wake of Kirk’s comments. Others have slammed its “fiduciary duty towards clients” if its investing in non ESG projects without a primary concern for saving them from climate change.

Blah, blah, blah..

For years I’ve been warning about ESG distortions. I absolutely believe in mitigating carbon emissions and addressing climate change – but in a clear, transparent, considered and well-thought out way. The path to transiting the global economy from Fossil Fuels to clean renewables needs to be planned and considered – not emotional.

Kirk was talking about exactly the same thing. There is a substantial danger that ESG is over-emotional. That is causing distortion. We need to focus on not only addressing climate change, but also keeping the global economy on track. The key priorities today should be market risks as stocks head into bear territory, and the looming stagflationary collapse that is coming on the back of consumer cost of living crisis.

Last week I wrote about how dismal Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey’s appearance in Parliament was. He was acting like the institutionalised insider he is – almost joshing with this fellow members of the establishment about the consequences of stagnation on the economy and the coming food apocalypse.

Around the Financial Markets and the City of London, senior financial players are concerned about Bailey’s tone, and wonder who is advising him on recession, inflation and economic pain.

Yet, its no secret The Bank’s best and brightest economists and thinkers are not working on how to boost the economy, the coming consumer and housing meltdown, but have all been put in purdah to consider “climate change”.

Climate change is real, and it could be addressed by the markets to innovate, build and launch solutions… but what we have today is hysterical ESG distortions – which are as much responsible for the West’s energy crisis as Putin!

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