Can Wall Street’s Heaviest Hitter Step Up to the Plate on Climate Change? – The New Yorker
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The year is coming to an end, and all eyes are trained on D.C., as Joe Biden prepares to helm a venerable enterprise with a four-trillion-dollar budget. On the climate front, Biden’s team, which he announced last week, with Gina McCarthy, Deb Haaland, Jennifer Granholm, and John Kerry at the forefront, seems highly credible—a hundred-and-eighty-degree shift from the coterie of coal lobbyists and oil-industry operatives that have decorated the current Administration. Biden’s group has a real shot at getting Washington squarely in the global-warming fight. But, although that federal effort will doubtless occupy much of our attention in the year ahead, let’s close out 2020 by examining the de-facto government based on Wall Street. Its obvious head is BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, which is—just for purposes of scale—an eight-trillion-dollar enterprise, and the largest shareholder in almost every company that matters to the future of the Earth. BlackRock is a monetary heavy hitter.
To continue the baseball analogy, BlackRock finally stepped up to the climate plate this year. Larry Fink, the C.E.O., focussed his annual letter to investors on global warming, promising that henceforth sustainability would be at the heart of investment decisions. For that stand, Fink was recently named the first Institutional Investor of the Year—by Institutional Investor magazine. This encomium seems a little like awarding the season’s M.V.P. during spring training, simply because an intrepid player announces his plan to bat .400. In point of fact, BlackRock mostly whiffed on climate last year: the activist group Majority Action reports that, during proxy season, when BlackRock’s votes would have made a real difference, the firm voted to elect ninety-nine per cent of the directors proposed for boards at energy companies and utilities, even if the companies had made no serious climate commitments. The group also highlights that BlackRock supported just three of thirty-six “climate-critical resolutions” put to shareholders at S. & P. 500 companies—resolutions that might have curbed JPMorgan Chase’s lending to the fossil-fuel industry, or Duke Energy’s lobbying efforts. In half these cases, if BlackRock and its smaller competitor Vanguard had voted with the planet in mind, the resolutions would have passed. Fink didn’t bat .400, in other words—he batted below .100.
But winter is for the hot-stove league, the season when we dream of the glories ahead, and so BlackRock is promising to actually do some damage this year. Earlier this month, the company said that supporting investor resolutions will play an “increasingly important role in our stewardship efforts around sustainability.” Sandy Boss, the firm’s newly named head of investment stewardship, explained that, traditionally, BlackRock has given companies the “benefit of the doubt” regarding steps to slow global warming but there is a “sense of urgency now.” (Another new report from Majority Action, this one in collaboration with the Service Employees International Union, shows that BlackRock has been similarly laggard on issues of racial justice.) Some of that urgency doubtless comes from the new record global temperature that 2020 seems all but certain to set—but it surely also reflects the concerted campaigns by activists to force the investment giant to change its ways. BlackRock’s Big Problem, a network of organizations at the forefront of that effort, released a guardedly positive statement in response to Boss’s pledges, saying, “We are optimistic that this could potentially be the start of a much more productive and ambitious engagement strategy that results in real-world impacts—but it all depends on what BlackRock does next.”
Some of those next steps may be spurred by Washington, where BlackRock alums are populating the incoming Administration. Environmental groups (including, full disclosure, 350.org, which I helped found) issued a forthright and useful challenge last week to BlackRock’s former director of sustainable investing, Brian Deese, who will be Biden’s chief economic aide. It called on Deese to make “regulation of the financial industry’s contributions to the climate crisis and the related impacts on frontline communities a top priority for your role in the Biden Administration—even if it goes against the interests of your former employer.” (Further full disclosure—thanks to my occasional occupation as a Methodist Sunday-school teacher, I’ve known Deese and his wife for decades.) Indeed, there’s much that the Fed, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other regulators can do to spur the clean-energy revolution.
But the groups in this fight also promise to keep a close eye on Wall Street: it’s not just BlackRock’s votes at shareholder meetings that count but, even more, the firm’s continued inclusion of fossil-fuel companies in the index funds where its passive-investment clients park their money. That’s the real ballgame: the world’s largest collection of money continues to behave as if the corporations rapidly destroying the planet are normal players. It’s time to scratch Exxon and their ilk from the lineup. An alternative—that will get more attention if these companies insist on playing the game by the old rules—is to break up the Yankees, I mean, BlackRock.
Passing the Mic
Renée Lertzman is a psychologist who, for many years, has been studying the stress that comes from dealing with the fear, and the effects, of climate change. Recently, she founded Project InsideOut, a Web site that serves as a “hub to bring more emotional intelligence into our climate activism.” Among other things, it lets you explore the “three As—anxiety, ambivalence, and aspiration.”
We’re living through a year of almost unimaginable stress and anxiety, against a backdrop of ongoing climate chaos. Are humans really equipped to deal with conditions like this? What should we be telling ourselves right about now?
Humans are designed for adapting and responding to unimaginable conditions with creativity, ingenuity, tenacity, and imagination. That said, the very conditions of stress, anxiety, and existential threats can make it very hard to access these capacities, because we also tend to shut down, tune out, flee, and numb when we feel overwhelmed or powerless. This is the paradox of the moment. We should be telling ourselves right now that, if we are feeling anxious and stressed, it’s normal, and that the most powerful thing we can do is to talk openly and honestly with others about our experiences, what we love and care about. And what we can do, together, to heal, repair and create new conditions.
Explain what’s happening at Project InsideOut. What would it look like to have a more “emotionally intelligent” climate movement?
Project InsideOut was created to help those working on climate change and ecological threats take a new, more inclusive approach to engaging people on these existential threats. It is about meeting our crises with as much compassion and “attunement” as possible. This highly practical, applied approach is grounded in evidence-based research and best practices in emotional intelligence, trauma studies, social sciences, public-health sectors, and interpersonal neurobiology. A more “emotionally intelligent” climate movement would look like training people to have better conversations, building bridges, being humble, having curiosity about the “other side,” asking questions, holding space for people to have their own responses and reactions, and showing up as guides and conveners of conversations—not as educators, cheerleaders, or righteous moralizers, which tends to shut people down. An emotionally intelligent approach to climate leadership is one that openly acknowledges the complexity, the nuance, the pain—and then says, “You are needed, the time is now, and let’s get on with it, together.”
A new study shows that ninety-seven per cent of young people are concerned about bringing a baby into a world as damaged as ours. How do we go on with normal life passages even amid this kind of chaos?
It’s incredibly vital that we acknowledge the radical and profound moment we are living through, openly and socially. We need to be talking about these choices—how we are wrestling with life passages and making meaning of what it is to be human today. And this can mean, for some, a choice to not bring new life into this world right now. I think what we need to be figuring out right now is how we can create a way of living that continues to celebrate what it is to be human in this unfathomable world, full of intricate mysteries, tragedies, frailty, and extremes. A way of living that affirms that we are part of this web, and that, as long as we are breathing and here, we have a role to play, and are all needed right now to be co-creating our new story. A human story that is about regenerative practice, love, compassion, kindness.
This is my last chance before Christmas to urge you to give someone a gift subscription to The New Yorker. One reason is that the magazine’s financial health underwrites this free newsletter, which has a lot of work to do in the year ahead, as climate emerges as the organizing principle of the new Administration. But a better reason is that it’s the best English-language magazine there is, and, indeed, ever was. Its writers are perceptive, engaged, and stunningly good at their craft; the editors and fact checkers carry on a tradition of care and attention to detail that is at odds with common practice across much of the infosphere. But all that earnest hard work can happen only because enough readers have chosen to be part of this community. You really should join in. Thank you, and happy holidays.
Speaking of remarkable writing and reporting, the data journalists at the Times, which has featured superlative climate coverage in 2020, produced a profile last week of two children in New Delhi. Both are dealing with the city’s hideous air pollution, but one, a middle-class girl, has air purifiers at home and attends a school that keeps her exposure somewhat limited; the other, a boy who lives in a hut and goes to an open-air school under a highway overpass, essentially never exits the cloud of smoke. This reporting could—and should—be repeated in cities around the world, constantly reminding us that there’s no way to separate environmentalism from larger questions of justice.