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Keeping you in-the-know on environmental, social and governance developments

I hadn’t expected to use the funny horse picture again in my blogs – well, at least not anytime soon. But I should know that things change fast in the ESG space.

Dilbert continued its ESG thread with a couple more strips here and here but ended up facing some real backlash because of it. Based on this tweet from Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams, a number of newspapers are censoring the strip as a result of the satire:

“Just learned some of the bigger newspaper groups (that own multiple papers) are censoring Dilbert this week over the ESG comics. I’ll publish those comics on social media when the series is complete.”

Clearly, Adams – whose stated goal is to ”destroy ESG” – has plans to continue his take on this subject. And now he may have even more fodder for that.

A Rock & A Hard Place

BlackRock – who recently responded to accusations from 19 state Attorneys General that the firm doesn’t support fossil fuels enough – is now being accused by the City of New York Comptroller Brad Lander of supporting fossil fuels too much.

“I am writing to you in my capacity as the Comptroller of the City of New York to express my growing concern that BlackRock is backtracking on its climate commitments, to the detriment of its portfolio, New York City’s pension funds, and our planet. In particular, BlackRock’s current approach to investment and corporate engagement is at odds with its stated commitment to net zero emissions…

The Attorneys General from Arizona, Nebraska, Kentucky, and 16 other states who wrote to BlackRock on August 4, 2022, are waging a war of political distraction in the hopes of protecting the fossil fuel interests that have captured their states. We recognize the absurdity of Texas Comptroller Hegar’s recent directive to boycott BlackRock, which caters to short-sighted oil and gas interests, irresponsibly jeopardizes the returns of Texas pension funds, and potentially raises costs for Texas taxpayers. But political theater cannot and must not guide fiduciary actions…

… in its September 6 response to the attorneys general, BlackRock now abdicates responsibility for driving net zero alignment in its own portfolio by saying that it does not ask companies to set specific emissions targets, and that its participation in NZAMI does not mean BlackRock is setting or meeting any net zero targets. BlackRock even goes so far as to tout its continued investment in fossil fuels—without specific net zero targets or commitments or any plan for a phased transition away from the very investments that increase carbon emissions—as somehow a necessary part of a transition to a green economy. A net zero goal that is not backed by a firm commitment to follow through is at odds with the path our economy must take to limit global temperature rise below 1.5°, or even 2.0°C.

The fundamental contradiction between BlackRock’s statements and actions is alarming. BlackRock cannot simultaneously declare that climate risk is a systemic financial risk and argue that BlackRock has no role in mitigating the risks that climate change poses to its investments by supporting decarbonization in the real economy. As a fiduciary cognizant of the risks of inaction, BlackRock must demonstrate a plan to use its position as the world’s largest asset manager, with all the corporate governance responsibilities that go along with that position, to move its portfolio companies to get their businesses in line with a net zero economy.”

Lander then asked that the company

“… address the contradictions between your climate commitments and your investment actions by taking the following steps:

1. Publish an implementation plan that makes clear BlackRock’s commitment to achieving net zero across its entire portfolio, with concrete steps that detail how it intends to reach science-based targets on a specific timeframe, and clear mechanisms to regularly report on Scopes 1, 2, and 3 emissions for all assets in BlackRock’s portfolio…

2. Provide a detailed approach to keeping fossil fuel reserves in the ground and phasing out high-emitting assets…

3. Support climate action through transparent corporate engagement that requires disclosure of climate-related lobbying, works to end lending and insurance for new fossil fuel supply projects, and pushes for science-based targets at portfolio companies.”

At risk for BlackRock in navigating this tightrope is its management of trillions of pension fund dollars under management for various states and institutions. At risk for companies that are part of BlackRock portfolios is a clear indication on how the asset manager will come down on topics like climate-related lobbying and details around net-zero transitions.

What is clear, though, is that this political jockeying is not going to end anytime soon, and that it will continue to be exhausting. In the meantime, companies should continue to establish ESG strategies that work for their business, collect the relevant data to track progress, and ensure that any disclosures are accurate and commitments are achievable.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile