HSBC bank suspends executive for climate change refusal

The HSBC UK logo on a shop window

Last week, some of the world’s largest financial institutions came together to talk about ethics and socially responsible investing at the Financial Times. Moral Money Summit. And it went well, no notes. Guys, the banks will fix this. The free market will solve climate change.

J.K.

In a clear shooter/hunter scenario, HSCB’s global head of responsible investments, Stuart Kirk, gave a 15 minute presentation titled “Why Investors Don’t Need to Worry About Climate Risk” at the summit. A few days later, the bank would have suspended Kirk, according to the Financial Times.

Kirk’s speech was full of (misguided, misinformed) zingers. Like, for example, when he said, “25 years in the finance industry, there’s still some weirdo talking to me about the end of the world,” while comparing concerns about climate change to pre-year 2000 panic. And, “who cares if Miami is six meters under water in a hundred years?” Amsterdam has been six meters under water for ages and it really is a beautiful place.

[Note: Amsterdam and much of the Netherlands does lie below sea level, but the country has an intricate network of dikes, pumps, and other infrastructure to help prevent flooding that they developed over centuries. Yet, even with all of that investment, climate change and sea level rise still pose a massive threat to the Netherlands. Also, obviously, the geography of Miami is very different from that of Northern Europe. For one, Amsterdam isn’t particularly hurricane prone.]

The bank manager also made sweeping and false claims about people’s lives little impacted by climate changeand how “we can solve this problem through adaptation [alone].” (Literally, no we can’t.)

In response to request for comment, HSBC neither confirmed nor reversed Kirk’s suspension. “We don’t comment on the situation of individual employees,” bank spokesman Rob Sherman told Gizmodo in an email.

But Sherman directed me to a Saturday LinkedIn Post by HSBC CEO Noel Quinn. “I strongly disagree with what was said at the FT Moral Money Summit last week. They are inconsistent with HSBC strategy and do not reflect the views of senior management,” Quinn wrote in the weekend post. “HSBC is absolutely committed to a net zero future,” he continued.

Style over substance

HSBC helped sponsor the Moral Money conference and was listed as a strategic partner on the event’s website. The bank is clearly concerned about their image, in terms of the environment, if not their impact. So, it’s a little confusing why Kirk would choose to give a speech like the one he did. Even more confusing is why HSBC would have turned it green, which they did, according to FT. The title of Kirk’s presentation was on the website long before the event.

The bank has has already been charged of greenwashing by the Advertising Standards Authority, a UK watchdog. Preliminary reports concluded that HSBC was misleading its customers by promoting “green initiatives” in advertisements, while failing to include information about its own ties to major corporations and greenhouse gas emitters.

For example, HSBC is one of five banks that recently funded extraction of crude oil in the Amazon rainforest. And, while touting “net zero” goals, has abandoned money in new coal-fired power plants. (Fun fact: HSBC was a UN sponsor 2021 climate conference, COP26.)

The honest truth

Infuriating as it is to watch a bank executive dismiss catastrophic climate change predictions as “unsubstantiated, acute, partisan, selfish” and “ALWAYS wrong,” as Kirk did in the headline penned by a slide, at least it was an honest representation of the bank’s apparent opinions – reflecting their actual inaction instead of their public platitudes. For a brilliant 15-minute conversation, the facade of HSBC had fallen.

At the start of his presentation, Kirk made one thing clear: “I have a very financial and investment view of [responsible investing],” he said. Which is:

1) A funny and wrong thing to say, because duh— he works in a bank
2) A pure and simple dismissal half of the guy’s job title
3) A real and candid explanation of the priorities of the financial institutions.

Kirk/HSBC’s emphasis is on “investment” not “responsibility”. Although he was massively wrong about the mechanics of climate change, from an investment perspective, much of what Kirk said could very well be true.

“The more we are doomed, the higher prices go,” he said, inadvertently pointing out that what’s bad for people can often be good for markets (i.e. disaster capitalism). He also pointed out that the average loan term for HSBC is six years. “What’s happening to the planet in year seven actually has nothing to do with our loan portfolio,” he said.

“I’m told to stop by time and time again to watch something that’s going to happen 20 or 30 years from now,” Kirk lamented, as if worrying about the future was an absurdity rather than a necessity.

Which, of course, is a big part of the problem. The banks have stuck on consider their impacts on climate change for decades, as their financial results remain unchanged. As long as the money is flowing, HSBC doesn’t have to worry about it.

But then, if we’re not supposed to care about that in 20 or 30 years, then why have a retirement fund? Why not live in the moment? Why try to make money? Why invest?

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