In incendiary comments, a senior executive at HSBC bank has claimed that “investors should not worry about climate risk,” asking “who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years?” at an event held this week in London.
In a discussion chaired by the Financial Times and livestreamed online on May 19, Stuart Kirk, Head of Responsible Investment at HSBC Asset Management, laid out his view that while climate change is taking place, the risk to financial markets has been overstated.
In the comments, first reported by James Baxter-Derrington of Investment Week, Kirk said discussions of extreme climate impacts worldwide relied on “hyperbole,” and, referring to Miami, said “Amsterdam has been six meters underwater for ages and that is a really nice place. We will cope with it.”
He also suggested that climate change would have little bearing on HSBC’s business. “At a big bank like ours, what do people think the average loan length is?” he asked. “It is six years. What happens to the planet in year seven is actually irrelevant to our loan book. For coal, what happens in year seven is actually irrelevant.”
Kirk also criticized the former governor of the Bank of England, Canadian Mark Carney, for his climate action advocacy, with a slide bearing the words “Unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong.”
Kirk compared the climate crisis to the Y2K bug, and said that that throughout his financial career there has always been “some nutjob telling me about the end of the world.” He went on to complain that the climate and sustainability concerns of investors had created more work for him.
The comments are understood to have caused no small amount of embarrassment at HSBC headquarters. On its website, the bank claims that it is “committed to aligning the financed emissions from our portfolio of customers to net zero by 2050 or sooner, in line with the Paris Agreement goals.”
HSBC Asset Management’s CEO Nicolas Moreau told Investment Week that Kirk’s remarks “do not reflect the views of HSBC Asset Management nor HSBC Group in any way.”
The response went on: “HSBC Asset Management is committed to driving the transition to a sustainable global economy and has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure its clients’ monies are managed for positive long-term environmental and social outcomes … HSBC regards climate change as one of the most serious emergencies facing the planet, and is committed to supporting its customers in their transition to net zero and a sustainable future and, like HSBC Asset Management, is committed to achieving net zero by 2050.”
The responses to Kirk’s comments from researchers and activists could be summarized as “shocked but not surprised,” with widespread concern that Kirk’s comments simply revealed the true attitude of the financial services sector towards climate change.
Beau O’Sullivan, senior campaigner for the U.K.’s Bank on our Future campaign, told me: “These comments are regressive and grossly flawed. Climate change does pose a material risk to financial assets, which Kirk should be well aware of given his role in responsible investment. Pension fund clients should note that HSBC Global Asset Management might not be as serious about protecting their capital from the effects of climate change as it claims to be, and they should be looking for a more responsible asset manager.”
Mark Campanale, founder of Carbon Tracker Initiative, tweeted: “Once the veil is removed, you can see truth. HSBC shows us the values at the heart of the banking system. And it’s still shocking.”
“My take is that @HSBC ’s Stuart Kirk’s #ESG comments are similar to what we heard from oil & gas CEOs during #CERAWeek,” said prominent climate accountability campaigner Christine Arena. “These are the values they’ve espoused all along. What’s changed is that now they feel empowered to say the quiet part out loud.”
Meanwhile, Jeanne Martin, campaign manager for Share Action, a responsible investment NGO, posted: “The Global Head of Responsible Investment of @HSBC Global Asset Management says investors should not worry about #ClimateRisk, that humans will simply adapt to #climatechange, & other b*** 🚩🚩🚩 This should raise red flags to any clients of HSBC GAM that care about net-zero.”
Kirk’s comments suggest he does not take seriously the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s impact report, released in February, which show extensive, extreme climate impacts are already being felt on every continent, threatening the lives and livelihoods of up to three billion people.
S&P Global lists HSBC as the eighth largest bank in the world. According to the group Banking On Climate Chaos, HSBC has financed fossil fuel operations to the tune of US$110.7 billion since the Paris climate agreement was signed.
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