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Democrats Look To Sustainable Investing Craze As Means For Pushing Climate Agenda

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Thomas Catenacci Energy & Environment Reporter
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  • Democrats have increasingly pushed their expansive climate agenda through the financial sector and legal system as Congress has failed to implement Green New Deal reforms.
  • “Congress is really unwilling to impose much in the way of costs and to address climate change,” David Kreutzer, the senior economist at the Institute for Energy Research, told the Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview. “Frustrated by that, people in Washington want to use non-legislative ways to impose these costs and raise the price of energy-intensive goods and energy in general.”
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a sweeping set of rules Monday that would require companies to disclose their carbon emissions and how they were planning to transition away from fossil fuel reliance, the latest example of the sustainable investing movement.
  • “This is just an attempt by the left to use the business community, the finance sector, companies … to accomplish with other people’s money, what they can’t accomplish at the ballot box,” Andy Puzder, the former CEO of CKE Restaurants and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF in an interview

Democrats, banks, regulators and activists have increasingly set their sights on the financial sector and legal system, not Congress, for pushing their aggressive climate agenda.

Employing so-called environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives, financial institutions and government agencies have quietly implemented policies prioritizing a focus on factors unrelated to a company’s bottom line, experts said. The ESG movement has swept across the corporate world, leading to individual pledges from companies promising to become more sustainable and improve internal diversity.

In the latest example of the ESG and sustainable investing movement, the Democratic-majority U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed a sweeping set of rules Monday that would require publicly-traded companies to disclose their carbon emissions and how they were planning to transition away from fossil fuel reliance. Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey was one of many lawmakers to immediately slam the proposal, saying it “hijacks the democratic process and disrespects the limited scope of authority that Congress gave to the SEC.”

“Congress is really unwilling to impose much in the way of costs and to address climate change,” David Kreutzer, the senior economist at the Institute for Energy Research, told the Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview. “Frustrated by that, people in Washington want to use non-legislative ways to impose these costs and raise the price of energy-intensive goods and energy in general.”

“One of the ways that they’re doing it — it’s like an all fronts attack — is under the guise of environmental, social and governance investments,” he added. (RELATED: New York To Divest Pensions From Fossil Fuel Companies)

Gary Gensler, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Sept. 14. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Gary Gensler, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Sept. 14. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Priorities Are A Little Misplaced’

Regulators have also targeted Americans’ pensions. In October, the Department of Labor (DOL), which is tasked with regulating private sector pensions under the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act, reversed a Trump-era rule that placed barriers to fiduciaries’ ability to consider ESG factors when selecting investments.

Similar to the SEC proposal Monday, the DOL rule stated that “climate change and other ESG factors can be financially material” for investors. (RELATED: Biden’s Green Transition May Usher In More Energy Insecurity. Here’s How)

“The primary purpose of fiduciaries is to look out for the wellbeing of the pensioners who contribute to these funds,” Pat Pizzella, the former deputy secretary of labor during the Trump administration, told the DCNF. “Not to speculate on risky or trendy, expensive ESG products. I think their priorities are a little misplaced.”

He added that the Trump administration’s view was to look at ESG investing from a legal point of view. Pizzella predicted that individuals with pensions managed by fiduciaries that invest in risky ESG-focused companies or funds would eventually take the institutions to court.

“I think if we are going to hear about climate risk, we ought to hear about it from the National Weather Service, not the Securities and Exchange Commission,” he added.

An oil drilling rig works in the Permian Basin oil field on March 13 in Midland, Texas. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

An oil drilling rig works in the Permian Basin oil field on March 13 in Midland, Texas. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Massive financial institutions, which manage trillions of dollars in assets, referenced by Pizzella have shifted their priorities over the last several years, focusing more and more on how companies they are invested in are fighting climate change or cutting back on company-wide emissions. The firms believe environmental standards positively impact a company’s bottom line.

BlackRock — a firm that manages around $10 trillion in assets, according to its most recent earnings data — has led the charge on the issue. The investment corporation has worked to gear its investment strategy away from divestment and towards changing companies from within.

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink noted pension funds, foundations and endowments “should have a loud voice with [fossil fuel] companies to move forward,” Fink said at an MIT Golub Center for Finance and Policy conference in November. He added they shouldn’t divest from such companies since others would swoop in, buy the stock and nothing would change (RELATED: ‘Boston Green New Deal’: Boston To Divest From Fossil Fuels, 15% Of City’s Revenue)

“We are not dictating how a company goes forward, but we are asking each company to be transparent and tell us your pathway,” he remarked. “And through that transparency, I do believe we move faster as a society.”

Microsoft founder Bill Gates chats with Larry Fink, chairperson of BlackRock, during the Global Investment Summit at the Science Museum in London on Oct. 19, 2021. (Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Microsoft founder Bill Gates chats with Larry Fink, chairperson of BlackRock, during the Global Investment Summit at the Science Museum in London on Oct. 19, 2021. (Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

‘What They Can’t Accomplish At The Ballot Box’

In addition to BlackRock, the firms Vanguard and State Street have also pushed ESG initiatives. Together, the three firms joined forces with environmental-focused hedge fund Engine No. 1 to elect three activists to the ExxonMobil board in June, The New York Times reported at the time.

Worldwide, ESG investments — which have been surging in popularity in recent years — are projected to hit $53 trillion by 2025, according to a Bloomberg Insights report published in 2021. That would represent about a third of all total projected assets under management.

Still, climate groups have put increasing pressure on U.S. corporations and financial institutions to go even further. A Feb. 7 study from the group NewClimate Institute said the private sector’s climate efforts have fallen short and that the net-zero plans of just one of the top 25 corporations analyzed had “reasonable integrity.” (RELATED: Governors Nationwide Seek State Gas Tax Suspension Amid Surging Prices)

The NewClimate report pegged the Danish shipping company Maersk as the one company with “reasonable integrity.” Maersk, which is the largest shipping vessel operator in the world, has laid out plans for achieving net-zero emissions by 2040.

“This is just an attempt by the left to use the business community, the finance sector, companies — like BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard — to accomplish with other people’s money, what they can’t accomplish at the ballot box,” Andy Puzder, the former CEO of CKE Restaurants and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF in an interview. “They want to try and do them through the financial sector.”

Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey greets Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on March 3. (Tom Williams/Pool/Getty Images)

Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey greets Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on March 3. (Tom Williams/Pool/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Republicans have started to fight back against the sustainable investing craze. GOP leaders on the Senate Banking, Labor and Finance Committees wrote a letter to the Labor Department opposing the ESG policy reversal and have slammed the Federal Reserve for similarly pursuing such climate-focused policies. (RELATED: World’s Biggest Asset Manager Says Climate Investments Are About Money, Not Being ‘Woke’)

“Since DOL is allowing plan fiduciaries to put non-pecuniary policy objectives above the financial interests of plan participants and beneficiaries, fiduciaries are now free to include ESG funds in their plans even if they have lower returns, higher costs, and/or higher risks,” the Republicans wrote to the Labor Department in March.

Studies have suggested that fiduciaries prioritizing ESG objectives in pension plans often hurt the pensioners they are supposed to look out for. A Boston College Center for Retirement Research report published in October 2020 concluded that such plans “earn less in returns and fail to capture beneficiaries’ interests.”

Institutions favoring ESG investing, though, have countered that incorporating climate risks and minimizing exposure to such risks has long-term benefits for investors and companies.

“Physical climate risks, notably water-related risks (floods, droughts, water stress, rainfall variability, pollution, etc.), are already posing challenges for the financial system and the economy and will be increasingly financially material in the future,” an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report from October concluded. “Addressing these risks is financially viable.”

‘Only Black Rock That We Like Is Coal’

In addition, a coalition of Republican state financial officers from 15 states led by West Virginia State Treasurer Riley Moore issued a stark warning to banks and financial institutions that have outlined plans to disassociate from and refuse to finance fossil fuel companies or projects. In May, Moore led another letter, warning Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry against pressuring banks to divest from fossil fuels.

“A firm like BlackRock states that capitalism has the power to shape society,” Moore told the DCNF in an interview. “Think about what that means. What that means is capital, lots of money, has the power to shape society.”

“Now, what if we don’t want the same shape of society that BlackRock wants, or any other financial institutions out there? How do we stop that? How do we push against that? How do we say that’s not our value?” he added.

He added that his office, along with the offices of financial officers in more than a dozen other states, are seeking to add risk for banks that plan to boycott fossil fuels. Whereas banks have been told of risks associating with oil and gas companies, Moore said he hopes to fight back against such pressure. (RELATED: Top GOP Senator Rips Federal Reserve For Not Complying With Congressional Probe Into ‘Woke Mission Creep’)

“I’m tired of hearing conservatives paying lip service to this. It’s time to put words into action,” said Moore. “You could start to see a realignment around preferences in the marketplace. That’s the free market. We are stating what our preferences are in the marketplace and who we want to do business with.”

“In West Virginia, the only black rock that we like is coal,” he said.

‘Policy Preferences Through The Courts’

Further, Democrats have also looked to the legal system as a means through which to push their climate priorities, according to the group Alliance For Consumers (AFC).

A January report from the AFC found a connection between the law firms litigating climate cases on public contracts and which politicians those same firms make campaign contributions to. Democratic politicians have consistently awarded eight national firms with lucrative contracts and received hefty donations in return, the report showed.

The report noted that the firms have been awarded various kinds of contracts. But AFC Executive Director O.H. Skinner, the author of the report and the former Arizona solicitor general, specifically pointed out that many of these contracts involve climate change lawsuits, in an interview with the DCNF.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott speaks on May 17, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. Scott is currently suing Big Oil firm BP for allegedly misleading the public about climate change. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott speaks on May 17, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. Scott is currently suing Big Oil firm BP for allegedly misleading the public about climate change. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“It can be a contract where a city like Oakland or New York City hires one of these law firms to bring climate change litigation and go after a major oil company,” Skinner told the DCNF. “The contracts normally have some really basic protections for the state, but they do guarantee massive contingency fees — 20-25%, 30-35% — of any winnings or any settlement will go to these law firms.”

Skinner’s report showed that the eight firms studied then turned around and gave about $15 million to politicians between 2017-2020, 99% of which went to Democrats. (RELATED: SEC Unveils Sweeping Climate Requirements For Public Companies)

“When you dig down and look at the climate change litigation, you can see that it crosses over into this other ideological partnership where New York City, Baltimore and Oakland, these very progressive cities, sign up progressive left-wing law firms to bring lawsuits to go after oil companies, energy companies, and try to impose liability,” Skinner continued.

Baltimore continues to actively pursue its fight against oil companies, accusing them of misleading consumers about climate change, E&E News reported in January. New York, Oakland, Annapolis, Boulder and several other Democratic municipalities nationwide are fighting similar battles.

“Progressives don’t get the Green New Deal in Congress, they don’t get laws that force changes to how companies operate,” Skinner added. “So, instead, they turn around and they sign a lucrative contract with a left-wing law firm, making sure that that law firm is going to get a lot of money off of this. And then they go out and they try to force their policy preferences through the courts.”

Two years after left-wing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal, Congress has made very little progress on the legislation. Ocasio-Cortez reintroduced the bill in April, but it still hasn’t been green lit by the House Energy and Commerce Committee or received a floor vote.

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